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IMPERIAL 5187; MAY 1952



Though demographics here may skew a little young to have experienced this yet, there’s a strange phenomenon that happens a few years after you graduate high school.

You’ve spent a dozen years around the same people, going to school with them, playing sports with and against them, partying with them, at times seeming as if you’ve stayed at their houses more frequently than at your own… and yet within a few years you don’t see them at all.

There’s been no fight that precipitated this split, no growing divide over issues that once bonded you, nobody “came between you” and the group of friends who you never went more than a day or two without seeing for the majority of your life. It’s just that people move on to the next stage of life, one assuredly not as much fun, but one that is all but inevitable once you can no longer sponge off your parents and be herded like cattle into classrooms ten months of the year to keep you off the streets.

In music there’s a little bit of the same effect at play as time marches on and younger artists take the place of the ones who’ve been pushed out as it were, like graduating seniors who are now expected to head elsewhere and leave the playgrounds and the parties to the next generation.


Fry No Meat For Me
Cousin Joe was the third artist we met in our leisurely stroll through rock history even though he was hardly a kid then himself.

The man born Pleasant Joseph was already a veteran artist at the time. Though he’d only had two years of recording experience under his belt, he’d been playing professionally since the 1920’s and was already thirty years old when the storming Boxcar Shorty And Peter Blue helped to establish rock ‘n’ roll’s early DNA.

Over the next few years his work never quite reached those heights again, but he could almost always be counted on to write very sharp-eyed lyrics that were delivered with a gritty engaging vocal style that was remarkably endearing.

But of course for the most part his personal version of rock ‘n’ roll was often just a variation on other musical approaches he tackled over the years, be it jazz, gospel or blues. But even when he’d been aligned with those genres for a spell he was never fully comfortable in any of them. His quirks and idiosyncrasies always made him the square peg in the round hole.

Yet the same could be said for his rock sides as well, as Won’t Settle Down features horns that appear to be following more of a jazz playbook, while Joe, now having changed his moniker to Smilin’ Joe once he signed with Imperial last fall, remains far too rough and tumble for that field which naturally drags him and this record back into the rock bag… a stylistic tug of war that shows just how difficult it could be to still make the grade as everything around you has changed so much over the past six years.


I Just Want To Stay Single
It’s those two facets of this recording which dominate your thinking.

If you focus on the squawking horns led by the trumpet that kick off the record and attempt to answer all of Joe’s lines with somewhat intrusive callbacks to distant musical touchstones then this will either fall well short of your rock expectations, or perhaps if you’re a jazz aficionado be the best parts of the record.

But if you can disregard their presence entirely, or at least ignore much of their tonal qualities, and remain locked in on Smilin’ Joe, and the pictures his vivid lyrics paint along with the character of his voice itself then you’ll be much more satisfied because this shows off his writing skills and reveals once again how perfectly suited he was as a singer to deliver these slices of life portraits in ways that made you feel as if he was speaking extemporaneously about why he Won’t Settle Down.

Remember that in 1952 marriage was a much more respectable institution than it is today. People were expected to get hitched by their mid-20’s, start a family and put on a happy face for the public while privately cursing their monotonous roles – breadwinner for him, homemaker for her.

Speaking out against this way of life was downright radical. You got looked at funny by people who used the word “bachelor” with a raised eyebrow and a ever so slight sneer in their voice, probably because those toeing the marriage line realized that if Joe’s attitude caught on it could destroy the entire nuclear family concept and bring anarchy to the republic.

But Joe’s no revolutionary here, he’s merely cautious about letting himself be hooked, seeing that all of the allurements to wedlock that were used as bait to single men – sex, stability and status – were conditional and would quickly disappear once the ring was on the finger.

Most of his complaints seem to be financial in nature and you could say he was predicting the two income households of the future, but it’s not the topics themselves that are the draw here, but rather the delivery he uses to get his point across. That scratchy weathered voice dripping with indignation is as colorful as ever and while the music behind him, including a clarinet solo of all things, remains in first gear throughout, Joe provides enough rhythm and vocal intensity to win you over just enough to suffice, regardless of your own marital status.


They’ll Tell You They Ain’t Got Time
As we started off this review talking about graduating high school and moving on and wind up discussing the transition into married life, we (finally) get to the point where this relates to rock music as a whole.

Like any “life stage” there are pretty clear beginnings, middles and ends, and yet the end of one leads naturally into the beginning of another.

When it comes to Cousin Joe he’d already left one stage and entered another when he started cutting songs that had more in common with the newly formed rock ‘n’ roll than with the styles he’d performed before that. Over time however, as rock itself evolved further, Joe’s relation to it became more tenuous.

He was recording less, choosing instead to take longer residencies in clubs, which meant he wasn’t as affected by the current market demands as younger artists who needed to score hits to reach that level of career comfort. When he DID return to the studio for Imperial, he was – or they were – trying to draw from many different styles in order to appease different markets.

Yet Joe was always creatively restless, interested in various musical avenues even if those roads crossed each other in ways that made the end result less commercial. In that way just the title alone, Won’t Settle Down, suits his career perfectly.

But because of this it’s become inevitable that, name change or not, Smilin’ Joe is now firmly in the hinterlands between life stages. Like the kid who graduated a few years back that didn’t go to college but also didn’t start a firm career, who runs into his now married friends from the old days, Pleasant Joseph remains stuck in time as time marches on without him.


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