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MIRACLE 126; MARCH, 1948

 
 

 

“The groove”.

A much sought after, sometimes quite elusive, magic formula that rock has spent decades trying to put into captivity and harness so it can be trotted out like a show pony whenever needed. Despite its relatively simple theoretical concept, essentially a tight rhythmic progression repeated with slight variation to keep the song churning forward even as it otherwise is going nowhere but in circles, few have been able to hold her consistently.

Songs, like wild horses I suppose, yearn to run free and they bristle at being confined, but those which can be tamed remain the bedrock of their master’s repertoire for years after, guaranteed to always keep audiences riveted and coming back for more.

In 1948 the unquestioned king of the groove in rock was Alphonso “Sonny” Thompson. Or perhaps with that gangster-esque name, The Godfather Of The Groove was more appropriate.

Unfortunately, maybe because he never was given a colorful moniker like that, Thompson’s rather prodigious legacy has been reduced to next to nothing in the years since.
 

Take One
No matter how hard you search these days about all the relevant information you’ll easily find about this giant of American music is the regurgitated bare bones biography that states Thompson was born in 1916 in Memphis and attended the Chicago Conservatory Of Music. He was a pianist who was largely influenced by Earl “Fatha” Hines and especially Art Tatum and for a few years in the late 1940’s he made some popular records – most of which have faded into modern obscurity – and he died in 1989. The end.

All of which is another way of saying rock historians myopic view of potential goldmines of subjects is disheartening if not downright criminal. Though information about Thompson’s accomplishments are regrettably lacking, the accomplishments themselves are not lacking at all, and in fact are pretty staggering any way you look at it. He succeeded in so many avenues of music that a mere thumbnail biographical sketch falls woefully short of conveying his importance, but here are the highlights nonetheless, just to give the newcomer to this field a little more to go on before we dive into the song itself:

Long Gone (Part II) was his first of two chart toppers in 1948 as an artist. Though he continued to record for himself for a long while after this he also backed countless others in the studio over the years, even pre-dating his appearance here, but most notably for the King Records label in the early 50’s, doing sessions for everyone from Wynonie Harris to Little Willie John and Otis Williams and The Charms.

In 1952 he hired Lula Reed to front his own band and that partnership subsequently led to additional hits for them not to mention a marriage between the two. After overseeing Henry Stone’s Chart Records operation in the mid-50’s followed by a stint at Chess Records, he eventually returned to King Records and took over as their A&R man and top producer, overseeing the bulk of their recordings in the late 50’s and early 60’s, one of a handful of influential black figures to hold such responsibility in the pre-Civil Rights era.

As a songwriter he penned some of the most enduring classics of that time, from Drown In My Own Tears (first for his wife as I’ll Drown In My Tears before Ray Charles delivered the definitive take on it) to Freddie King’s immortal blues I’m Tore Down. Of rock artists who first appeared in the 40’s on record, the breadth of Thompson’s credits across all of these fields – successful recording artist, top flight session musician, songwriter of note for others, prolific producer who moved into upper management in A&R – is rivaled only by Dave Bartholomew, Johnny Otis and Paul Gayten.

Naturally he’s barely remembered today.
 


 

Which brings us back to Thompson as an artist and subsequently this particular record you’ve all presumably come here to read about. Through the success of this Thompson also became known as the king of the two part record, kicking off a notable trend in rock that allowed artists and labels to not always be confined by the rather limited time available on just one side of a single. Long Gone was not only the prototype but the pinnacle of that approach, for him anyway, but oddly enough Part One and Part Two were recorded separately at two different sessions, unlike most two-partners that followed which were simply a longer song edited into two parts.

What’s more it’s pretty obvious that when they cut these sides they had no intention of it being two parts of anything.
 

Take Two
The stellar crew backing Thompson’s piano were guitarist Arvin Garrett, bassist Leroy Morrison and drummer Red Cooper (a/k/a The Sharps and Flats, rare in that they received actual label credit). The star of the hit side (Part Two) however was saxophonist Eddie Chamblee, who’d recorded with Thompson before while both backed another tenor sax man Dick Davis for a vital pre-rock song called “Screamin’ Boogie”.

