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SELECTIVE 105; SEPTEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

If you’re the kind who cares about such things, this might just be the first guitar instrumental in rock, which is cause for some mild celebration, or at least raising a glass in a toast to such a breakthrough.

If you’re the kind who cares less about firsts and more about how great the records are, whether first, second or 854th, then you’ll probably be less enthused with this one.

Oh well, you have to start with a first step or else you’ll never get anywhere, and if that first step causes you to stumble there’s still plenty of time to right yourself and keep heading down that road.
 

 

We covered the B-side of this release first, a vocal record by someone who made his name as a top notch guitarist, because that side, Irritatin’ Blues was a welcome surprise considering his lack of much singing experience on his résumé. That it also contained the best guitar playing on either side of this single was another factor, as Teddy Bunn’s skills and his role in helping to show how effectively the instrument could be utilized in rock ‘n’ roll need to be highlighted more, as history has a way of denying any share of the credit pie to all but the most gluttonous, already overstuffed, big name legends at the table.

Bunn’s work in a variety of music fields before he entered into rock as a member of Edgar Hayes And His Stardusters showed that he was in many ways ahead of his time, or out of his time as the case may be, as none of those styles really were properly situated to showcase his talents.

When rock ‘n’ roll came along it too was not necessarily the most obvious fit for what he did so well, as rock was overwhelmingly saxophone driven in its arrangements with guitars either buried in the mix, or even absent from the sessions altogether.

But with the increasing technical capabilities of the electric guitar and amplifiers the instrument itself was no longer ill-suited to the requirements of the style and with the aggressive nature of playing that guys like Bunn and Goree Carter brought to the table it was also proving to be an exciting new way to feature the attitude rock thrived on.

Now all it needed was proof that such a sound could be as commercially potent as the honking horns, barreling pianos and racy vocalists.

Since the saxophone itself had gone from an early supporting role – or in some cases, no role at all, as the trumpet had gotten a few too many chances to take the starring part, an unfortunate the holdover from the pre-rock mentality – and quickly elevated itself thanks to a series of increasingly wild instrumental records by the likes of Paul Williams, Earl Bostic and as of late Hal Singer and Big Jay McNeely, among many others, it made sense to try the same game plan with the electric guitar.

Teddy Bunn’s credentials for taking on this responsibility aren’t in question. What he’s played so far in rock behind others, or as part of a multi-faceted instrumental with The Stardusters, showed he had what it took to be noticed. But as with the sax instrumentals there was a very definite construction those songs needed to come off well. All the wild honking and squealing in the world wouldn’t rescue a song that didn’t have a solid hook and a sensible progression to build to those hooks.

So it would be with guitar instrumentals, and it’s in that way that One A.M. Blues comes up an hour or two short.
 

How Blue Can You Get?
The use of the word “blues” in so many titles in early rock was as much a matter of convenience as it was a descriptive term. Much like its cousin “boogie”, the two words were slapped on songs merely to give prospective buyers or anyone with a nickel in their in hand staring at titles on a jukebox and wondering what to play a better idea of what to expect… fast, in the case of “boogie”, slow in the case of “blues”.

But One A.M. Blues is definitely more bluesy in its feel than most rock songs with that addendum in its name, even though the construct of the band, with its atmospheric alto sax figuring prominently in the mix, and the construct of the song itself both make clear how it’s intended to fit it in the rock ledger.

One of the first problems they encounter though is a lack of any prototypes to base theirs off of. Even a bad attempt by somebody else gives you enough information to sift through in order to determine what definitely doesn’t work about it and therefore allows you to toss those ideas out before you even begin.

But Bunn and company are working with a blank canvas and all of the inspiration has to come from their own imagination, not by looking out the window and painting the view, or by having a subject pose for you.

It’s here, more than anyplace, where this fails. The idea stage. As in they don’t seem to HAVE a firm one in mind to start with and merely improvise as they go along. While that may work well on stage or in a jam session with no tapes rolling, when it comes to putting down a song to wax that will have to be appealing enough to be listened to dozens of times completely removed from the environment in which it might otherwise thrive, you need to have everything worked out well in advance, have tested it out and listened to the playback and most importantly feel the reaction it elicits from those in the studio, the control room or whatever uninvolved third party walking by the studio thinks of it.

Does it make you stop and listen? Does it make you move when you listen? Does it put you in a trance as you listen? Or does it make you feel like it’s One A.M. and you’re up past your bedtime and just want to go lay down, close your eyes and drift off to sleep and not be aware that you’re even listening anymore?
 

