“There are three things that the average man thinks he can do better than anybody else… Build a fire, run a hotel and manage a baseball team”.

So said minor league manager Rocky Bridges long ago, and while he had a reputation for being something of a nut he was right in his assessment… most people when watching others fail at those three tasks say to themselves that they CAN do all of them better. Call it extreme confidence or egotistical delusion, the fact is human beings can analyze mistakes in others far better than than correct their own mistakes.

So in the spirit of egotistical delusion let me add one other occupation that any of us could have done better than those in charge and that’s owning a record label.

As proof I offer up Sensation Records which despite having plenty going for it in terms of an enviable location, solid artists and good timing somehow managed to run itself into the ground in only a few years time thanks to consistently shortsighted decisions.


Don’t Forget The Motor City
If you were looking to establish a successful independent record company with a focus on black artists and audiences after World War Two you’d be hard pressed to find a better city from which to do so than Detroit.

While New York certainly had a deeper talent pool to draw from it also had far more competition when it came to signing that talent, as seemingly half the record labels in existence were located in The Big Apple. Detroit on the other hand was wide open in the late 1940’s with musicians of all backgrounds finding plenty of work in a thriving club scene which catered to the vibrant African-American community that had grown exponentially over the past decade when so many had moved to the city to take advantage of the job opportunities at factories during World War Two.

As a result Detroit had all sorts of musical influences flowing through it, from the blues which had followed Southern migrants up from the Delta, to jazz which was still reigning supreme for much of black America in the decade, and of course like everywhere else you had the early stirrings of rock ‘n’ roll as ambitious musicians sought to carve out their own space in the expanding market to better reflect their new, more assertive, post-war cultural outlook.

When Sensation Records was launched in 1947 it was ideally situated to take advantage of all of this and yet they wound up throwing away their golden opportunity thanks to a lack of conviction in their own abilities.

Fearing their inexperience would do them in, they never looked to establish their own national distribution network, something that almost all start-up companies managed to do without too much trouble, and instead they made distribution deals with rival companies and then were left holding the bag when those they hoped would help them out instead helped themselves at the expense of Sensation’s best interests.

Northern Star
Rock pianist T. J. Fowler had signed with Sensation in 1948 but saw his initial releases, including the incendiary Red Hot Blues, leased to National Records. It didn’t do much commercially but artistically was another matter altogether and something that impressive certainly would’ve gone a long way to helping Sensation establish itself as a company to watch going forward if the record had come out on their distinctive yellow and red label.

Instead it’s likely nobody was even aware Fowler had anything to do with them, as he and his band had also appeared on Thirty-Five Thirty, the first national rock instrumental hit by Paul Williams on Savoy, which combined with his own National Records singles gives the appearance that Fowler was rather well-traveled. In truth he never left Detroit and had no intention of doing so either.

He was a big shot locally with a lot of different irons in the fire around town and so unlike a lot of artists he really had no desire to make a move to New York, Chicago or L.A. in search of more opportunities. That alone made him an ideal artist for Sensation who at the time they cut a session on him 1948 were still just distributing their records in Michigan and Northern Ohio which is where Fowler was already well-known.

By this time they were also seeing the pitfalls of handing out their masters to other labels like Halloween candy, as they’d soon watch Modern Records in Los Angeles get a Number One hit with John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillen and after they’d leased Todd Rhodes’s records to King Records in Cincinnati in mid-1948 they found themselves in a protracted legal struggle over his contract as King attempted to abscond with Rhodes altogether.

Sensation might’ve won that battle in the courts but as the new decade dawned it was obvious they’d lost the war. So realizing that it would’ve been smarter all along to stand on their own two feet they were belatedly trying to do just that by distributing their own records nationally at last and thus they reached back in the vaults for Midnight Clipper, the first record of Fowler’s that would actually be released on Sensation, two years after it was cut no less!

That it still managed to stand out in early 1950 is testament to just how good Fowler was… and consequently just how stupid Sensation was for not capitalizing on this from the beginning.


