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MIRACLE 139; JULY, 1949

 
 

 

The most popular rock record of 1948 – actually, the most popular record by a black artist regardless of genre – had belonged to Sonny Thompson.

That was hardly something anybody, including Mr. & Mrs. Thompson, could’ve predicted at the start of that year and for those who were more neutral observers than Sonny’s parents would have been there surely weren’t enough exclamation points available to start affixing them to that introductory sentence.

Far from being a knock on Sonny Thompson, the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll as a cultural force in the late 1940’s is something that nobody had been prepared for, least of all the music world itself.
 

 
The Unassuming Star
Though he’d been viewed as a crucial component on the small Miracle Records imprint at the tail end of 1947, leading the house band behind their rather pitiful array of vocalists, Sonny Thompson was hardly even the candidate to be a breakout star on his OWN label, let alone in all of music.

While he might’ve been assured of getting some releases of his own when signing with Miracle, those probably weren’t seen as being much more than local jukebox material acting as sort of advertisements for his club work at best, or merely non-essential filler so Miracle would have a steadier stream of releases to get them through the recording ban.

But those low expectations proved to be the perfect storm for what followed. Without the added scrutiny of trying to accurately predict the marketplace Thompson along with The Sharps And Flats, the band he was paired with on that date, had extra time on their hands in the studio after backing singer Browley Guy and were free to experiment, working up something off the top of their heads which simply sounded good to them.

When they reconvened a few weeks later for a similar job on another vocal session with the addition of tenor saxophonist Eddie Chamblee they revisited that earlier cut they’d laid down and reworked it to account for the new instrument. While they all might’ve liked the results there seemed to be no great enthusiasm for it as a potential game changing hit as it sat on the shelf for months before being issued in March, 1948.

But when that record, dubbed Long Gone, with each “version” adorning a separate side and labeled Part 1 and Part 2, did get released it came in the midst of an unexpected revolution that was just starting to sweep the black community, one that was now actively seeking out such alluring, slightly menacing, grooves. The rock sounds of The Ravens, Paul Williams and Wynonie Harris had started to connect commercially by now, and along with Roy Brown, Earl Bostic, Jimmy Liggins and other musical chemists who were plowing similar ground they had set the table for more of the same to break though. When Thompson’s record came out it seemed tailor made for the party.

As an instrumental it was eminently replayable, even more than vocal records once you tired of the storyline. The addition of Chamblee on the hit Side Two allowed it to fit seamlessly into the tenor sax craze that was sweeping rock throughout 1948 and yet because they chose to focus less on creating hysteria with their playing and more on locking into an addicting groove it allowed it to stand apart from the more raucous sides as well.

Finally with the recording ban preventing anyone else from immediately capitalizing on its success it meant that Long Gone was the only place you could get the sounds it offered and the competition remained stagnant throughout the year.

In fact it was Thompson and Chamblee who scored with another of their collaborations cut at the same time when Late Freight released in the summer of ’48 also topped the charts and as the year came to a close not only was Sonny Thompson the most successful artist of the year but was the trend setter heading into 1949.

Then everything stopped cold.
 

Nothing Like Waiting Until The Last Minute
For some inexplicable reason Miracle Records had been in no rush to bring Thompson in after the recording ban ended in December 1948 and get some new sides down on him as soon as possible. Why bother, they seemed to be saying, since Long Gone, now a year old, was STILL in the Top Ten on the charts?

When they finally did issue another single on Thompson left over from the previous year, Blues On Rhumba, it too made the charts but that was on his reputation alone, as its quality was nowhere near what he’d scored big with.

Further complicating matters was the fact that the band Thompson had made those with, The Sharps & The Flats, weren’t HIS band and so Sonny put together a group of his own to enter the studio at last in the winter. Meanwhile Eddie Chamblee, the not so secret ingredient whose sax playing off-set the piano of Thompson and gave them such a distinctive sound, was capitalizing on his role in those hits by leading his own band and by the spring he was in the midst of riding his first – and as it’d turn out only – hit as a solo act with Back Street.

Lastly Miracle Records was still in no better position than it had been a year earlier when they were the runt of the independent record field litter. Back then they had just two bankable names, Thompson and bluesman Memphis Slim. Despite both of them having plenty of success to entice other talented hopefuls into their company, they STILL only had two viable artists – Thompson and Memphis Slim.

If anything they all seemed to be resting on their laurels and thinking that would suffice forever.

So here, a year and a half after their unexpected breakthrough, they go back to the source and try and wring the sponge for another hit in the most blatantly obvious way possible. They even managed to coax Chamblee back into the studio to play alongside Thompson on a song they dubbed Still Gone.

Then, as if that weren’t enough, since Long Gone had Part One and Part Two, the latter being the official hit side, with this record they go it one better, beating James Brown to the post by a good dozen years in this regard, by making it another two part record but splitting the sides into Part Three and Part Four.

Not exactly subtle now is it?

But if the record is good then a lack of subtlety shouldn’t matter in the least. If it wasn’t good, well, it was nice knowing you Sonny, we hope to run into you playing some dingy nightclub on your way to skid row, just one of many who hit the big time unexpectedly and then fell off the face of the earth.
 


 

Still Here
Not to let the cat out of the bag – as if we hadn’t already mentioned this before – but Thompson would enjoy a very long career in rock ‘n’ roll, releasing quality sides into the 1960’s as well as running sessions, backing others and writing songs for a wide array of artists, making him one of the more versatile talents in the business.

I guess that means Still Gone was pretty good.

