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After having first met Smilin’ Smokey Lynn last month under the auspices of another performer entirely – that would be Don Johnson, trumpeter, not the actor twice married to Melanie Griffith bookending his stint as Barbra Streisand’s boy-toy – now Lynn returns a month later under his own name and trying to carve out a spot for himself amongst the ever more crowded field of rock ‘n’ rollers…

Except this ISN’T Smokey Lynn singing! In fact, Smokey isn’t even on the damn record, unless he was conducting the group in the studio with a bottle of scotch in hand.

Say whaaaaaaat?!?

Yup, welcome back to the confusing world of the record industry circa 1949 where you truly need a scorecard at times just to keep up with the players on the field.

On Your Mark
Specialty Records was founded by Art Rupe in 1946 and in time went on to be one of the handful of legendary independent record labels of rock’s first decade and a half. The list of artists they propelled to fame – Little Richard, Jesse Belvin, Percy Mayfield, Larry Williams, Sam Cooke, Jimmy Liggins and many more – speaks for itself and Rupe was no mere wallflower when it came to setting the direction of the company. Unlike the stereotypical crude cigar chomping hustler Rupe approached the record business in a methodical and sensible way, gauging the market and responding to its interests.

But while he probably had a much higher average than most of his competitors when it came to making reasonably sound decisions that didn’t mean he wasn’t averse to dropping the ball from time to time, such as his handling of Smokey Lynn, an artist with the potential to work his way into the rock ‘n’ roll elite with a few breaks along the way.

Instead, while his timing was excellent (coming onto the scene right after the recording ban so his potential growth wouldn’t be stymied and arriving once all his predecessors had worked out the kinks in the formula and gotten over the style’s initial growing pains), the simple things you take for granted – such as receiving the proper credit from your record company… a company who presumably hopes to capitalize on your work – got tangled in a web of confusion.

So just to recap for those trying to make sense of this all, on last month’s debut for Lynn, State Street Boogie, a torrid performance that marked Lynn as somebody to watch going forward, the record in question was actually credited to Don Johnson, the trumpet player leading the band! Then further confusing things on the B-side to that, Jackson’s Blues (the side that actually became the minor hit of the two) which was also credited to Johnson, it was actually saxophonist Earl Jackson who was the featured performer not Johnson (though Don played on the record at least).

So it’s not only possible but altogether likely that most of the people buying that record who liked what they heard on either side of that disc would be now looking for more records by… Don Johnson (which they’d get in time with the Top Ten smash Heartbeat in 1985… oh, wrong Don Johnson again, never mind!). But in fact Johnson got no more releases, which is only the lesser of two incomprehensible acts pulled by Specialty involving these characters.

The more baffling outcome was that Smokey Lynn DID get another (certainly well earned) release, this one, just a month later and if there were actually anyone astute enough to figure out that it was in fact Smokey Lynn who piqued their interest that last time out and dutifully made the pilgrimage to the record store this month for Lynn’s debut under his own nom de plume they were promptly rewarded for their dogged investigative and analytical work with… a record whose featured side wasn’t sung by Smokey Lynn at all but rather someone named Larry Costello!

At this point frustrated rock fans surely were asking Art Rupe if Larry Costello wasn’t in fact Lou Costello and Rupe wasn’t Bud Abbott, for how else to explain the Abbott & Costello-like Who’s On First? routine with these convoluted releases?

Get Set
We mentioned how hard it is to find any information on Smokey Lynn last time out but compared to what we know of Larry Costello that’s a treasure trove of facts.

Costello’s real name was Laurence Robinson which just so happens to be the full extent of our knowledge of Costello/Robinson. Why he changed his moniker to Costello isn’t known, though that was also the name he filed this song under as its writer.

The more pressing question is why was he even in the studio to record a song on Smokey Lynn’s recording session?

Run, Mr. Rabbit, Run credits “Smokey Lynn’s Orchestra” on the label except Lynn wasn’t a musician. Usually guys who had the orchestra named after them played an instrument, or at least waved a baton for show. The only thing Lynn waved was goodbye to his chance for stardom which all but waltzed out the door under an alias.

But regardless of the name of the singer performing there’s still the record itself to get to and it’s obvious that whoever was responsible for its construction was betting on the public’s appetite for frantic rockers to give them a shot at glory here.

Though certainly not quite the dominant aspect of rock, the exhilaration of the performances – honking saxes, pounding pianos, wailing vocals – definitely made for the most attention grabbing records by 1949 and so it’s hardly surprising that those just entering the fray, be it Costello or Lynn, would latch onto it out of the gate.