Mood Music For Degenerates
Two part rock instrumentals proved their worth early on when Sonny Thompson’s Long Gone became the biggest hit of 1948 and Midnight Clipper is clearly cut from the same cloth, both songs featuring an addictive repetitive groove laid down by the piano while horns add various colors and shadings over that.

But even here Sensation has to be called out for not alerting record buyers to the fact it was two parts on the label. An unwary customer might just assume looking at it that they’d simply slapped the same song on both sides, the only difference seen being the small A and B designations to tell them apart that few even bothered looking at.

Moving past their many foibles though so we can focus on the music and the artist making that music, what we find is a hauntingly atmospheric gem of the first order, something which contains all sorts of vague moods – exotic, sinister, seductive – that are available to pick and choose from at your discretion.

The foundation is the unrelenting rhythm which never seems too prominent – there’s not even a solo for Fowler to take, despite it being his record – but because it is so steady from start to finish you never lose focus and become adrift even as the other parts constantly shift around you.

There’s an understated confidence in this arrangement as a result, as Fowler, drawing from his experience working clubs, knew that dancers wanted to remain locked in that groove and as long as you fulfilled that requirement and kept it from wavering you could offer as many melodic variations as you wanted on top of it to keep it interesting.

But while Midnight Clipper is built from a strong foundation, what draws your attention are those melodic variations that come in the form of three distinct horns that often at this juncture in rock seemed to be incompatible by nature, but which Fowler manages to seamlessly fit together making this far more memorable a track than you’d ever expect when simply running down its components.

Horns A Plenty
The three horns featured are the trumpet of John Lawton, the alto sax of Lee Gross and the tenor sax of Walter Cox, the latter of whom was the lynch-pin of Fowler’s band for its entire decade long run as a recording act.

We’ve bemoaned the presence of an unwieldy trumpet in rock songs far too often to have to regurgitate the complaints about how they have a tendency to become too flighty in what they play to match the leaner sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, but amazingly that’s not a problem here as Lawton is one of the best elements of Midnight Clipper settling nicely into the instrument’s middle range while refraining from letting loose with any blaring notes to break the exotic feel the song features.

Similarly the alto sax, because it too has a higher tone, is often a detriment to establishing the right attitude most rock songs need to thrive, but Gross’s performance is proof that the fault often lays with the arranger or musician rather then the horn itself because here the alto acquits itself nicely, adding tremendously to the hazy ambiance as the horns all interact, each one lending their own textures to the mix, whether taking the lead or slipping into the background, trading off those roles with a deft touch.

Lastly there’s Cox’s tenor which in normal circumstances would have the featured role of any horn-centric rock instrumental, but here Cox shows how well that horn works when it’s just asked to be a team player. He still gets more air time than the others but the interplay between all three is fantastic, their lines winding around one another without infringing on each one’s territory. So perfectly do they mesh that at times you almost lose track of which horn is out in front allowing the seemingly effortless vibe they create to cast its spell over you without any resistance.

Songs like these highlight how crucial great arrangements are, it’s certainly not as explosive as something improvised but the musical know-how is really a thing to behold. Midnight Clipper won’t jump out at you but once you’re immersed in its intoxicating sounds it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting it to end… truthfully they could’ve turned it into a 15 minute suite and not lost an ounce of its appeal.

Flaming Out
So after hearing such a brilliant record that seemed to be something of an afterthought for Sensation Records who let it languish on the shelf for two years, we’re left trying to figure out how a company that seemingly had everything going for it to succeed could shoot themselves in the foot by letting other companies they used for distribution take a huge share of the profits and the lion’s share of the publicity and credit for their records for far too long.

I know… most independent record companies were going to fail in the long run, the odds against achieving financial stability in a field as unpredictable as music were just too great to believe it was a can’t miss investment. But as long as Sensation Records were going to give it a go in spite of those long odds then the best thing to do would be to bet on your own hard work, natural skills and lessons learned along the way rather than leave it to others who were out for their own self-serving interests with no thought as to your solvency.

Midnight Clipper shows that when it came to getting talented artists to deliver excellent work in the studio the folks at Sensation were entirely capable of competing with more established companies. It’s pity they didn’t to put those same attributes into building their company into the national powerhouse they were poised to become if they’d only had faith enough in themselves to try.


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