But that still doesn’t answer a few questions regarding this record, most crucially was this a case of everybody involved being so completely lacking in original ideas that they’d go to such extreme lengths to dredge up memories of their crowning achievement no matter how shameless it appeared to be?

Or was it a case of them simply using the still fervent interest in that earlier song to show their own creativity in a way that rewarded listeners passions without recycling the same old formula?

The answer is a little of both.

Let’s get the similarities out of the way first, because thankfully they turn out to be just incidental and done more to simply connect the two records by the barest of threads so that the clever title actually makes a bit of sense.

The piano progression which serves as the underpinning is cut from the same basic cloth. Chamblee’s horn rides a top it on Part Three which forms a tangible connection to Long Gone Part Two where it served in the same role.

They’ve essentially flipped the blueprints on this one though because Part Four is carried by the guitar, which connects IT to Long Gone Part One, as that side, the first of these cut way back in November 1947, hadn’t had Chamblee present and so it was the guitarist which traded off with Thompson to provide the gist of the record.

So if you were to try and make sense of the four parts as if they were indeed one extended piece, the guitar/piano interplay opens the first part (of Long Gone) which segues into the saxophone led Part Two, transitioning into Part Three (now Still Gone) before the guitar returns to close things out in Part Four.

Clever, economical and well done and nowhere near as cynical and exploitative as you were fearing. But is simply avoiding being nothing more than crass and lazy in their approach enough to make the record itself worth hearing?

Yes… err… no.

No that alone wouldn’t be enough, but yes, Still Gone is definitely worth hearing and even celebrating because they wind up giving you so much more in the bargain.
 

The Sounds Of Today
The genius of Thompson here is that he knows what is expected out of him – whether decreed by Miracle Records themselves or just his own commercial instincts telling him to come up with something reminiscent of his biggest smash so he can get another hit – yet he’s stubbornly creative enough to not merely settle for the easy way out. He actually wants to do something that shows off his artistic integrity.

He manages that in adroit fashion by taking into account some of the changes on the rock scene in the time since the appearance of that first record. The most obvious difference is the pace of this one. Whereas Long Gone was inching along in an intentionally slow groove, never breaking that pace for so much as a second, Still Gone has shifted into a higher gear.

This does two notable things, first is that it allows the record to distance itself enough from its predecessor so that it’s not merely seen as a direct rip-off which is admirable unto itself. But the more important aspect it adds is in bringing it in line with the more restless attitudes rock has displayed over the past year.

Still Gone has a more impatient sound, the type of music to play in your head when you’re anxious to get out for a night on the town yet are still trying to maintain your calm, cool demeanor. The tension between those two desires, eagerness struggling with nonchalance, defines this. It doesn’t give too much in either direction. It’s still slower than all of the bedlam inducing honkers that have ruled the charts, but it’s far more alert than the types of late night grooves that have served as the flip side to that mindset.

Chamblee’s presence on Part Three is the focal point, but I don’t think he himself is particularly necessary other than as a promotional tool. What he’s playing is fine, there’s a really nice smoky tone to his first solo which is played in a draggy, don’t rush me kind of way before his pulse starts to quicken and he picks up the tempo and starts adding more emphasis, but truthfully it’s not something so distinctive as an “Eddie Chamblee” style that it required him and no one but him to carry off.
 

 

In fact in all likelihood there was another sax player on this session capable of doing whatever needed to be done, as Thompson’s former cohort Dick Davis, who contributed the vital pre-rock track Screaming Boogie from 1947 (with Thompson backing him), is the second saxophone on this. He doesn’t get as much to do but the overall horn section, which includes trumpeter Floyd Jones, works well in tandem with one another and keep this churning forward.
 

The Home Stretch
The horns mostly keep out of the way for Part Four which allows Leo Blevins to show off on guitar. His part too is modernized from the Long Gone model which had featured Arvin Garrett of The Sharps & The Flats on guitar and while he played quite well in that context here Blevins outdoes him by using a far more aggressive manner, something reaching for, if not quite matching, the fretwork of Goree Carter or Jimmy “Guitar” Lewis whose more visionary approach is what set the instrument off in another direction.

Unfortunately the one who puts a stop to that more adventurish sound here is Thompson himself who takes over at the midway point for a showy piano solo as Blevins picks up the groove that Sonny had been playing, though it’s relegated to the background. While he’s certainly no slouch on the keys this is the weakest part of either side of the record conceptually, bringing it out of the alley and back into the cleaner environs of a nightclub well before midnight.

Too elaborately constructed to elicit any gut reaction from listeners, the bigger problem is that it’s not offset by the more visceral sounding guitar, or even the saxes with their steamy ambiance. When the horns do return to close things out it’s with their most modest playing yet, almost as if after four similar sides everyone had finally run out of gas or out of ideas.
 

 

But don’t let it’s comparatively weak conclusion deter you from the rest of the performance spread over a side and a half which gives you a concentrated dose of simple, direct and unpretentious rock ‘n’ roll.

Though everything about Still Gone might’ve been questionable on paper, giving you the sense that they were grasping at straws once they’d been knocked from their lofty perch atop the rock instrumental tree, this shows that they were more than capable of staying competitive even as the ground began to shift under their feet.

This might indeed be the last water they could expect to draw from this particular well but far from being someone who merely lucked into a string of hits without quite knowing how, Sonny Thompson certainly DID know how and why it had all worked in the first place and also had a pretty good idea of what else might work to extend that run.

In that way while Long Gone was certainly the better record, especially taken within the context of the period it was released, Still Gone was more than enough to be a hit in its own right a year down the road and more importantly perhaps was validation that Sonny Thompson had earned every bit of his acclaim.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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