Hole In The Middle
The record is unusual because there’s no real start to it, Bunn simply enters already playing as if you walked into a café from the sidewalk where he and his small band were in the midst of a set and you sat down without knowing how long they’d been up there.

As a result you have no sense of direction, something exacerbated by the fact that while the musicians are playing a fairly simple, straightforward and largely unchanging track behind him, Bunn for his part wanders aimlessly all over creation. There’s no melody to speak of, no identifiable riff he breaks out, let alone returns to, no sense that he’s even playing FOR anybody other than himself. The lack of a center does it in, removing any semblance of structure and order until all that’s left are mismatched pieces strewn about.

One A.M. Blues is an exercise in self-indulgence. Fairly well performed maybe, but completely disjointed and non-commercial. Oftentimes really skilled musicians will rail against having to “dumb down” their work to make it accessible to the musically illiterate masses, but the fact is even the most musically educated listeners, while they may be better able to appreciate something complex, are drawn towards something simple.

It’s the nature of music itself. Its familiarity is a comfort, not a detriment. As sure as you’re reading this you can all remember certain insipid nursery rhyme sing-alongs you learned when you were three but never again listened to after the age of five, but the most brilliantly composed and flawlessly executed songs that require more concentration and a deeper commitment to interpret are rarely widely popular and even those who wholeheartedly love them will find it much harder to conjure up on command in their own mind unless they’re musicians themselves.

Bunn’s not necessarily playing anything so advanced that it’s beyond the capacity of mere mortals to understand, but rather there’s nothing solid for anybody to grab hold of enough get their bearings. One aimless lick leading into the next aimless lick. Each one may have some recognizable form to them but they act independently of one another meaning when one ends your connection to what you’ve just heard has been completely severed. There’s no continuation at all outside of the guitar’s tone and backing track, and without that you wind up lost, groping in the dark for a doorknob or a light switch to find out where you are.
 

Mortuary Science
Now let’s do a little postmortem reconstruction here to see if we can’t bring the body back to life, a la Dr. Frankenstein.
 

 
The best way to do this is to find an existing rock instrumental where they used a similar pace, maybe even similar instrumental lineup, albeit with a different focus since as mentioned the guitar never got the bulk of any lead before this, and see how it COULD work, which hopefully will explain why One A.M. Blues doesn’t work.

The most obvious example would be Sonny Thompson’s Long Gone, a two part hit that was the biggest rock record of 1948. In it they had Thompson’s piano backed by guitar, bass, drums and – on Part Two anyway – saxophone. That’’s the same lineup as used here with the only difference being that record had a tenor sax whereas this one uses an alto.

Both songs are locked in a slow tempo, meaning neither features any sudden bursts of more exuberant playing to change the mood. The difference is Thompson’s crew had a clearly defined progression they all stuck to, one that was worked out in advance and off which the soloing instruments were able to play their own solos. While those were varied in what they played – the guitar solo was no less adventurish than what Bunn shows here – they had a sense of containment to them brought about by how consistent and prominent the backing groove was, and so everything remained focused.

Where One A.M. Blues does wrong is by giving free rein to Bunn throughout the entire song. It’s too much territory for him to cover by himself, like a lone sentry guarding an entire town in the middle ages. Bunn clearly knows this too which is why he goes from one side of the village to the other, or in this case one riff to another, with no planned route. No checkpoints to keep the others abreast of his travels.

Then there’s the fact that those others are given nothing to do. The saxophone drones on without any opportunity to take the lead, even for twelve bars just to break up the monotony. With three soloing instruments here you could’ve given the first and last solos to Bunn on guitar, thereby giving him the most face time, while the sax and piano handle the rest. It’d mean Bunn could offer focused, concentrated doses of his guitar, much more succinct and much more interesting because he wouldn’t have to worry about keeping it up for more than two full minutes.

Instead the song feels closer to twenty-two minutes long because at no point do you have any sense if you’re nearer to the beginning of the record or the end.
 

Time For Bed
Call this a missed opportunity along with being misjudged from the standpoint of the arrangement itself. A sub-par result isn’t the worst thing an artist has to face for as long as they get another chance they can always redeem themselves the next time out.

No, here the problem is greater than that due simply to the fact that the conceptual failure of One A.M. Blues runs the risk of convincing other record labels that guitarists can’t be entrusted to cut a quality rock instrumental. I know, it’s only one example and therefore nothing to base an industry directive on, but this is also the record business where common sense and musical know-how are in short supply.

Maybe the best way to have put it back then to head off any overreactions if you were critiquing it at the time would be to say that while you like HOW he’s playing the guitar, WHAT he’s playing needs to be tightened up and improved upon to stir any interest.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Teddy Bunn for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)