OLD SWING MASTER 1011; DECEMBER 1949

 
 

 

If you’ve been rapturously following this whole story from the start, memorizing artists and labels, producers and session musicians like you were cramming for an exam, then one look at today’s eminently familiar name paired with a decidedly unfamiliar label would surely catch your eye.

If you’ve done some extracurricular studying on your own outside of our little classroom here you probably know that at a point in the near future Sonny Thompson will wind up on mighty King Records and so the sight of him recording for some obscure label that most have never heard of is decidedly unexpected.

But as always there’s a story behind it, one that ties together the first part of Thompson’s career with the second part… call it an interlude if you want… but which also has the added bonus of providing a look at how tenuous a profession the record business actually was, even for those who’d scored plenty of hits.
 

 

Something’s Fishy
When session pianist Sonny Thompson had emerged from the shadows at Miracle Records in 1948 and given the label two #1 hits including single biggest smash of that year in Long Gone, the company seemed poised to lead the charge of the independent record biz that would soon exert an ever-greater presence over all music in the 1950’s.

But it didn’t turn out that way as we all know, for in the months after that record and its follow-up Late Freight ruled the charts, Miracle Records had been asleep at the wheel, choosing to strictly adhere to the musician’s union edict and not cut new songs during the year long recording ban forcing them to rely on increasingly old and outdated material to tide them over in the marketplace while also not using their success to recruit new artists to bolster their roster and find new hit sounds.

Lastly and most significantly they were financially reckless and extended their credit well beyond their means and so by the last month of 1949 these long overdue bills with recording studios and pressing plants finally caught up to them.

With few other options at their disposal short of declaring bankruptcy the company had only one means with which to settle their mounting debts… by pawning off their most notable assets, the very records they’d made themselves, something which marked the beginning of the end for a label which had been so prosperous just a year earlier.
 

Getting A Nibble
Old Swing Master was owned by a guy named Egmont Sonderling, a German immigrant who also owned the the studio that Miracle’s Lee Egalnick was in debt to which led to these deals.

Sonderling had experience in this type of negotiation as it was the end of Vitacoustic Records in 1948 that actually led to the formation of Old Swing Master in the first place. When that label had gone under while in debt to Sonderling he had in his possession some of their unreleased masters and refused to part with them since he figured that was his only means of earning back some of the nearly fifteen grand Vitacoustic owed him.

As a result Sonderling started Old Swing Master in early 1949 simply to try and recoup some of those losses, naming the label after the popular moniker of Chicago’s top disc jockey Al Benson hoping that might boost sales locally. It didn’t work of course, the company had nothing much of value in those sides and despite owning a studio he had absolutely no interest in recording new material to issue alongside of it, choosing instead to pick up scraps from other troubled or bankrupt labels as his entire output.

Which of course is how he got a his hands on a couple of Miracle sides, one each from their two biggest stars, Memphis Slim, the bluesman, and Sonny Thompson, the rocker. The handwriting was on the wall for Egalnick, but maybe he figured that if these sides sold well enough it’d help Miracle in the long run by renewing interest in the commercially slumping Thompson without the need of Miracle having to press, distribute and promote the record themselves.

There was little chance of that however because Old Swing Master wasn’t going to be doing any heavy lifting on these records either particularly since Thompson’s two-part instrumental The Fish wasn’t some buried treasure pulled out of the ocean depths, but rather more like finding a dead mackerel that had already been laying in the sun for six hours.

In other words, no matter how hungry you were it wasn’t really worth pulling this onto the boat, into the frying pan and onto your dinner plate.
 

Low Tide
Thompson, as we’ve said before, was a guy who found himself in rock ‘n’ roll largely by chance, as he’d been a more “serious” musician, a pianist raised on Art Tatum who got studio work as a sessionist on some killer proto-rock sides by saxophonist Dick Davis – Screaming Boogie – that hipped him to the emerging sounds. In the fall of 1947 while backing a succession of deaf, dumb and blind artists Miracle had Thompson cut a few instrumentals of his own to help tide them over during the upcoming recording ban that was due to start at the close of the year.

You know the rest of the story, those sides became huge hits and set Thompson off into a totally different musical direction than the one he’d seemed most likely to pursue prior to all of this.

The Fish isn’t quite a reversion to his earlier pre-rock mindset but at times it comes close to handing back many of the stylistic advances they’d embraced and helped to define over the preceding year.

Part One kicks off with too many horns playing in a disturbingly refined manner to draw our interest. Their combined efforts are pretty far removed from rock but what drags it back into the outskirts of the genre is the tenor sax lead which comes into the picture blowing a tougher sounding part, one full of relaxed swagger that gives this a comfortable vibe for rock fans to latch onto.

That, along with Thompson’s own rhythmic playing on the keys, are the primary selling points of the first minute of the record but because they have to compete with the full horn brigade acting like it’s 1946 you tend to have split loyalties. The tenor, if taken in isolation, is hardly the equal of most of what we’ve heard in rock this past year or two, but compared to the other horns it stands out nicely.

This up and down pattern of the record continues when we get a surprisingly good guitar interlude that DOES in fact sound completely up to date, if not even a little ahead of its time, but just as you’re really getting into that here come those blasted horns again, all 72 of them playing in unison to drag you back down again. Thankfully the tenor returns for some more spirited soloing before Thompson gets a spotlight for himself, but then he double crosses you by easing up too much on his playing which probably should’ve been expected on a song that has been following such a hot and cold progression for the entire first side.
 


 

Second Helpings
Two months after cutting that piece back in April 1949 Thompson returned to the studio in June and laid down what would ultimately be labeled Part Two, but whether they had any idea going into the session that they were continuing what they’d done back at Easter is highly doubtful.

For starters while there is a similar pacing to both sides of The Fish, these are not quite the same species, a fresh water fish rather than one from the ocean.

This side also opens with Thompson’s piano which is playing a stuttering lead-in, but the horns that follow sound more condensed, repeating the same basic riff without trying to exude class… even though they also aren’t looking to convince you they’re complete degenerates which would’ve made for a more intriguing approach.

Because the horns seem to have tightened their focus that means someone ELSE has to be the one to slip up and here it’s Thompson himself who gets a solo that not only goes on far too long but in which he plays with a jazzy incongruence throughout, forsaking melody for the jarring dissonance of an aspiring bop musician. Needless to say it fails to make much of an impression in rock circles and so it’s once again left to the tenor sax to pull things together down the stretch.

This part actually has the best “sound” to be found on either side of the record, as the sax has the right tone and texture to be convincing as a rocker even if the notes chosen are not quite aggressive enough to turn the tide completely.

It’s not bad by any means though, serviceable at any rate, and when Thompson comes back lending more appropriate support for a change the record seems to find its overall focus at last, but when taken together there’s nothing altogether special about any of it. Too inconsistent and lacking anything truly compelling to be noticed swimming by this was something you’d be tempted to throw back if you happened to reel it in.
 

Off The Hook
Though these were hardly intended to be an immaterial segment of Thompson’s career when the two sides were cut that’s essentially what they wound up being once Miracle used them as a last ditch bargaining chip in an attempt to stave off the inevitable a little longer.

Nobody was under any illusions here, The Fish was hardly going to be much of a loss for Miracle, nor a potential goldmine for Old Swing Master who probably just figured that a two part record by Thompson, just 15 months removed from his second #1 hit in the span of a year, was slightly more valuable than trying to collect thirty cents on the dollar in bankruptcy court from an unrepentant welsher.

Or to put it another way, some frozen seafood from last spring might at least provide a reasonably filling meal whereas an an empty shopping cart would mean you’d starve.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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