KING 4488; DECEMBER 1951

 
 

 

They say criminals return to the scene of a crime, not because they are looking to replicate the crime a second time but rather because it was their biggest achievement and gives them a rush to try and recapture that feeling they had when they pulled it off.

Musical artists on the other hand return to the scene of their biggest hits to try and get more hits and when you’ve had diminishing commercial returns on your subsequent material it’s all but inevitable that either the artist themselves, or the record company paying them, will get them to revisit their major success in the hopes of having lightning strike twice.

It rarely works but in some rare cases the attempt alone was worth the effort.
 

 

Gone Again
For all of his achievements in music, not just as a recording artist in his own right but also a sideman, talent scout, songwriter and producer who scored enduring hits in all of those capacities, Sonny Thompson’s biggest legacy remains his first record released under his own name, a two-part instrumental that helped to firmly establish rock’s place in the universe way back in 1948.

In the almost four years since Long Gone came out however, his recording career has been somewhat frustrating for all involved.

The labels he recorded for were frustrated at his inability to come up with a lot of big sellers, though his follow-up to that record, Late Freight, also went to #1 so it wasn’t as if he was firing blanks each time out. Still, the hits dried up within a year and if there’s one thing a record company doesn’t like it’s taking a financial loss for a string of releases.

As for Thompson himself, he was frustrated that a record that came out of a throw-away jam at the end of someone else’s recording session was being used as a barometer of his value as a musician and that more ambitious pieces that failed to draw any interest made his creativity seem like artistic indulgence.

Meanwhile we, the collective rock fan of the day, was frustrated that Thompson’s output had been so inconsistent and rarely approached the irresistible allure of that hypnotic first effort.

So in an attempt to satisfy all three constituencies – King Records who’d signed him with high expectations a year ago and had little to show for it; the rock market who craved something more in line with their tastes; and Thompson himself who still felt the need to prove himself, if only to show he hadn’t been a flash-in-the-pan – he came up with the two part Mellow Blues, something which drew from his game changing record with its intoxicating rhythmic groove while at the same time featuring slightly more advanced musical ideas to prove he was more of an artist than he was being given credit for.

It may not have had the desired effect… it failed to chart anyway… but the record does validate Thompson’s artistic abilities and shows that the real crime was that he didn’t explore these options in more depth along the way.
 

Mare Tranquillitatis
We should start off by saying that as captivating as this record is, there’s not quite the gravitational pull of his earliest hit which established the “groove” as a rock cornerstone.

That record put you in a trance, while this one merely captures your interest, but while it plays that interest shouldn’t wane in the least because everything about this is first rate.

As its title suggests Mellow Blues is laid back and unassuming in its playing style, but that doesn’t mean it’s not infectious as Sonny Thompson makes sure his piano is front and center here, playing a simple riff that seems contradictory when you try and describe it… how can it be loping and yet also lurching? Well, it’s the space he puts between certain notes, hesitating just enough to upset the rhythm, yet the progression itself allows you to fill in the blanks and keep it moving forward.

As a result it’s melodic, yet quirky, keeping you just a little off balance so you never lose sight of it even as other instruments fill in the arrangement with memorable lines of their own.

With steady drumming, a warm yet still slightly haunting tenor sax that seems to emerge mysteriously from the shadows, the pace they all play at never even approaches third gear but because everything constantly moves you never feel as if you’re waiting around for something to happen.

Part One is definitely better than Part Two in this regard, as the second side of the single is much more introspective by nature, downplaying the riff to let Robert Hadley’s sax wander around a little more aimlessly, though not without letting us see some interesting sights along the way. As a result it’s not as tight of a performance, not as good for slow dancing with your baby, but still not bad for setting the right ambiance with the lights down low.

Maybe this schism between the two parts isn’t surprising since the they were cut a few days apart, much like Long Gone had been back in the day. There the addition of Eddie Chamblee’s sax on Part Two is what transformed that record, but here the personnel is the same on both dates and so with no new elements being introduced – a guitar would’ve definitely helped to bring a new wrinkle had one been included – the second half seems more like an extended coda than a strict conclusion to a singular performance, though they do return at the very end to the basic tenets of the original riff.

Still, the full performance never fails to keep you invested and – maybe to Thompson’s frustration – shows that his original concept remains his greatest contribution to rock after all… creating an indelible atmosphere for those who like to lurk in the shadowy recesses of life on the edge.
 

Two To One
Judging two sides of a record in just a single review isn’t always easy, unless it’s merely an extended cut divided in half, but since we’ve chosen to do it this way it helps to explain the conclusion we came to.

If you’re going to listen to just one side of Mellow Blues, as you probably would’ve done at the time if playing it on a jukebox, it’d clearly be Part One, which is as good as anything Thompson has done of late and worthy of an (8) (although just barely) on its own.

But while Part Two is a step down from that and not nearly as intriguing when singled out, it’s still very well played and never deviates too far from what made the top half so enthralling meaning it does just enough to earn a (6) had it been released as a stand alone single in its own right.

Now just combine the two, divide it in half and there’s your score.

Since most rock degenerates are going to be too busy grinding away to this song with someone on the dance floor to bother taking out their calculators, we figured we’d keep the formula pretty simple.

Carry on.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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