KING 4364; MAY 1950



The not-so humorously ironic thing about diverse musical styles is that they all are using the same tools to craft their songs.

Not always the same instruments necessarily – although they certainly do share these as well – but the same notes. After all there’s not that many of them to allow each genre of music to claim certain ones exclusively for themselves.

Yet put a rock fan, a jazz fan, a country fan and a blues fan in the same room and watch them fight to the death over which type of music best utilizes these notes and instruments.

All of which tells you that while the these brands of music may share the same building blocks, the way in which they’re applied ultimately determines how that music gets classified. So when someone comes along and seems to blend those distinctive attributes together, knocking down the established barriers that have been built to separate them, it has a tendency to create a lot of confusion and leave nobody fully satisfied.


Sonny Went A Courtin’
Now that Sonny Thompson has found a new home with King Records, a veritable juggernaut in the independent label field, you can envision him breathing a sigh of relief after he basically was forced to carry the entire operations of Miracle Records on his back for the past two years.

Though King’s despot owner Syd Nathan would certainly expect Sonny to provide him with some hit singles along the way, the pressure for him to do so each and every time out would be far less imposing since King had such a deep and diverse roster of stars. This meant he had more of a free hand to experiment and explore different ideas rather than be forced to adhere closely to the dominant hit sounds of the moment.

For Thompson, someone whose stardom was quite unexpected to begin with since he had been merely a sessionist who cut some instrumentals on the side which took off as rock got its feet under it in 1948, the chance to try different approaches was probably appealing. Though it had been his groove laden songs like Long Gone and Late Freight which had topped the charts, the lighter songs he’d recorded around the same time, but which got released much later such as Blue Dreams, showed he was comfortable – and for all we know may have even preferred – more pop-jazz ventures.

We in the rock universe of course beg to differ with that direction, which probably has you worrying that his latest effort, Frog Legs, will have little beyond its title to recommend it.

Maybe so. But while there are only a few fleeting elements of the song which are up our alley as rock fans, the bigger story here is found by unraveling that odd, sometimes awkward, but undeniably fascinating confluence of sounds that draw from pop, jazz and rock in Thompson’s attempt to show that it’s semantics more than rigidly defined parameters which forces songs to into one stylistic box or another.

Tastes Like Chicken, Sounds Like Jazzy Rock
The path that took Alphonso “Sonny” Thompson from a kid who loved the sophisticated sounds of Art Tatum to a working club musician who needed to be able to handle lots of styles, leading in turn to him into being drafted as session musician for newly formed Miracle Records in 1947 which subsequently resulted in stardom the next year in rock ‘n’ roll was unexpected to say the least.

But that was part of rock ‘n’ roll’s good fortune in a way, as all of these disparate backgrounds got mixed together in that original formula and though the dominant strain it would follow over the years seemed to favor the more uncouth ingredients, there was still a few strains of the more upper crust styles to be found every now and then, preventing it from ever becoming completely unruly.

Thompson was indicative of this yin and yang dynamic, as Frog Legs shows that he was conversant in jazzier idioms and looking for a way to incorporate some of that into his rock output, as this song manages to take little bits and pieces from a variety of far-flung sources and throws them all together, not always successfully, in the hopes that it can amount to a cohesive single.

Sonny’s intro on piano almost strikes you as something you’d expect to hear coming from Vince Guaraldi on a Charlie Brown special, except Guaraldi, an accomplished jazz pianist in his own right, hadn’t yet entered a studio (he made his debut with Cal Tjader in 1953) and the aural connection is probably fleeting at best anyway.

The horns that show up next are more in line with rock, though not fully aligned with it either. They’re assertive like the best rock sides and are pitched lower than most jazz tracks seemed to be at the time and to our great relief are dutifully emphasizing the rhythm to forge a stronger connection to us, but there’s still a little too much orderly sensibility here.

They’re riffing… sort of… but hardly doing so in a very rough manner. It’ll make do alright, but if this is going to be the most overt association with rock ‘n’ roll then we’ll probably be grumbling about it by the end of the record rather than finding it something to compliment in an off-handed way.

