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ATLANTIC 905; APRIL 1950

 
 

 

As you probably have figured out by now the purpose of this dizzy site is to chronicle the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll by reviewing as many of its records as humanly possible, both sides of every single by all artists big and small if we can… provided those records actually belong in the rock genre of course.

That last important caveat is why a lot of the pop-sides of Ivory Joe Hunter or the jazzy-blues sides of Big Joe Turner for instance, have been excluded from these pages. After all there’s certainly no shortage of authentic rock records out there by now to have to awkwardly squeeze in ones that have little right to the moniker outside of the name recognition of the artist performing it.

Yet here we are sort of doing just that with Ruth Brown because her story would be woefully incomplete without examining this precise moment of her career when the decision over the stylistic direction she’d pursue was still up in the air.
 

 

That’s The Time We Leave
In a way this is sort of four reviews in one, though don’t worry that doesn’t mean it’s four times as long, nor does it mean all four sides of two releases are going to be crammed into one normal sized review.

But this stretch in the spring and summer of 1950 was the turning point for Ruth Brown’s career, one which got off to a tremendous start after she finally got into a studio and came away with a Top Ten hit in So Long last summer. Like the material she’s in the midst of releasing now that song wasn’t a rock original by any means, it was a traditional pop standard first done in 1940 by Russ Morgan, a white bandleader, and while the composition itself didn’t hint at anything that would make it a likely inclusion in rock ‘n’ roll, Brown’s soulful vocals unquestionably pulled it under the rock umbrella.

It’s important to remember that Brown herself wanted to be a pop singer, cutting tender ballads with classy arrangements, and so respecting that, yet knowing that that market would be very tough for a young black vocalist on a small independent label to break into, Atlantic Records tried hedging their bets for awhile, having her cut rock songs that might be taken for something else if you were inclined to look for it and pop tunes that could be mistaken for rock records with just a little bit of trickery in the arrangements.

None of it worked however, at least not commercially and arguably not aesthetically either. Oh, Brown could certainly SING them just fine, her voice was supple, her phrasing was sharp, her intuitive knowledge of their underlying meanings was superb… but there was nothing about them that demanded to be heard, not in the pop realm but more crucially not in the rock world that still beckoned to her.

So what was Atlantic to do? Forcibly tell her to give up her dreams and submit to a cruder form of music because that’s what the market demanded… or do they indulge her some more and let her have an opportunity to follow her heart for awhile longer, going all in on their commitment to this sappier music, all while knowing full well it was sure to end in abject failure.

Well, that’s the road they took… smartly at that too I’d day. Motown would do the exact same thing twelve years down the road with Marvin Gaye who wanted to be a respected supper club crooner rather than “shake his ass” for the screaming teeny boppers. But Berry Gordy knew then, as Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson surely knew now with Ruth Brown, that when the bitter taste of rejection became too strong to tolerate for their artists then they’d be more open to really investing themselves in rock ‘n’ roll.

And so before we get to that stage with Ruth Brown we have to at least deal with THIS stage when she cut a succession of pop standards drenched in strings, the best of which, Sentimental Journey, contained just enough hints at her dormant soulfulness that you could plausibly accept it as a rock record… provided you qualified it first with that detailed explanation to justify the asterisk it’s being saddled with here.
 

I’ll Be Waitin’ Up For Heaven
Luckily for all involved the song they chose here was a good one regardless of your stylistic tastes. Written and recorded by Les Brown (And His Band Of Renown) and featuring a very young Doris Day on vocals, the song was a #1 hit in 1944 and provided the first concrete evidence that Day was one of the best pop vocalists of all-time.

Day sang it with such effervescent warmth and just enough of a hint of sexual desire that you couldn’t help but be utterly captivated by it, then or now.

Though Ruth Brown shared many of those same interpretative qualities with Doris Day, particularly in revealing their intelligence beneath the vivacity, she takes Sentimental Journey in a slightly different direction which proves to be a smarter choice.

The arrangement helps her out in this regard kicking off with a sly electric guitar to set the scene as something a little more edgy, but the biggest assistance comes from The Delta Rhythm Boys who’ve already been heard backing her on Someday, similarly compromised source material but which their presence along with Brown’s natural talents allowed it to also slip in rock’s side door.

