What is it about being happily surprised when you’re caught off guard by something appealing that makes it seem even more special than it actually is?

A pile of presents awaiting you on Christmas may be appreciated by those getting them but they’re more or less expected so it’s hard to feel really overwhelmed by the generosity. Yet someone giving you something out of the blue on a random Tuesday because they happened to see it and knew you’d like it somehow feels nicer to receive because of the unusual circumstances.

In music of late we’ve seen records by big names show up but because they’re so well known our reaction is sort of tempered in a way. Even at the time they came out when nobody had heard them yet the majority of rock fans at least knew the artists and their reputations and had been conditioned to expect something worthwhile.

But when you come across a song that wasn’t on your radar at all, in this case by someone we’ve met only when playing behind other artists we’re covering, it isn’t anything you’d be anxiously anticipating… which is precisely why it’s able to be such a pleasant surprise.


Departing Track Number Three
To be fair to saxophonist Sax Mallard, when we DID cover him in the past he was technically credited as the primary artist on You Can’t Win, a record that had Andrew Tibbs as the featured vocalist, probably owing to the ongoing substance abuse problems Tibbs was having which put his future availability in doubt, so this marks sort of a belated coming out party for Mallard as a featured performer.

But at least it’s nice to see that someone who cut the first tracks under the original Aristocrat banner then got to play on the initial singles when they switched over to Chess and now are getting the first release on their Checker subsidiary. A new label trifecta that probably won’t be beat.

That said however it’s doubtful they were expecting to make too big a splash with a moody sax instrumental by somebody without a great deal of name recognition for his past work rather than trying to find fresh young acts to immediately put their stamp on the label.

Considering Mallard was now 36 years old and had been playing alto sax (with occasional clarinet) professionally since his teens, working with a pre-fame Nat “King” Cole – maybe when he was just a prince – as well as The Ink Spots, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, he was hardly the right guy at the right time for Checker Records’ commercial prospects in 1952.

But he WAS a Chicago institution by now, having more or less settled in the city by the early 1940’s and after a long stint in the Navy during World War Two he joined Jump Jackson’s band and through them had his first introduction to the Chess Brothers.

Of course those early sides cut for Aristocrat was when rock ‘n’ roll was just getting its feet under it and songs like Hey Pretty Mama fell under the emerging genre banner more by circumstance than intent with Mallard taking a secondary role to non-group member Tom Archia who at the time was more suitable for rocking sax solos.

Like so many working musicians without headlining appeal though, Mallard adjusted over the next few years as the music changed around him, cutting rock with Andrew Tibbs and LaVern Baker (her first sides as Little Miss Sharecropper with Eddie ”Sugarman” Penigar), as well as blues sides with Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red and Roosevelt Sykes, and even doing a session with Dinah Washington.

Along the way he got some singles under his own name including the intriguing The Mojo in 1948, which charted in Los Angeles, but he was primarily playing jazz, or variations of it, not rock ‘n’ roll… until 1952 that is with Slow Caboose, a slow moody instrumental which scratches a particular itch in rock that has been increasingly neglected as of late.

It may not be indicative of a major epiphany where he casts off his past associations and turns wholeheartedly to rock, but it WAS a conscious attempt to embrace the music in an effort to break out beyond being simply a highly respected club act and a glorified sideman/arranger in the studio behind others.


An Engine Getting Up Steam
Checker Records launched in 1952 but the date from which this, their first single, was drawn was held in January 1951, making over a year old and indicating that the Chess brothers were likely just seeking to have a more fully stocked line to get their new imprint off the ground and entice distributors into carrying it.

As was standard they had cut four sides that day, three of which featured Osie Johnson singing… and not very well at that, or at least not very commercially, which sort of negates any idea that Mallard was moving towards rock as a full-time re-alignment. Since they shelved this for a year – and the other two vocal sides never got released at all while the remaining one was stuck on the back side of this as the only viable option over releasing dead air as the B-side – it tells you that they had been dissatisfied with what they got out of Johnson and knew those tracks would never sell in any market they might hope to reach.

But the instrumental was another story altogether. Though the glory days of the sax instrumental has passed already, the Chess Brothers saw the early returns on Jimmy Forrest’s moody Night Train, released on another new Chicago based label, United Records, and realized they had something in vaguely similar vein sitting around that might draw some interest. So they hauled it out of mothballs, slapped the title Slow Caboose on it to draw your attention to the connection, and put it out hoping to capitalize on that.

Who knows, shallow though the attempt itself is, they might’ve gotten a stronger a response if not for the wandering piano solo by Jimmy Bowman which seems to have absolutely no purpose other than to take up space and drop you out of the buzzy vibe that Mallard creates with his tenor.

Yup, that’s tenor sax, not alto, which also fits in better with a rock mentality. It’s not his first time playing that on record, he did play it behind Tibbs once on Aching Heart, but it gives this a much richer tone and while some find fault with the reverb added to it thinking it’s gimmicky, that’s what sets it apart and lends it a veil of mystery and danger.

If you want to visualize it here’s a good way to put it. The song as written with its creeping slinky pace is a black and white noir with slow camera pans through fog and shadows. The reverb drenched sax are sudden bursts of neon lights flashing bright gaudy colors across your screen. Sort of a Wizard Of Oz effect as re-imagined by Samuel Fuller for a B-movie crime flick.


Pulling Into The Station
These kinds of records, no matter how stylish we find them to be, are not likely to be big hits.

Unlike the Forrest cut which has a memorable riff that sticks in your head which makes it ideal for repeated listening, this one seems to merely provide a backdrop for unsavory activities and as such is better suited to occasional spins in precisely the right environment – night time after the action has died down and, whether due to distance or condition, everyone seems remote and out of focus as if in a perpetual haze.

In that setting Slow Caboose lends the perfect touch and since rock ‘n’ roll also thrives in that atmosphere, even if it’s confined mostly to staggering back home after a particularly self-destructive party, we’re glad the Chess brothers finally saw fit to release it to launch their new label.

Though Sax Mallard’s appearances on these pages are few and far between, that makes three imprints he’s had a hand in getting off the ground and this is by far his most notable contribution which makes us glad it came out under his own name if only to bestow a little belated credit on him for his contributions.

He’s not done yet by any means, but considering rock is not his primary love he’s now at least is more than just a minor footnote in a larger story. Small though it may be, with this you can make the case he’s left his mark.


(Visit the Artist page of Sax Mallard for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)