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LONDON 978; MARCH 1951



Something about this release doesn’t look right, does it?

Assuming you’ve been following along closely to the proceedings in rock ‘n’ roll that is.

For one thing the name is slightly different, there’s an “s” on the end of his first name that was never there before and then there’s the fact the record label is different, a blue London American imprint rather than the red and black Atlantic discs we’re used to seeing when we come across Stick McGhee.

Now normally such a move from one company to another, while notable, is not cause for much mystery, it’s nothing more than an artist signing with a new label once their contract is up.

But those key words – once their contract is up – have to be present for such moves to pass legal muster and it turns out in this case that Stick McGhee was still in the midst of a multi-year Atlantic pact, making this something that his regular employers were bound to be a little peeved about.

Palace intrigue at its finest.


You Have To Pay For What You Get
Usually when it comes to any kind of dispute between an artist and a record label we’d take the side of the artist, insurrectionists that we are.

Record companies of the day signed artists to contracts that they, the label owners, viewed as merely a series of unenforceable enticements to get them in their grasp. Songwriting royalties were rarely paid, publishing concerns were eradicated by having the company retain control of those, all while the label charged the artist with all of the costs of the recording sessions, which is kind of like charging automobile assembly line workers with the cost of the steel, rubber and electrical systems for the cars they put together and deducting that from their salary.

Record companies were no better than a legalized criminal cartel when it came to their dealings with their creative talent and when pressed on these issues those in positions of power, such as Atlantic’s office manager Miriam Abramson, spent decades railing against the “ungrateful” acts who had the audacity to ask to be paid what they legally had coming to them.

So yeah, fuck them all.

But you can only take the high road in these disputes if you, the artist, actually fulfill your OWN end of the deal, even when knowing the other side is doing no such thing, and that’s where Stick McGhee falls short in this instance.

He’d signed with Atlantic, gotten two hits on the label – arguably should’ve gotten more if the company had been more astute in the previous couple of years – but his deal was not yet up when he told representatives from London Records that he was free to sign with them and went in to a cut a session which produced the swaggering You Gotta Have Something On The Ball.

London had no reason to suspect anything was astray and took him at his word and other than adding an “s” to his first name (or nickname which was a singular Stick, as he got it for using one to push his brother’s wagon as a kid) made no attempt to try and hide the fact they were releasing his latest sides… which is when the trouble started.

What Kind Of Car You Going To Drive This Year?
With lightly pounding piano, riffing horns and intermittent guitar notes slashing through the din this is a catchy mid-tempo rocker that features all of the usual suspects when it comes to McGhee’s recording sessions.

His brother Brownie is playing second guitar, Harry Van Walls is on piano and with a strong rhythm section and tenor sax, courtesy of Albert King (a different one than who you’re thinking), this is more or less an Atlantic session cut under different producers for a different label, though probably at the same studio.

All of which means if you liked Stick McGhee’s work for his full time company, there’s no reason not to like You Gotta Have Something On The Ball no matter what the name on the record label was.

The lyrics in this are clever without trying to be funny, they’re more like a series of random observations set to music, some insightful, some amusing, some questioning a person’s motivations and others resigned to the inescapable realities of the world, but all of it pretty solid advice about navigating life day to day and the need to be sharp in your dealings so as not to fall behind those around you.

Maybe that’s why he jumped labels, he was just trying to get ahead by any means necessary.

The verses are semi-spoken, though with a rhythmic bounce to them which makes it musical enough to fit in the song yet distinctive enough to convey the message better than if it were sung straight.

The chorus on the other hand rides a fairly melodic wave that’s being sung in normal fashion, although in letting his voice go it takes on the appearance of shouting at times, as if the microphones at a club weren’t working and he had to raise his voice to be heard over the crowd.

I Punch A Clock Every Morning, Still Have Time To Play
While McGhee is exhorting the listener with opinions based on his experience and world view, the band is pushing him with their throbbing musical backdrop which seems to be non-distinctive at a glance – the instruments churning along behind him with little room for embellishment – but their precision alone makes this a cut above the standard arrangement no matter how direct it may be.

Van Walls’s piano dominates the choruses, his left hand hammering away to drive the message home while his right hand swoops across the keyboard to find little patterns to keep it interesting.

During the verses the piano eases back to allow the horns to have more of a say, their pulsing riff is right in your ear, rising and falling with a steady rhythm that lends more musical heft to McGhee’s delivery. Meanwhile the guitar, whether his own or Brownie’s, comes out to join the fun during the sax solo which is the musical highlight, as King comes across as rough and gritty while the guitar’s responses in the background add to the slightly dirty feel the track is taking on.

Later on the guitar gets a solo of its own, though it’s got a different tone and is not quite as forceful as the grace notes the guitar was providing for the horn, meaning it could be a different McGhee handling those two chores.

The structure of You Gotta Have Something On The Ball may be fairly simple – though more aggressive sounding than most songs of this nature – but it produces a reliable effect, getting you in a groove that lasts from the moment the needle drops until the record fades three minutes later and that’s the main takeaway… they know their job is to get you moving and they don’t let their eyes stray from that goal.


Things Don’t Go That Way At All
Naturally Atlantic Records protested their artist – who had a rising hit on their label at the time in the instrumental Tennessee Waltz Blues – moonlighting for a competitor and when they produced the valid paperwork on McGhee’s contract there were few options for the illicit company to take.

They could pull the record off the market altogether, swallow the recording, pressing, printing and distributing costs and go back overseas with their tails between their legs or maybe they could sell the masters to Atlantic and cover those costs, letting Atlantic issue the record on their own if they so chose.

But London was still hoping to get some name recognition in the black community they’d been astute enough to target and neither of those avenues would help their cause. So they worked out a deal which would let London continue to issue You Gotta Have Something On The Ball while giving Atlantic their standard royalty rate for the copies sold, meaning Atlantic took no risk and got rewarded if it was successful, while London mostly got screwed unless it was a hit and helped to establish their label.

That was of course a long shot. Not only was their distribution and promotion in the black community limited, but even should it succeed they’d have no way to follow it up unless they cut a standard four song session (though no other two songs have emerged to confirm it) and then cut a separate deal, probably with even greater financial inducement for Atlantic, to release the other sides.

So as a result of this sordid behind the scenes drama London had no motivation to pour even more money into it and really push the record hard which meant it failed to draw much notice outside the legal columns in the trade papers.

All of which is a shame because while it’s hardly breaking any new ground for McGhee it’s still a good record and better than a lot of what London Records had put out to date and probably deserved a slightly better fate than being merely an historical footnote in a court case.


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