Luckily Thompson was no dummy and he understood that anything with his name on it would have to make its rock leanings a little more obvious than that if he didn’t want to piss off the constituency he’d already built up and so following that section he hands things over to the tenor sax and lets him go at it without restraint which is where the track finally all comes into its own.

It’s a bawdy solo at times, more so really than the slinkier ones Eddie Chamblee laid down on Thompson’s biggest hits which makes for a nice contrast in his catalog, but it’s also got a very obvious lift from Charlie Parker’s immortal Now’s The Time, which reaffirms its jazz pedigree. Yet that Parker song was also the basis for Paul Williams’ The Hucklebuck, the biggest rock hit of the 1940’s and longest reining #1 instrumental hit in rock history, thereby reinforcing the subtler connection between the two idioms that had already been embraced by rock fans the world over.

Suddenly you start to grasp the interwoven sensibilities of musicians like Thompson, a guy who came of age in one era, then got his start in another era playing something widely acceptable at the time, before becoming a star in a subsequent era which upended, distorted and seemingly blew up those earlier styles, yet which retained fractured shards of them that were hard to get out from under your skin.


Music history lesson aside, Thompson still had a job to do here which was to make this single appealing enough for the jukebox trade that rock was reliant on in 1950. The saxophone does its part to see to it that Frog Legs would get people jumping (oh, c’mon now, stop groaning, that’s a pretty good pun) but ultimately the success or failure of this is going to rest on how well Thompson incorporates everything else into the mix.

By this measure he doesn’t do quite as well and unfortunately he has no one to blame but himself, as the abrupt shift from a lusty tenor sax implying all sorts of raunchy activities in the dark gives way to Thompson’s own delicate piano which immediately throws the floodlights on, sending all the deviants scurrying for cover.

Again, this style of playing is very jazzy in concept… plenty of finger flexing on the treble keys, intriguingly melodic but coming at the expense of any rhythmic sensibilities meaning it’s left to the drums to try and keep the beat as Thompson improvises over him. Some of what he plays might’ve had a chance to be almost funky if he’d used his left hand more in conjunction with it, but instead it comes across as aspiring to be avant garde and falling a little short in the process.

None of it is objectionable to hear mind you and it’s certainly not badly played by any means, but then again it’s not entirely appropriate for the audience most likely to drop a nickel in the jukebox to get down and dirty with.

What works here actually works pretty well, and what doesn’t… well, it doesn’t manage to annoy us anyway, just sort of piques our curiosity without satisfying our needs, like so many other stylistic hybrids have a tendency to do. So we take it in, nod our heads while giving begrudging credit to the skills of those involved if not the results, and then we hop away looking for something more suitable.

A Side Dish
This was a lesson that had to be continually re-learned by generation after generation of artist… usually the ones with more musical know-how than the ones whose rudimentary skills kept them following one narrow, straight-forward path without deviation.

The more you know in life the more you want to try however and while that’s an admirable quality to have it’s not always the surest road to success in one specific pursuit. But since Sonny Thompson had achieved that kind of success already in rock he probably felt he’d earned a little more leeway… and surely felt confident enough to think he might broaden the audience’s horizons at the same time.

Frog Legs does still retain a solid rock appeal, enough so that it was fairly successful commercially, but artistically its weakest points are those where Thompson tries to stretch out beyond what most in the rock community were willing to allow.

We’re always saying around here we’d like to know what was going through the minds of artists and producers as they assessed the musical landscape around them at the time, something which is usually impossible to do with any conviction, but here maybe we CAN see into Sonny Thompson’s head and get a better idea of just how competing visions were struggling to work themselves out.

He may have done so better than a lot of similarly compromised stylistic amalgamations, but all things considered we’d still prefer something a lot less ambitious if it stuck to what worked best at a sweaty, raucous Saturday night dance where what you play is being tasked with keeping different types of legs moving.


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