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MIRACLE 146; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

 

Since bursting onto the scene in early 1948 former studio pianist Sonny Thompson has been a headlining star, a stylistic trendsetter, the cornerstone of an entire record label and the author of two Number One hits including the single biggest rock record of 1948.

In many ways you could say it’s all been downhill from there.
 

 
That’s not entirely fair of course, nor entirely true for that matter, but he HAS faced diminishing returns for the most part commercially since his arrival on the scene in March 1948.

But maybe that’s to be expected any time you come crashing out of the gate with a record close to perfection, one so alluring… so addicting… that audiences couldn’t get enough of it, keeping it on the charts in some areas for a full year.

It’s not just that Long Gone only sold more than any other release that year but it was groundbreaking in a multitude of ways from introducing the two-part record to rock ‘n’ roll as well as establishing a distinctive style that relied on a seductive groove to off-set the louder and more flamboyant instrumentals that rock was already specializing in.

That’s a lot to live up to, let alone try and surpass, especially when he hadn’t even set out to become a featured performer. But while you can’t really fault Thompson for not scoring another hit just as big as the first one, though his follow-up Late Freight also topped the charts, he’s not quite as able escape blame for the fact that his records since then have been of gradually diminishing quality as well.

In that sense Sonny Thompson was already at risk for having a career in which everything after his debut was seen as a monumental let-down.
 

Career Opportunities
In many ways the problem Thompson was having in trying to maintain his momentum came down to the fact that all of this was accidental to begin with. There had been no grand plan when Thompson laid down his first sides as a credited artist, no elaborate artistic vision as to what he wanted to pursue. It’d all been circumstantial from the start.

Sonny had been enlisted along with a three-man group known as The Sharps & The Flats to provide musical back-up for vocalists on a session for Miracle Records. As is often the case, especially when dealing with the type of dreadfully unskilled singers they were working with, there was time left over at the end of the session and Thompson and crew merely used that opportunity to cut an appealing song they made up on the spot. The next session they did the same, revisiting that earlier tune with the addition of Eddie Chamblee who had been hired to play sax on that date, and then probably without another thought simply went back to their normal job of trying to prop up one floundering singer after another, never expecting the instrumentals they cut themselves to be released, or at least never expecting them to become runaway hits.

When that’s what happened in the spring of ’48 suddenly their job description changed overnight. No longer were they supporting players who’d earn a small but steady income from going through the motions behind others, where the commercial returns of those records are the least of your concerns. Now they’re being asked to come up with hit records of their own and the measures used to determine success are far different than they were when all they had to do was play their modest parts with skill and efficiency so the label didn’t incur overtime costs in the studio.

But did they WANT this?
 

 
It seems a silly question to ask, but it’s a legitimate one all the same. Stardom is seen as something that most in the industry crave and will do almost anything to obtain but thus far in rock we’ve met a few who became stars and didn’t seem all that happy about it.

Hal Singer for one was another studio sessionist who was coaxed into cutting his own instrumental and emerged with a Number One hit in a style he didn’t think much of personally. On top of the fact that the record itself, Cornbread, was something of an embarrassment to him when hanging out with his pals who made fun of him for lowering himself to play this style, his success also cost him his recently gotten – and much desired – seat in Duke Ellington’s high class orchestra because his newfound drawing power became too big not to take advantage of while he could. So Singer reluctantly headed into the seedier music he’d just made his name on… or sullied his name on if you looked at it from his perspective. He too had another hit and some strong sellers along the way but nothing to match his explosive first outing.

Others, like Cousin Joe and more recently Tuff Green, saw recording as decidedly secondary to their live gigs and they probably weren’t alone, especially considering the fact that in this day and age artist royalties for even the biggest hits were rarely given out by thieving record companies and so hit records mostly acted as little more than promotional tools for the artist’s shows which is how they actually made their money playing music.

Sonny Thompson had made his money that way from the start, merely recording on the side to supplement his income – since at least session musicians were contracted through the musician’s union which ensured they’d actually get paid the $42 for their troubles – and so he was probably not thinking of a steady recording career of his own beyond that… until that first record shook the world.

Then he had no choice.
 

Where Do You From Here
So now it’s more than a year after that breakthrough record had been released and a year and a half since he’d cut it and he was back in the studios in April 1949 trying to dream up a song that not only could pass muster stylistically with the rock audience but also live up to their expectations based on his past work.

