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ABBEY 62; MAY, 1949

 
 

 

When introducing an artist for the first time, especially a major name in the annals of rock history, a decision has to be made on how to go about it. Obviously there’s going to be a brief biographical sketch to serve as a basic primer and there’ll have to be some fanfare about their arrival even though at the time the record came out the artist was a complete unknown and their eventual stardom couldn’t have been predicted with any certainty.

All of that is probably fairly obvious, after all these reviews don’t just leap into the musical analysis from word one with no preliminary set-up. But there’s another decision that has to be made that might not be so obvious and in fact might not be a decision that CAN be made each and every time we’re meeting someone new and that is: Which side of the single do we start with?

The A-side or the B-side? Or more pertinently, the better side or the weaker side?

Most of the time it’s a pretty easy choice – if the artist is important (or even if they’re not) we’ll generally go with the side which shows them in their best light so we can try and impart to the reader some sense of their impact as an artist right away.

Usually… but not always that is.

We met Sam “The Man” Taylor yesterday for the first time and while he’ll never be a star as an artist under his own name he was as big as they got when it came to importance on the trajectory of rock ‘n’ roll thanks to the enormity of his credits as a session saxophonist for over a decade. But when choosing which side of his debut as a rocker to focus on first, we actually went with the one that wasn’t as good.

Today we’ll look at the better side.
 

 

Step Pyramid
The reason for this unusual switch in the standard operating procedures is simply this: Neither side is particularly great – sorry to spoil the suspense for this one – and because of that we had to ask ourselves if it was better to talk up his career on a decent, but hardly exceptional slice of music, thereby risking a let down, or would it be smarter to use the worse example of his initial output to really highlight how sometimes the best of artists don’t always seem to know what they’re doing any more than the worst artists?

Obviously we chose the latter and under the theory there’s nowhere to go but up, we now present the better half of that release, Pyramid Boogie, although be forewarned that “better” is still a relative term.

Born in 1916 Taylor was hardly a newcomer to the scene. He’d been playing professionally since 1937 starting with Scatman Crothers, who would also soon venture into rock ‘n’ roll, or should we say “into Rock And Roll” (that’s a prescient insider joke that’s worthy of a slight grin at best and even that might be pushing it).

Taylor had come from a musical family where everyone played something – piano, guitar, drums – and so Sam joined in, first on clarinet, then alto sax before finally switching to tenor sax when he got to Alabama State University, also the alma mater of Paul Bascomb, Erskine Hawkins, Avery Parish and a host of other big name professionals, jazz musicians mostly… as was Taylor at first.

But after a stint with Cab Calloway, who was virtually unclassifiable other than as the face of the “jive” movement of the thirties, Taylor moved on to Lucky Millinder which is where a lot of rock’s behind the scenes figures (and a few very prominent scene STEALERS) were taking honing their craft.

Care for a sampling?… Henry Glover played trumpet with Millinder and would go on to be the musical brains behind King Records and their host of rock legends, one of whom, Wynonie Harris (the aforementioned scene stealer) had briefly fronted Milinder’s band and scored a #1 hit during his stint recording with them. Drummer extraordinaire Panama Francis played with them as well and Taylor and Francis would work together frequently over the next twenty years, including next month on Panama’s initial attempt to connect in the rock world. Bill Doggett was another who cut his teeth in Millinder’s crew before becoming the preeminent organist in rock during the 1950’s. Even Ruth Brown briefly – all TOO briefly – sang for Millinder when she was just starting out.

It was for all of these reasons and more that Lucky Millinder was seen as a transitional figure in black music that defined the 1940’s. Steeped in jazz but not bound by it, intrigued by rhythm but not beholden to it, Millinder had his feet in the present while indebted to the past as he peered into the future.

Taylor, like those others who left for greener pastures as Millinder’s brand of music gradually passed out of favor, did more than peer into the future, they defined it.

But first they had to find it.
 


 

Field Of Reeds
Though this is stylistically well beyond Millinder’s brand of music it still hasn’t completely divested itself of all of its DNA. At times it seems almost as if it’s two different records, or at least two different bands, each with its own agenda, its own audience and its own sensibilities.

