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ATLANTIC 909; APRIL 1950

 
 

 

When you think of the term “hard-rock” what probably springs to mind first is a bunch of white British guitarists from the late 1960’s, steeped in blues but raised on rock, who brought a much louder and more aggressive style to the music which found favor with mostly young male fans who gravitated towards the macho image these artists projected through the music that they played.

It’s a style that has never really waned since then and while its mainstream popularity on the charts may ebb and flow at times, there’s always a need for each generation to find a way to deal with their own insecurities and look to surrogates in music to emulate.

But what most didn’t realize was that the roots of hard rock began almost at the dawn of rock itself, although maybe not surprisingly it might have just been too much for audiences of 1950 to handle.
 

 

Breakin’ Up Their Happy Home
It’s pretty well established that the aforementioned hard rock scene which really took hold in the late 1960’s and has been a consistent presence in guitar-based rock ever since was heavily indebted to the blues. Eric Clapton with Cream was among the first to explore this marriage of styles and Led Zeppelin arguably perfected it a few years later. But neither of them pioneered it entirely because they were mere kids when Stick McGhee cut Venus Blues, a song which at least starts laying the foundations of the style in 1950.

Now before anyone gets carried away thinking this is either a revelatory discovery or a massive reach, keep in mind that like all creative advances there are steps along the way to the finished recognizable product and this record is merely the first of many steps, not something that magically winds up in the same land that future explorers would claim for themselves.

But all journeys have to begin with that tentative first step and the throbbing electric guitar of Brownie McGhee behind his brother on this uptempo romp is demonstrably different than most rock records which preceded it, giving this a menacing swagger that compares favorably to such indelible future tracks as Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild, Deep Purple’s Kentucky Woman, Led Zeppelin’s Good Times Bad Times and the buzzing vibe of Spirit’s I Got A Line On You.

Of course it’s far more primitive sounding, not to mention much more visibly connected to the blues, but that makes sense since Brownie WAS a blues artist himself and since later hard-rock acts were blues devotees you get a better idea of what it was that they found so appealing and expanded on down the road.

Most importantly though after rock’s early narrative has been dominated by its musical connection to small combo jazz thanks to the professional backgrounds of the majority of its musicians, we now get a sense of how blues finally began to slowly work itself into the fabric of rock ‘n’ roll, thereby expanding the palette for all who followed.
 


 

Gotta Shape To Stop Traffic
The McGhee brothers wound up heading down much different avenues even though both made their living as musicians. Brownie had established himself first as a pure blues act and so it was only natural that when Stick emerged from the Army he’d take up the same profession and hope to match his brother’s success.

But younger siblings often resist following too closely in their older brothers footsteps and so Stick gravitated towards a more modern and slightly more urbane style than Brownie was succeeding in and… well, you know the rest of the story as in 1947 Stick cut a song he learned in the service and then two years later, having not recorded since, he was told that record was taking off in New Orleans. Atlantic Records tracked him down through Brownie and the two of them went in and re-cut Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee and scored a #2 national hit with the new improved model.

Brownie, who was under contract elsewhere, became almost Atlantic’s lucky penny, not only sitting in with Stick on all his sessions, playing guitar and contributing backing vocals, but he also cut lead vocals under an alias on Tee-Nah-Nah, a record by pianist Vann Walls last month. Though this was a deceptive practice by everyone involved, considering how record companies paid out royalties to their artists only under extreme duress it’s understandable that Brownie would gladly accept cash to cut sides for Atlantic, especially if it could help his little brother out.

Arguably he never helped him more than on Venus Blues where his presence adds molten fire to an already smoldering mix.

Brownie’s guitar (although truthfully it could be Stick himself, since they were the two credited guitarists and somebody takes a later solo while the rhythm guitar never lets up) is harsh and droning, yet still melodic, laying down the chugging rhythm that reminds you almost of a wild animal bearing its teeth, not wanting to be forced use them but rather trying to inform you that it would be foolish to come any closer.