But Chamblee’s not even present on Long Gone Part One, which opens with Garrett’s infectious guitar riff before becoming a showcase for Thompson who dances lightly all over the treble keys as the rhythm section holds down the bottom. They essentially switch roles after that, as Thompson yields to Garrett who gets to stretch out on electric guitar while Thompson’s left hand picks up on the repetitive riff the song is built from. The song never lets up on its groove, churning with precision, the soloing by both guitar and piano merely embellishing the feel without altering the main focus, which is that grinding riff.

This is as tight as it gets, more hypnotic in feel than exhilarating for sure, but that’s the whole point of the groove after all – locking you in so you’ll follow it anywhere.
 


 
 

Weeks later the same foursome, after backing Browley Guy for a studio date with the addition of Chamblee on sax (remember, they were still session cats first and foremost), cut Long Gone Part Two.

I don’t think they set out to though, or rather what I think is that they simply RECUT what they’d already done (doubtful that it even had a name yet) and simply rearranged it slightly to account for the added instrument in Chamblee. More “take two” than “part two”. Kind of like, “Hey guys, remember that tune we cut a few weeks back? Let’s run through that again and see if we can hit on something with it”.

This becomes fairly obvious right away. It’s the same song, not a continuation of it at all, it features the same guitar intro, same piano flourishes at the same points, the first half of each recording is all but identical, the only difference is that over it all Chamblee blows a mellow counterpoint, adding immeasurably to the atmosphere.
 


 
 

However by the second half of this side the arrangement does deviate from what became known as Long Gone (Part I). Gone is the Garrett guitar solo, as Chamblee takes the solo spot instead on sax, winding his way through the smoky haze it conjures up, blowing a little more fiercely at times but never flamboyantly. Thompson now adds a new rolling riff behind it, taking the song up in intensity some, yet the others never drop that now-familiar primary groove, playing it as if in a trance.

That’s really all there is to it, hardly complex stuff but the effect is as intoxicating as anything that might be served in the type of dimly lit gin joint you’d be likely to hear it in.
 

Put One And One (Or One And Two) Together And What Do You Come Up With?
Miracle Records – like all companies in the waning days of 1947, as we’ve covered already – were in the midst of stockpiling songs to tide them over during the upcoming recording ban and as such they had an abundance of material to fill up their release schedule for the foreseeable future and so both tracks sat on the shelf awhile. Gladys Palmer, whom they’d backed the same day they’d cut Part One, along with the aforementioned Browley Guy from the Part Two recording date, as well as Thompson himself for other recently recorded songs, all got releases before they exhumed Long Gone in the spring of ‘48.

Perhaps feeling the only sensible way to ensure the commercial use of both versions cut would be to issue them together – otherwise, if they put out whichever take they thought had the most potential and it bombed the other one in all likelihood would be consigned to the garbage can, and truthfully, even if the one was a hit on its own, to release a nearly identical song as its follow up would be a little sketchy too – so they put them out them together, dubbing them Part One and Part Two. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention or something like that, and so with probably no forethought whatsoever they kicked off the two-part single phenomenon that would last decades in rock, at least until singles (be it 78 or 45 RPM) went the way of the dodo bird.
 

Two For The Price Of One
Part Two is the side that caught on and was credited as the hit, with Chamblee’s steamy tenor sax workout a perfect fit for the era that would be come to be defined largely by that instrument. It’s also the better of the two sides (or versions, whichever designation you prefer), but because both feature the same infectious groove at their core, the musical anchor that keeps you rooted to the floor, unable, and unwilling, to move until it closes, the difference in quality of the two is slight.

This is what the best bands in the land strove for, whether playing a nightclub for those hepcats who lurked in the seedy environs they felt most at home in after dark, or, if the band got their shot at making a record, this is what they’d hope they would somehow be able to translate to the sterile confines of a studio under fluorescent lights at ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning when everybody was – presumably – sober and upright. Incredibly they succeeded in that regard where so many others had failed, for listening to this you’re immediately transported to a club after midnight. As such Long Gone became the record everyone who couldn’t wait until Friday or Saturday night had to have (and so YOU can have both and take your pick as to which to get your rocks off to, the iTunes version offered in the link below is both Part 1 & 2 together, at no extra charge to you the consumer!).
 


 

How popular was it? Well, it remained in the Top Ten on the charts for the rest of the year and even into 1949, in the process becoming the biggest selling rock record of the genre’s first full year and launched Thompson’s fruitful multi-faceted career into orbit.

In other words, the groove had arrived.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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