It starts off strong with a few ferocious blasts from Taylor before it segues so smoothly into the piano picking up the progression in mid-flight that you’d think modern editing somehow found its way into a 1949 studio. It’s a neat trick, but unfortunately that’s all it is, a clever way to show off their skills that ultimately leads nowhere because while the piano plays a decent boogie riff for awhile it never fully pushes things forward. When the horns return for a riff of their own to back him it improves slightly… that is until the trumpet(s) come along.

Have we ever told you how much we dislike trumpets around here? Maybe once or twice I think, but I can’t really remember (only 437 times and counting). We’ve also said it’s not the trumpet itself, or those playing it, we hold a grudge against… I’m sure they were all swell guys and had lots of charm and personality, but they also had a brash horn that wasn’t suited to the modern styles like rock ‘n’ roll.

Mainly the problem is they haven’t figured out how to temper the instrument’s harsh, shrill, blaring sound because they had all learned their trade in jazz which did everything it could to HIGHLIGHT that harsh, shrill, blaring sound. It wouldn’t be for another twelve to fifteen years before anyone in rock fully grasped how to use the trumpet sparingly so it didn’t overwhelm everything else… as it does on Pyramid Boogie, sounding like the cavalry charging in guns blazing, bodies falling, mowed down by friendly fire.

It’s spry, we’ll give them that. But that’s all we’ll give them other than a sock to stuff in the bells of the horns since we ran out of dynamite taking care of the last brigade of trumpeters a few weeks back! Needless to say this part belongs nowhere near a rock record. It’s ghastly sounding by our standards and whatever stray jazz fan wandered in isn’t going to like Taylor when he returns and kicks the trumpet off the bandstand so he can start blasting away with his tenor sax.

Here’s where it naturally picks up. Taylor starts off modestly, playing with restrained urgency, if such a thing makes sense, before he gradually begins to dig his heels in and blow with more might, eventually getting to the point where he’s standing toe to toe with all but the mightiest of rock’s front line saxophone soldiers. From the two minute mark on he’s hitting on all cylinders, trading off with the other horns, not letting up for an instant, showing what he’s capable of for sure, but also showing what rock itself was capable of when played by someone as talented as he was.

Rough, tough, rocking, rolling… it’s all contained within that stretch of fierce playing and even the more restrained jazz-lite group closing can’t completely snuff out your enthusiasm for what you heard… so allow US to do that for you!
 

West Of The Nile
People always say it’s best to make a good first impression, which here Sam Taylor and company didn’t do in the course of the song. It began rather mildly all things considered, then fell to depths we didn’t think it’d ever climb out of. So they did not get off on the good foot by any means.

But they also say – maybe it’s the same people who said the thing about first impressions – that you should always leave them when you’re looking good, and Taylor unquestionably does that on Pyramid Boogie. Because the last minute is so strong it leaves a good taste in your mouth and you’ll probably tip better when you get your check because of that. But when the meal settles you’ll find that good taste has been replaced by slight nausea caused by the under-cooked appetizer and the rancid side dish that was served first and so your glowing review of that restaurant has to be amended.

Luckily, having done so many of these reviews, we know enough to digest it all before coming to a final decision, and so while we’ll gladly commend Taylor for his end run and feel comfortable telling you he’s someone to keep an eye on – even without having peaked ahead in the story to know where he ends up – we have to also caution you about getting too excited about this one. A record’s score isn’t determined by just its best moments after all, it’s the full performance that matters, the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good happens last here, so it’s the strongest memory you have of the performance, but it was preceded by the bad and the ugly and they took up more than half the record. From there it’s just a matter of doing the math to come up with a final tabulation.

Don’t worry though, Taylor himself has nothing to be embarrassed about and his contributions are what will matter most in the long run when determining his place in the rock world.

Come to think of it, that’s another reason we didn’t lead with this side of the single when it came to determining the chronological order of his reviews. Like him, we wanted to leave you with a good taste in your mouth so you’ll be more anxious to hear him the next time we run into him.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Sam “The Man” Taylor for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)