That ominous attitude, though not spelled out in the lyrics, are the primary identifying feature of the song and something that would work its way through guitar rock over the years – first through Bo Diddley followed by Link Wray in the 1950’s and then on to the mid-1960’s British groups like The Kinks and The Who – until we come to a gelling of the style and a new term for it by the latter half of that decade.

And lest there be any doubt, it’s a really GOOD sound that McGhee displays here, utterly hypnotic in its effect. One person you can tell listened closely to it was Ike Turner as the riff is almost identical to the famous one that Willie Kizart plays on Rocket 88 only this is actually more prominently featured as well as more aggressive.

All told that’s a whole helluva lot of threads coming from this song and we haven’t even talked much about the featured artist himself, Stick, who turns in a stellar lead vocal in his own right.
 

If You Just Stop And Listen I’ll Make You Feel So Fine
In the usual shallow re-tellings of the Granville “Stick” McGhee story you rarely, if ever, see mention of just how good of a singer he is.

He’s not a smooth vocalist with a sweet pretty voice by any means but he’s got a really firm grasp on technique, something that may be overlooked by casual listeners who are thrown by his deeper slightly rough-edged tone. Yet on everything he sang he was in full command of both melody and rhythm, exuding confidence and sly charm throughout Venus Blues which rivals anything he did… yes, even THAT one.

Though the story outline is standard issue for exploring rock ‘n’ roll lust the lyrics McGhee uses are clever, witty and colorful in their descriptions of the mundane. Rather than simply imply how attractive this girl who’s caught his eye is to him, something which probably goes without saying since he’s singing an ode to her in the streets, Stick crafts examples that are purposefully exaggerated yet entirely believable because you know that’s how HE sees her – this perfect beauty whom he’s gone so far as to dub “Venus”, after the Goddess Of Love, hoping beyond hope that something he says might actually get her to look his way.

Some of the lines might do just that too… not that they’re going to impress her with his flattery, but rather with his wordplay. If she’s a connoisseur of such things it might be hard to resist hearing him saying that she’s so beautiful her eyes alone can change the traffic lights from red to green, or comparing the way her hips sway with a “man who’s been drinking wine”.

Tell me you couldn’t see her trying to fight back a smile as he tries getting her attention with these outlandish compliments.

Yet throughout all of this he remains respectful of her, at least as much as you can be while hitting on a total stranger on a public thoroughfare in broad daylight. At the end of his pitch he tells her she doesn’t have to acknowledge him but confesses that he simply had to speak to her after watching her day after day.

It’s such a winning performance by McGhee, totally immersing himself in the role and adding that genial spirit to take the edge off the fact that in certain circumstances he might be seen as a stalker, you can’t help but be captivated by him. Throw in that mesmerizing omnipresent guitar, a biting solo on the lead which goes on much longer than expected and never wears out its welcome, PLUS a second soloing spot later on for the saxophone which more than holds up its end of the bargain with a winding riff that never steps wrong, and there’s not a single element of this that falls short of your highest expectations.
 

Feel Like A Million Dollars
There’s no way to be sure that had this come out immediately after it was cut last October, just at the point where McGhee’s Drinkin’ Wine finally fell off the national charts after nearly six months as a best seller, if it would’ve been met with the same success as his immortal record but you’d certainly like to think so.

Venus Blues captures everything that made rock ‘n’ roll so electrifying at the time and then adds something new to the mix that serves as a portend into the future.

Atlantic dragged its feet on releasing this however and when it finally came out its failure to match his earlier success probably pushed Stick McGhee a little further down their depth charts as well as curtailing any thought of further pursuing this sonically aggressive sound down the road. Sooner or later someone else was bound to do so themselves of course, but McGhee was there first even though he typically gets no credit for putting into place the sketchy early blueprint for others to follow.

Overlooked then, overlooked since, but as good of a record as you can find, whether your primary interest in rock are the cutting edge sounds of 1950 or a slightly later manifestation of this approach from twenty years down the line.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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