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IMPERIAL 5187: MAY 1952



When you hear bagpipes coming over the hills you envision them being played in Scottish parades… when you hear steel drums you think of Caribbean festivals… when you hear bongos you are transported to Beatnik coffee houses.

When you hear squawking trumpets you think jazz.

Yet all of those instruments aren’t exclusive to those initial sources. Paul McCartney and AC/DC used bagpipes, Jimmy Buffett is an afficiando of steel drums and lots of rockers have had bongo fury.

All sorts of instruments get re-imagined in rock settings, from harmonicas to guiros, but because the trumpet in early rock maintained the playing style that made it so familiar in jazz its presence on a record like this immediately calls into question its place in rock ‘n’ roll.


That’s When My Trouble Began
No instrument we’ve talked about over the course of two thousand reviews of rock ‘n’ roll songs since 1947 has received as much scorn around here as the trumpet, but it’s not the trumpet’s fault.

It’s a great instrument. Any fan of Ennio Morricone knows how evocative it can be and there may be no more revered musicians in the Twentieth Century than trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.

Yet stylistically it needed to be re-contextualized for it to make the grade in rock and for the most part that hasn’t happened very often to this point. Occasionally we’ll hear something where it works well, but mostly that’s been confined to mournful dirges, something that – in spite of its title – Misery is not.

So our old friend Cousin Joe might not have reason to be Smilin’ Joe if the trumpet interferes with his message here and causes too many rock fans to turn away from everything else he has to offer on this record because of that lone instrument.

It’s hard NOT to be inclined to turn away however because of how prominent it is. The trumpet is the primary second voice on this song, the lead instrument for the forty second instrumental intro, despite the presence of a vibrant piano, saxophones and drums behind it, and even when Joe starts singing the trumpet is perched just over his shoulder to add its own two cents worth to everything he says.

But Joe is so forceful in what he’s saying and so assertive in how he’s saying it, that you want desperately to give him your full attention and let the trumpet recede into distant memory.

Few singers are better at conveying attitude – of all kinds, not just the riled up irritation he shows here – than Smilin’ Joe and because of this it makes his stories come alive in ways that transcend whatever drawbacks the arrangement lays at his feet.


Until Time Don’t Worry Me
Any analysis of this record however has to start with all of those attributes which are awkward fits in rock – the trumpet, the wheezy and wandering sax solo – which coupled with Joe’s advanced years (he was now in his mid-40’s) indicated that he may no longer be deemed acceptable for rock ‘n’ roll.

But you don’t simply become something else just because you pass a certain age or feature a different instrument. Instead you need to fully embrace a different musical approach and court an entirely different audience who respond in kind to your attempts to suit their interests.

Though you might argue that Joe’s session musicians are trying to force the first of those changes on him with Misery and you could suggest that his New Orleans club residencies where he was playing nightly to a wide swath of customers with varied musical interests took care of the latter, both of those cases are fraught with problems starting with how determined he is here to cut loose.

When Smilin’ Joe yells out to the band heading into the break it’s certainly not the kind of good-natured passive request that suits more proper jazz fit for the nightclub scene. He’s got a rocking heart throughout this, snarling his vocals, spitting out each line, and reveling in the frenetic pace with testosterone dripping from every pore.

Maybe the packaging is not exactly suited to rock ‘n’ roll 1952, but his performance here was never appropriate for jazz no matter the year.

Some artists were like this… when you start breaking down their attributes one by one you find they have so many parts taken from every musical junkyard in town it’s impossible to definitively say what they are anymore. But that’s when you need to narrow your focus to the artist themselves and listen to the way THEY are trying to speak to you with their records.

In this case it’s obvious that Smilin’ Joe isn’t just speaking to you, he’s screaming at you and that’s something that always is a better fit in rock ‘n’ roll than anything else you can find.

Maybe next time he’ll even find room for bagpipes, steel drums and bongos… you know, real rock ‘n’ roll instruments… to remove any doubt as to where he still belongs.


(Visit the Artist page of Smilin’ Joe for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)