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With his distinctive voice, a vibrant guitar in the middle of a crack studio band and with a major hit on his résumé, Stick McGhee should’ve been a more consistently viable star on the rock scene than he was.

But that’s unfair to audiences who can make up their own minds as to who to like and follow and for whatever reason they just didn’t connect with what McGhee was putting out, despite its overall quality.

Sometimes though you have to agree with the masses to let something pass you by, such as this song – an idea taken from someone else which features a better backing track than lead performance from its star.


Old And The Young
Before anyone jumps to the wrong conclusion and think this record is in for a complete panning, it’s not. This is still “pretty good”, but pretty good is not good enough to reverse Stick McGhee’s fortunes and get him back on top.

It’s been nearly two full years since he broke through with his first Atlantic release, Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee, and it’s more than clear that he will never again be able to live up to that in the eyes of the public.

Atlantic has tried unsuccessfully to have him more or less replicate that last year with the surprisingly good Drank Up All The Wine Last Night, but still found no takers even though it was not simply a re-worked version of his big hit as you would expect from the shallow record industry.

Here they turn their attention to borrowing from somebody else, Amos Milburn’s Chicken Shack Boogie, a mega-hit in its own right but one even further in the past than McGhee’s smash.

The problem isn’t that Milburn’s basic formula isn’t still potent… in fact it’s remarkably durable, more so than most great songs we’ve covered… but rather the issue is that McGhee isn’t improving on it in any way and when it comes to the lyrics which at least should be able to set it apart from its origins, you find that Housewarmin’ Boogie leaves you scratching your head more than smiling and nodding along at the scene he depicts.

In other words, this is a song you might have some fun with on the bandstand at the end of the night, making up the story as you go along, but as a record to revive your prospects it never had any chance to turn things around for him.


If You Act Alright
Though there are some notable differences from Milburn’s three year old hit – namely the fact that this one has a snarling electric guitar as its most prominent supporting instrument in place of horns (though both feature pianos as a driving force – the rest of the song, structurally anyway, is pretty blatant about its source.

From the pace to the lyrical cadences, Housewarmin’ Boogie is a cut and paste job that manages to cover its tracks merely by utilizing the different textures of that guitar and McGhee’s voice which are unique enough to draw your attention to them rather than the underlying mechanics of the song itself.

But if you’re going to do that the least you can do is give yourself a better chance to avoid letting down those people you distracted with those different tones with such weak lyrics.

Let’s start with the fact that “mellow” and “cellar” don’t rhyme. I suppose it’s closer than mellow and rumpus room or mellow and attic, but if this is your verbal hook for the entire song, you’re in trouble.

Furthermore, having been to a few basement parties I can tell you they suck. No air and no room to move, they’re claustrophobic crypts with just one way out. You’d be better off partying in the middle of a two lane highway.

But more than that is the fact that McGhee doesn’t sound as if HE’S having much fun telling us about this joint and if he isn’t then what incentive is there for us to roll up and join them? There are some colorful names he’s throwing around to draw our attention but that’s the only reason they’re forced into the narrative because these characters sure aren’t being asked to add anything notable to the festivities.

During all of this McGhee’s voice itself remains appealing with his slightly metallic tone but because of the deliberate pace he’s never able to really sell the enthusiasm he’s trying to show which means that the best part of the record – the backing musicians – are stuck in second gear for the majority of the song when what they really should be doing is blowing those cellar doors off so we can pour into the night air and howl at the moon.

Some Is Hollerin’ Hold ‘Em
Though purely from a technical standpoint we can’t say this isn’t a boogie, let’s at least concede that it’s a boogie at three quarters speed which is more like a grind.

Harry Van Walls’s piano is handling the bulk of the action musically here and he sounds fine but because the arrangement keeps the brakes on he’s playing without the vibrant energy needed to get our hearts racing for this kind of all night bash.

He gets a couple of shout-outs too from Stick and that’s when you expect him to start pounding away like a mad man, but even then he keeps things mostly under control… his playing is spry rather the vigorous in the first break and you can boil this down to their desire to keep their distance from Milburn so as not to draw any lawsuits for aping the entire record front to back.

The second solo he picks things up but is mostly hammering away on the treble keys which doesn’t do anything accelerate the boogie aspect of Housewarmin’ Boogie. It’s obviously solid musicianship, Van Walls was one of the best in the business after all, but when you’re anticipating something more explosive based on the concept of the record that they themselves are trying to sell you, then when they fail to deliver that you tend to notice.

Maybe if they’d called this “Housewarmin’ Blues” instead it’d have adjusted your thinking some but as long as they were still reviving another song in the process it might not have mattered.

The one change that DOES matter though is Stick’s guitar work which is hardly fast-paced either but still possesses an almost feral edge to it which makes it stand out in this era. For once he’s not joined by brother Brownie so we know which McGhee is playing and while the track is fairly sparse – just drums and bass along with the two leads – the constant lurking presence of McGhee’s axe gives this a very ominous tone which helps keep you focused more on that than what the guy holding it is saying.

Even so it still doesn’t fully win you back over.


Go To Waste
It should be clear listening to these guys that if you have two really skilled musicians and one of them is just as strong of a singer to boot that what you need is original material to show their strengths off, not a reconstituted song that has already been fully absorbed by the masses over time and doesn’t need a slightly altered – and inferior – take on it.

Maybe without that lurking in the back of your mind Housewarmin’ Boogie would come across a little better – and for all the nitpicking nothing about it is really bad – but even without something to compare it to the lyrics and the delivery are both compromised from the start.

What sounds good here – the guitar, the vibe McGhee’s voice gives off, the overall mood at times – is enough that you won’t be asking for a refund but it’s not the kind of thing that is going to have you anxious for the next record he puts out. You only get so many chances after all and it’s always better to stand or fall on your own ideas rather than appropriating somebody else’s.

Still, as misses go, this sounds better than a lot of them… but it’d sound a lot better if Amos Milburn hadn’t done it first and hadn’t done it best.


(Visit the Artist page of Stick McGhee for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)