KING 4399; SEPTEMBER 1950

 
 

 

When you make a record you never know just just who is going to be listening. You hope of course that it’s the broader public, the ones with the collective power to turn it into a hit, but ultimately what you really want is for those who do hear it, whether a huge number of people or just a handful, to actually appreciate it and get something positive out of it.

Sonny Thompson had enough success in his past to have experienced the first result, as he scored two chart toppers in a single year in 1948, so he was no stranger to making an immediate impact.

But here on a little known and little regarded instrumental that is a strange – not always successful – merger between relaxing late night mood music and a slightly avant garde pseudo-jazz workout, he winds up not connecting with the general public at all, but is redeemed in a way by being heard by some highly regarded peers who took the skeletal framework of this and came up with an enduring hit that should’ve gotten Thompson some added glory along the way.

Instead it got him nothing other than perhaps some silent satisfaction that he had a knack for coming up with good musical ideas even if he wasn’t the one who was able to capitalize on it in this instance.
 

 

The Wise Old Owl
Despite his early success on Miracle Records and his long string of admirable releases on King Records, his current home, it’s probably not surprising that Sonny Thompson biggest long term impact was as a behind the scenes musical power-broker, serving as a bandleader, producer and songwriter for others who’d score hits with his creations while he remained largely out of the spotlight following his initial flurry of hits in the late 1940’s.

Such was the mentality of someone who got his start as a sessionist and who stumbled into stardom quite unintentionally before retreating to what he was more comfortable doing.

The roles he specialized in behind the scenes were always more suited to his strengths as a musician for as he shows with Blues For The Nightowls (as it’s printed on the title, with it being one word rather than two), he’s got a really strong melodic sense even when he seems as if he’s just tossing off a half-formed idea.

As we’ve seen with past Thompson efforts, his background as a wanna-be jazz musician contrasted with his instinctive fondness for the type of rhythmic groove that was a staple of rock ‘n’ roll, something which made him an interesting, although sometimes frustrating, talent.

This conflict is pretty evident on the flip side of this, Harlem Rug Cutter, a well-played but uneventful foray into material that sounded a half decade or more out of date which tries redeeming itself with a modestly stinging guitar solo by Charles Edwin before the horns do it in for consideration as a rocker.

Not surprisingly the more his ambitions for classier productions and some vague critical respect surfaced, the worse it was for his commercial prospects and his continuing impact on rock’s evolution. But as long as he stuck to delivering hook-based songs he was in his element even if it might not have always been his preferred creative outlet.

Here he tries to marry those two disparate elements and as often is the case when that’s the goal he isn’t able to reconcile those dueling needs to the satisfaction of either constituency, but the part that works is pretty damn impressive and would go on to have plenty of influence just around the corner.
 


 
 

What’s On Your Mind?
Of course in the fall of 1950 when this came out you wouldn’t have had any light bulb moment upon hearing Thompson’s sluggish, but dreamy melody kick off this record, but down the road – assuming you’ve immersed yourself a little bit in rock over the next few years of the Fifties – you’ll get this nagging feeling you’ve heard it before.

It’s the lyrics, or in this case the LACK of lyrics, that will throw you momentarily, because when it got reworked by Howard Biggs and Joe Thomas, the pianist and saxophonist involved with a myriad of artists and productions during this era, their song had lyrics that expanded the melodic threads introduced here and became its most identifying feature when done by Big John Greer as Got You On My Mind.

Greer was another one trapped between two worlds, more so than Thompson who never had a different successful milieu he could return to, unlike Greer who always had his gig with Lucky Millinder to fall back on.

Got You On My Mind was Greer’s most enduring record, a massive #2 smash in 1952, sounding – in both its overall mood and the laid-back vocal – like something Ivory Joe Hunter might come up with, but in fact its clear origins where in Thompson’s Blues For The Night Owls where that soon-to-be familiar melody was born. It’s not a straight note for note lift – Thompson’s efforts here are slower paced and more deliberate in how it’s played besides – but both melodic progressions have the same alluring lilting charm.

That’s also the best part of this record, not even because it’s an itch you want to scratch when it comes to figuring out where else you’ve encountered it, but because it’s such an infectious ear-worm. Who could blame Biggs and Thomas for absconding with it, building on it and ultimately improving it by never deviating from that hook like Thompson does here far too quickly – and jarringly – for it to fully connect.
 

Lost Along The Way
The intro – piano, drums and Walter Buchanan’s mesmerizing plucked double bass – lasts for just twelve bars before seguing into Thompson getting innovative, really stretching out on the keyboard and promptly losing the very thing which had been so appealing to start with.

He abandons the direction of the song… the purpose of the song in the truest sense… and turns Blues For The Night Owls into something experimental and off-beat.

That’s admirable in theory… or in a club for that matter, after hours as the title suggests where audiences are half in the bag, listless and willing to indulge in something without much of a point to it. But as a record it doesn’t fully hold up, certainly not a rock record, even a late night mood piece as this wants to be.

There’s definitely some interesting ideas floating around during this stretch but records need hooks, they need to take you from Point A to Point B in a way that is direct and memorable, but this deviates into Points C-Z in ways that are best appreciated in another setting entirely.

Thompson manages not to let it get completely untracked, you still sense he’s got a firm grip on the wheel and will get you back on the road eventually, but it’s a long trip to cover a short distance and as such it feels more like a wrong turn than the scenic route he was clearly aiming for.

When he does finally return to familiar surroundings and heads back down that drawn-out melodic path it’s as enchanting as ever. You wish someone in the room had pointed out to him that it was the song’s best chance to forge an identity and that the playing that interrupted it, while more difficult and probably more artistically rewarding for him, was too indulgent and aimless for listeners to latch onto.

In a business where selling records remains the primary concern, his lack of concern for that goal probably wasn’t met with much enthusiasm by Syd Nathan who didn’t look at artistic aspirations as something to be proud of if the bottom line wasn’t consistently met.

 


 

Night Into Day
Still, all things considered the attempt itself is admirable, if only because he’s expanding his scope, finding out what works and what doesn’t. That it worked for somebody else might have been a bitter pill to swallow, but it should’ve shown him which side his bread was buttered on.

If Blues For The Nightowls was a little too ambitious for rock it clearly had something at its core that wasn’t without merit and in that way we can see how a failed record can still be deemed a success.

So much of music is created this way – the Yancy bass line formed the basis of Long Gone for instance, now the melodic progression of this song would go on to be the building blocks of another hit down the road.

Sometimes you’re never aware of these connections, sometimes they require somebody pointing them out to you, but once you’re told it becomes impossible to ever hear it the same again, while other times it’s so obvious it leads to lawsuits for copyright infringement.

But without things being recycled and re-imagined then there’d be less of a connection between eras which makes rock one big continuum rather than a bunch of smaller, and thus less consequential, singular moments in time.

Though it’s unfortunate that Sonny Thompson never did get proper credit for providing the “inspiration” for a lasting hit, we can take solace in the fact that his ideas themselves served their purpose and as long as good music comes from that, the resulting records that people love are the best reward.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Sonny Thompson for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)