SAVOY 857; AUGUST 1952



It’s nearing eleven o’clock on a Friday night sometime in the early 1950’s. You’re in some musty old gymnasium and the watchful eyes of teachers who were conned into chaperone duty are no longer sharp and alert as it’s been a long night for them too.

The school dance is close to wrapping up after four hours, but your fun is just beginning.

Like most high school students worth their reputation you have no intention of going home any time soon. You have car, or your buddy does, you have a bottle, maybe some weed, and some girls who you’ve been alternately flirting and dancing with all night who are up for anything.

For those couples grinding together on the hardwood floor under cheap paper streamers and dim colored lights during one last song before they turn you out into the streets, the night is still young and it’s a long way to go until morning greets you.

So take your time, have your fun… it won’t last forever.


Once Bitten
There are songs that are destined to be hits the first time you hear them. Big names, rousing vocals, catchy riffs and great lyrical hooks that demand to be sung along to.

Years later – decades after the fact – those songs need no introduction. For those who lived through them, whose most cherished coming of age memories are intrinsically tied to those songs, they’re epic monuments, losing none of their magic as time wears on.

They’re so enduring in fact that even those who weren’t around at the time and came of age well after that sound had faded from prominence know the songs in question and are captivated by their spell as if they too had been around when the songs first hit the streets.

Then there are the records that weren’t huge hits, done by artists without much of a reputation, maybe even those who might not have been modestly known at the time by anyone outside of a few fanatical rock fans. Someone like T. J. Fowler, a pianist who had made more appearances as an uncredited sideman than as an infrequent standalone artist in his own right.

His second release for Savoy, Back Biter, wasn’t even tabbed as the A-side when it came out. There’s no raucous solos to grab your attention and thus it is content to be merely background music for activities which from the outside looking in seem to be of little importance.

But the overall feel of it, the combination of instruments and the purposeful groove they create (and maybe the kind of thing you’re doing while it plays), are so emblematic of the time period and the attitude of those who were captivated by the slightly dangerous aura rock ‘n’ roll provided, that the song seems to represent that time in life perfectly.

Maybe the record itself still isn’t memorable enough unto itself to be recalled by name, but it still exists as a living breathing example of the sound that was everywhere as you came of age, creating the very atmosphere of the era in question.

It may just be emblematic background music for a certain bygone period, but if those moments encompassed some of the most important ones of your life it’s hard to see how that overall sound could be anything but intoxicating.

Call this generic at your peril. “Generic” denotes an uninventive – almost lazy – approach to music making. Something which takes certain common traits popular at the time and cuts and pastes them together to form a record whose only real hope is to be familiar enough to seem appropriate for the market without doing more to actually earn your interest.

But this record, while it undoubtedly draws heavily from the dominant styles of the past year, is expertly constructed with each component not simply being a run-of-the-mill riff or rhythm, but one worked out precisely to fit into each of the remaining elements to form something new.

Granted, none of the individual parts – from the overall melody to specific licks – is startling you with its components, but if you were to try and formulate a song that was more or less representative of rock ‘n’ roll of this era it’d sound a lot like Back Biter.

For starters you have the saxophone displaying its range on a curly-cue intro before giving way to piano and drums that set – and hold – a simple infectious rhythm so that when the sax comes back in, now sticking with an ideal tone in the tenor’s mid-range on a gently swaying melodic groove, you can’t help but bob your head and shoulders in time to the music.

Behind the leads you have the supporting cast all contributing small but effective parts of their own to paint a fuller picture with vibrant splashes of color. From the hand-claps that echo the drums, slightly after the beat to give it a dash of funkiness, to the guitar fills that take full advantage of the instrument’s various sonic textures, some sounding plain and straightforward, others sounding as if they were receiving alien transmissions, everything is deftly utilized. Nothing might jump out and grab you, but when you focus on each element they all come across as perfectly realized musical ideas.

The music flows effortlessly into the mid-section where Fowler’s piano is not just plinking and plunking away indiscriminately but rather reinforcing the melody in a way that distances it aurally from the sax that preceded it. Calvin Fraizer’s muscular guitar licks which follow manage to retain their fluidity and lightness of touch despite the scalding tone he uses which sounds dropped in from the future.

The entire record is a few years ahead of its time in fact, ideally suited to such a wide array of nocturnal activities – cruising around the town looking for trouble, hanging out with your buddies getting into trouble, or making it with a girl which might wind up getting you into all sorts of trouble.

But hey, that’s rock ‘n’ roll’s middle name, isn’t it?


Bite Me!
Though it never made the national charts in Billboard this was actually a huge hit, albeit one spread out over time in various parts of the country where it was lodged on the regional Cash Box charts – still a more accurate reflection of rock audiences – for months on end, all the way into next year.

But it’s easy to see why it didn’t get a more concentrated commercial explosion as T. J. Fowler was hardly a recognizable name and Savoy Records over the past year wasn’t exactly burning up the charts with rock hits, which meant each area had to discover it via word of mouth, though once they did it was more than able to hold their attention.

Instrumental records in general may have fallen off commercially and Back Biter doesn’t have one indelible riff to overcome that obstacle, nor did it have a wild arrangement, but this shows how the need for atmospheric backdrops to the illicit goings-on that tend to form such a vital part of the rock audience’s lives remain very much in demand, despite the lack of official recognition these songs may tend to receive.

But if you want a record that seems to encapsulate an entire era, or a specific audience within an era… one which embodies not just their musical tastes in regards to rhythm, groove and instrumental flourishes, but one that also represents their attitude and mindset as they navigated that dark and mysterious road from youth to adulthood, this song very well might be the soundtrack of that journey.

As anyone who’s traveled that path can tell you, it’s one helluva ride and deserves to have a song this good setting the mood.


(Visit the Artist page of T.J. Fowler for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)