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COLUMBIA 30220; AUGUST 1950

 
 

 

When assessing the greatest females performers in rock history there’s generally a pretty quickly agreed upon consensus of names… Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Beyoncé, The Supremes, Ruth Brown, Janet Jackson, Rihanna… whose credentials as artists are unassailable and would make anybody’s Top Ten list.

Today’s artist however would hardly be a sure bet to make the cut even if you expanded the list to an all-time Top Fifty, at least when it came to widespread public perception.

But when factoring in their total contributions to rock – not just as a singer, but as a songwriter, guitarist, producer and record label owner – and weighing the impact of all of those roles, then it’s far more likely that Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson would be one of the handful residing near the top of the list… and let me be the first to say quite possibly even vying to hold down the number one spot when all is said and done.

This record cut alongside a jazz great on a pop label is where she got started as a mere fifteen year old girl.
 

 

Young And Tender
The more you really look at the career of the woman born Sylvia Vanterpool in 1935, the more astonishing it is. For years she was known primarily for being one half of the popular 1950’s duo Mickey & Sylvia, making her one of the rare females in rock who played guitar at the time, while those from a more recent vintage know her as the Mother Of Hip-Hop for founding Sugarhill Records and producing the label’s groundbreaking hits in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

That each of those accomplishments were utterly unique in addition to being profoundly successful and influential makes her story all the more compelling, but she was no stranger to breaking ground as she was also one of the first female producers in rock in the 1960’s between those two more well known high points.

With such a hefty résumé it’s probably not surprising that she got an early start when weeks after turning 15 years old she launched her career on Columbia Records, a major label which took a very dim view of rock ‘n’ roll, of black audiences tastes and of younger listeners in general. Yet somehow Sylvia managed to get signed to the company without being marginalized in the process by being turned into a pure pop singing waif or treated as an underaged novelty act as you’d expect from such a label.

Another who had gotten started at a young age, albeit in another style of music that was just as monumental for its day as rock was for the current scene, was Oran “Hot Lips” Page, who while still a teenager in the mid-1920’s made a name for himself playing in a series of jazz combos before breaking onto the national scene just past his twentieth birthday. A few years later he joined Bennie Moten’s acclaimed band in Kansas City where he drew raves for his playing and moved to New York to start his career as a bandleader rather than a sideman.

Though inescapably in the shadow of Louis Armstrong for the simple fact both were trumpeters with gravelly singing voices, Page was considered one of the best in the business and unlike Satchmo who by the late 1940’s was a national institution and thus could cross into pop circles outside of jazz, Page’s option for branching out was to head towards rock ‘n’ roll, something he’d done already by playing on the first #1 rock hit, Wynonie Harris’s Good Rockin’ Tonight as 1948 dawned.

Though he’d never do more than dabble in rock, he didn’t completely forsake it either and while his own croaking vocals and long history as a jazzman precluded him from ever being embraced by the rock audience, he was astute enough to find someone in Sylvia Vanterpool who with Pacifying Blues might make such a transition a little more feasible.

The age difference was considerable, made all the more obvious by Page’s weather-beaten squawk, but Vanterpool sounded far older than her years which makes this a rather strange – but enticing – meeting of past and future.
 


 
 

I May Be Just A Spring Chicken
The lyrics play up this dichotomy between the two leads as Sylvia is stating her intent to conquer the world – or at least the men in her local orbit – while Page cautions her to slow down and enjoy her youth and not grow up too quickly.

It’s a simple message but each of them is entirely convincing in their roles which mimic their real life positions. Vanterpool was already moving into the adult recording world before she was old enough to drive while Page had seen and done everything by now and knew how precious those fleeting moments of innocence really were and why you shouldn’t be in a rush to give them up for something that will happen in due time anyway.

But it’s the way in which they deliver all of this which takes Pacifying Blues well beyond just a well-meaning life lesson, their personalities constantly being highlighted as she purrs and he growls giving this plenty of character.

Following the extended instrumental break things really heat up and she makes no bones about what she’s after to prove her impending womanhood to the world and though Hot Lips is frantically backpedaling to avoid a statutory rape charge, he might be over-matched in the face of such single-minded determination.

Though it never gets to what happens after she has him cornered (thankfully some might say) this is still pretty racy stuff for Columbia Records of all labels to be releasing, a company currently pushing such platters as Frankie Yerkovich’s Beer Barrel Polka and Sammy Kaye’s Harbor Lights… hardly the most scandalous material in the book.

While this one may not be violating any blue laws currently being enforced, it’s not exactly hiding its intent either and presumably they felt that Page’s sturdy reputation and the fact this wasn’t being pushed towards the company’s usual pop constituency was enough to make it permissible. But surely even they were hoping those who did manage to find the record would focus less on the particulars of the plot and more on the music which provides plenty of action of its own.
 

Find A Man That’s Your Equal
Though the up and coming rock vocalist certainly holds her own and then some with the grizzled jazz vet, where she’s got plenty of backup is in the band which is a curious mixture of seasoned jazz cats like the bandleader Nelson Clark, a drummer from the swing era, trombonist Henderson Chambers who played with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Ray Charles over the years but was primarily a jazz musician, and of course Page himself on trumpet, all being augmented by the cream of the New York rock session aces led by pianist Harry Van Walls and guitarist René Hall.

But the real star undoubtedly is saxophonist Seldon Powell who was moonlighting from Lucky Millinder’s group on this session and laying down some scalding solos on Pacifying Blues which leave no doubt as to who this one was aimed at.

The opening horn flourish is straight from the early 1940’s but Hall’s guitar accent notes coming in midway through update the sound and if the backing behind Sylvia’s early vocals is rather subdued both Van Walls and Hall are making sure it doesn’t step too far into the past.

When the singing stops the playing really starts with Powell’s tenor screeching like a cat whose tail was caught in a door then dropping back down to something more slinky and sultry before handing off to Page who gets some deep sounds from his own horn that sounds suspiciously like another sax (Buddy Lucas, a sax player, wrote this – and much of Sylvia’s early work – so who knows if he sat in uncredited).

Whatever the source of it though the midsection of the record is a fully modern sound, one that shows how the teenager at its center was shaping the decisions of the elders in the room to good effect. Rather than force her to adjust to them, they’re the ones beholden to her which I guess shows that the power Sylvia Vanterpool was looking to acquire through other more questionable means, was actually within her grasp the entire time.
 

Take Your Time There’s Lots To Come
Whether that’s quite enough to vault this into the upper echelon of rock records for 1950 is another matter altogether and truth be told even though Sylvia is all kinds of good in her debut you probably wouldn’t have predicted she’d be a star in due course, let alone accomplish all she did along the way.

But for a girl who just turned fifteen a few weeks before recording Pacifying Blues there’s plenty of evidence that she was overflowing with a natural talent, not just a good voice but more importantly the intuitive knowledge of how to use it to project an image that had to be – we hope – a fair ways away from her real life persona at this stage of the game.

It may go down in the history books as merely an early curio, but considering how much history Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson would go on to create, that’d make it worthwhile enough to check out for that reason alone. That it also surpasses your expectations in the process makes it all the better.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Sylvia Vanderpool for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)