Maybe it’s not surprising then that he chose a name – or had it chosen for him by the label – like Dreaming Again, for surely they were all dreaming of the money and acclaim pouring in for another instrumental like the one that had set all of this into motion in the first place.

But if so then the title was cruelly appropriate as well because one listen to this and you know they were ALL dreaming if they thought it would meet with any enthusiasm from the increasingly demanding and knowledgeable rock fan who’d quickly see through this weak attempt at remaining relevant in their world.

Dreaming Again is the sound of resignation, another thing that’s probably ironically appropriate. It leads off with an elegiac trumpet by Floyd Jones conjuring up some New Orleans flavor even though these guys were Chicagoans by trade. It works well though, not so much for convincing you it’s rock but in setting the mood it’s hoping to be able win you over with.

The other horns moan in the background, exhaling with despair at dealing with the indignities of life by the sounds of it, all while Thompson fills in the cracks on piano unobtrusively. When the tenor sax takes over 45 seconds in for the first solo – either Chamblee or Dick Davis, he of the vital pre-rock track Screaming Boogie which Thompson had also played on in the spring of 1947 – the connection to rock becomes a little more secure. It keeps things mostly in the same slowed-down groove but due to the nature of the instrument itself it can’t help but sound rougher and more agitated by the same course of events that made the others so downcast.

There’s no frantic blowing, certainly no honks or squeals, but it’s effective enough to hold your attention, knowing all the while that it’ll never have you scrambling to hear it again at all costs but at this point you’ll at least be satisfied to let its smoky charms hold you in its thrall.
 

The Long Way Down
The same can’t be said for what follows however and unfortunately for Sonny Thompson’s reputation it’s his playing that we’ll be harping on from here on in.

To call the piano exercise that follows indulgent would be underselling by a lot. To call it sensible would be to redefine that word beyond recognition. To call it appropriate would be to let on that you didn’t actually HEAR the song because it sticks out like a sore thumb… probably the same sore thumbs that Thompson was suffering from after the other guys in the studio were wrestling over the latest issue of Eyeful magazine and bumped into the piano causing the lid to slam on Sonny’s fingers.

That’s really the only explanation that could let Sonny off the hook for what he’s laying down. Since studio time was expensive they would’ve just bandaged his swollen digits up and told him to do the best he could.

Unfortunately this was the best he could and it’s not nearly good enough.

He’s alternately clumsy in what he plays, notes colliding with no sense of musicality, and struck with an urge to try and impress people who might be completely deaf but seeing his fingers wiggling around the keys may think he’s actually doing something noteworthy in the process. Worse still is it serves no real purpose other than to fill time, but that time would be far better spent by the listener if they used it to compose a want-ad to unload their record player as after hearing this off-putting interlude they’ll no longer be wanting to put it through such abuse.

Thompson’s mercifully rescued somewhat by the horns, sensing his distress no doubt, who come in for the final third of the record, sharing the spotlight with Thompson who now just hammers away with welcome crudity rather than trying to dupe us with ill-fitting florid passages, but by this point you’ve forgotten what it was about the first half of the record that you found more tolerable and have gone outside to try and hail a cab home, or jump on a bus… if not in front of one.
 

Back To Sleep
Again, we’re being too harsh on Thompson but a little fun at his expense is about all we can get out of Dreaming Again which makes the fatal mistake of forsaking accessibility for something arguably more ambitious but far less focused.

This problem will be most acute when it happens in instrumentals because unlike jazz where artists attempting to show off their technical skills (not that Thompson succeeds in that goal here) is more readily accepted, even expected and desired by audiences, in rock the listener wants you to satisfy a much more base need in them, which is to get them to move and groove and shimmy with someone on a dance floor.

Thompson had done that before, slowing things down so that there was less shimmying and more grinding which is what he did so well and audiences were eternally grateful that he’d unlocked that door in rock for them.

But “eternally grateful” didn’t necessarily mean eternally tolerant of his misfires and so while they would continue to grant him passing respect and check out each record in the hopes he’d give them something similar they could enjoy and use to their advantage when it came to getting down with the opposite sex, if he didn’t deliver in that regard, nor give them something new and exciting in its stead, they weren’t going to let him remain a star forever.

The quicker Thompson realizes this and takes steps to meet their expectations, the better off we’ll all be.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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