The problem is that exhilaration unto itself doesn’t make for a great record. There needs to be some sense of order first so that the chaos that follows is put into a more fitting context. Build-up, suspense, anticipation… all words we’ve used to describe the right way to lead into an explosion. Here though we get none of that, it starts off with a boom and the rest is merely shrapnel flying through the air.

This isn’t helped in any way by the outdated horns that kick it off, a recurring theme here on Spontaneous Lunacy as well. It’s as if they haven’t even been reading our thoughtful critiques or something!

The brief fanfare that opens this only lasts a few seconds before Costello hurtles into view, already sounding out of breath as if he’d been the one running to the stage, maybe after locking Smokey Lynn in his dressing room. Off to the races he goes, ripping into a well worn story that recycled the basic lyrics from a thousand and one bandstand performances but really was just a platform for vocalists to strut their stuff.

Because Costello stomps on the gas pedal from the word… well, you can read the headings… there’s not much the musicians can do but race to keep up.

The first forty seconds features the old-school horns which actually might be a way to get some good mileage out of them, their higher tones not clashing with a more measured delivery. But the featured role will still be given to the tenor sax, Earl Jackson back for another go-round, the one and only holdover from the Don Johnson led, Smokey Lynn sung session from two weeks earlier.

Jackson shows solid form here, managing to keep some melodic structure in tact for his stint, but then Costello barges in with a vocal passage that just takes this over the top in terms of taking it seriously, as he sounds as if this was all just a put-on for the sake of the guys in the control booth. It’s almost like Lynn had to step out to use the men’s room, get a bite to eat or exchange phone numbers with the secretary out in the hallway and Costello, who’d been lurking around the studio, simply jumped in front of the microphone and mocked the material in an exaggerated manner, sending up the entire concept of rock ‘n’ roll in the process as a non-serious form of music. Everybody would crack up for a few minutes and Lynn would come back in and be met with bemused smiles and not quite know what had happened in his absence. Then they’d get down to cutting whatever it was that he was there to do.

I doubt that’s what happened – after all it was often hard enough to get bands to put together an arrangement for songs they’d been laboring over all morning, let alone come up with something as a lark on the spur of the moment, not to mention getting the entire thing on tape, but you almost get impression that this was all a gag.

When the trumpeter takes over that idea goes out the window but so does any real chance to rescue this from the oddity bin of rock. Now the horns all just jump in, one after another, the drummer smacking the cymbal, Costello bellowing to the point of exhaustion as they close it out.

It was then the nurses assembled wheeled in the oxygen tanks and offered smelling salts for anyone who’d gotten dizzy from all of this aimless irrational noise.


Can’t Run No More
You can conceivably see why Art Rupe thought this might have possibilities to connect with the rock audience at a time when Big Jay McNeely was obliterating every long-held rule of decorum with the saxophone and where piano pounders like Little Willie Littlefield were bruising their keyboards in an effort to sound unhinged. There was no way he’d have thought there’d be lunatics far in the future who’d consider ANY of that noise to be quality music, let alone wax poetic about it, so for a company just looking to grab some attention and some sales in the process this was a relatively low risk release.

But that still doesn’t explain why he couldn’t have brought Costello back in to cut a second number to give it a B-side so it can be released under his own name, or at least call the band back in to come up with a rudimentary instrumental to pair this up with and remove Lynn from the equation entirely. Instead by affixing Smokey’s name on it, yet not featuring him whatsoever on the top side of the record, he derails whatever momentum he’d built off last month’s release and confuses record buyers to boot. Then, to add insult to injury, Rupe gives Lynn the far less boisterous flip side (Lonesome Lover Blues), which can’t help but sound dull compared to not just Costello’s antics here, but also Lynn’s previous display of similarly exuberant vocal fireworks his last time out. Basically this puzzling sequence of events made Smokey Lynn all but irrelevant on his own release.

As it is we won’t hear from Costello again and Lynn’s commercial potential was thus delivered still-born. It was a strange decision that seemed to have no rhyme or reason to it. In fact it was the second consecutive release associated with Lynn that made no sense.

As for Run, Mr. Rabbit, Run maybe you can be excused for finding its frantic pace and heart-pounding delivery to be reasonably interesting, even rousing if you’re hopped up on caffeine and have gone without sleep for about a week straight and are at the point where you’re already hallucinating. But unless that’s the case your sanity will be seriously questioned if you think that this was either emblematic of rock at its finest or had even the shallow passing appeal to be a potential hit.

Though rock was hardly a sophisticated style of music there’s a difference between that and intentionally unsophisticated and this doesn’t just cross that line, it leaps across it.

Manic, out of control, mindless, sensationalistic… it was all of those things and more. But in the end it’s merely exhausting.


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