While never a rock group themselves The Delta Rhythm Boys were very influential ON other rock vocal groups in years past and its easy to see why here as the rhythmic bed they lay down gives Ruth the confidence to strut over the top and impart this with a more sultry vibe than Day had dared dream possible.

Both Day and Brown possessed a remarkable amount of vocal confidence at such a young age and so it’s not surprising that both singers played with the melody of this song in ways that were not found on the lead sheet. Brown is even more adventurish than Day in this regard simply because she had established prototypes that she needed to avoid imitating, both Doris herself of course and Ella Fitzgerald who turned in a stirring rendition back in 1947.

In contrast to them Brown’s delivery teases the song along, drawing out certain passages in a way that makes you think she’s purposefully avoiding revealing the source of her urgency because it might be too off-color for the censors to handle… which of course helps it to connect a little more with rock fans who eagerly look for such suggestiveness.
 


 
 

That Takes Me Back
When Brown steps aside she gets plenty of support to help the song come together even more. First up is a nicely handled guitar led instrumental break which further distances it from pop – though ironically not quite connecting it as much with rock of the day as a tenor sax would’ve done – and then The Delta Rhythm Boys bass singer Lee Gaines comes along to toss in some suggestive asides of his own.

Their byplay – the band, Gaines and Brown coming back in to answer him – really sparkles and you can sense how so many record companies of the day who dealt in rock but still harbored visions of more respectable – and presumably more profitable – styles, saw the potential for taking acts like Brown, or The Ravens or Orioles, and creating some sort of hybrid style that drew from the earthier sounds of rock while framing them in a more acceptable manner to appease mainstream listeners.

But it’s also not hard to see why mainstream listeners who still had the likes of Doris Day at her peak, not to mention black adults who revered Ella Fitzgerald, would steadfastly avoid going a little further in the alley to experience something a little more titillating like Brown’s version of Sentimental Journey.

For that matter there’s no reason why rock fans who were perfectly at home in the alley would venture out towards the bright lights of the main boulevard in town to sample a more reputable brand of the music they preferred, where concessions to pop audiences were seen more often than not as selling out.

In other words, this is a good rendition of a good song that pleases nobody it was intended for on either side of the great divide.
 

Never Thought My Heart Could Be So Yearning
Of course, if you were to compare this to the OTHER side of this release, an even older pop standard, I Can Dream, Can’t I?, which was done back in the 1930’s by both Tommy Dorsey and Harry James before being revived in 1949 by The Andrews Sisters who turned in the definitive version, then you can start to see where the stylistic split REALLY becomes apparent.

Brown’s take on it is nicely sung but artificial and stilted in how she’s forced to hold back and let the flowery arrangement – no Delta Rhythm Boys on THIS one! – rein her in.

The same month this was issued, Atlantic tried again with another two-sided pop offering, Where Can I Go, a halfway decent vocal sullied by the whitebread arrangement, as is the flip side, Dear Little Boy Of Mine, each of them featuring soulless choral backing and pizzicato strings that will make your ears bleed if you’re a rock purist.

So by contrast to those starched monstrosities something like Sentimental Journey actually comes across sounding like a reasonable compromise… for what that’s worth.

But that takes us back to the context of this record and how that determines its fate. Granted, when judging it purely as a performance (Brown, The Delta Rhythm Boys, the band and the arrangement itself) it will fare a lot better, certainly above average because they all do their jobs very well and the song itself, lyrics and melody alike, are exquisite.

Yet purely in a ROCK context those attributes, while still appreciated, don’t mean nearly as much because to suit the different standards used to judge rock records against OTHER rock records of the day, this is going to fall short because of those pop concessions.

Ultimately though that was a good thing, because while it’s possible Ruth Brown might’ve genuinely enjoyed being a star in pop music their fans of the 1950’s didn’t NEED her like rock fans did and so the failure of these records at the time, while tough to swallow maybe, was the best thing that could’ve happened to her – and for us – in the long run.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Ruth Brown for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)