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ATLANTIC 876, MAY, 1949

 
 

 

Normally hybrid records which made no discernible commercial or artistic impact done by artists who’d go on to make their careers in another field entirely would be hard pressed to get a mention on a history of rock ‘n’ roll, but this is no ordinary situation we’re dealing with today.

No, this is a twisted sordid mystery involving big names, clandestine sessions cut in the dark of night and a litany of cloak and dagger activities fit for the pages of Black Mask magazine in its heyday.

…Then again, it could just be a small favor done by a major artist to benefit a friend that contains absolutely no subterfuge whatsoever outside of our shameless ploy to get you to keep reading.

You be the judge.
 

 

Unraveling The Threads Of A Mystery
Of the big names involved here the primary credited artist – guitarist Texas Johnny Brown – is the least big… in fact, though he had a long solid career in music his legacy is rather small in stature compared to the other participants so let’s start with some of this before circling our way back to Brown.

Atlantic Records was, in April 1949 when this was cut, not a big name either. Far from it. Though in due time they’d go on to be the most storied of independent labels, one who scored more hits than virtually all of their peers who came into business during this same stretch combined, they were not anywhere close to achieving that stature yet.

In fact when they entered the studio April 6th of this year they had just seen their second ever hit enter the national charts after suffering through a sixteen months since their inception with just one song – that would be Tiny Grimes’ Midnight Special in case you were so inclined to go back and read all about it – which had earned that status, and then only for a single week at #12. In other words, it had been quite an inauspicious start for the company.

With that second hit, which cracked those charts on April 2nd, things would start to turn things around for them, slowly maybe, but with a definite forward lurch that got them headed where they wanted to go. By June, where we find ourselves now, that breakthrough record, Stick McGhee’s Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee, had hit #2 on the charts, their biggest hit of the 1940’s, and one would have a rather longer afterlife in the story of Atlantic’s ascension to a major player on the rock scene.

But we’re hardly there yet. It was still a tenuous road ahead of them and nobody involved could’ve had any certainty that things would continue to improve over the months ahead.

Looking back in retrospect though it’s easier to see that things were beginning to fall into place for them. as they were starting to assemble a deeper roster of genuine talent and finally realizing that their earlier focus on jazz and blues which had failed to get them any returns on their investment was the wrong avenue to pursue and that they should in fact switch their attention to to their rock releases which were to date the only thing that kept the creditors from foreclosing on their dingy roach infested offices.

So why then are here talking about another blues act whose record would not make a dent in the market and who would never cut another session for them, nor get even one more release after this one?

Well, it all comes back to one of those fortuitous changes at their door in the person of Ruth Brown.
 

Hush Hush
Though we’ll be meeting up with her officially in a month’s time with her first release and Atlantic’s next big hit, So Long, I’m hardly at risk for letting the cat out of the bag by saying Ruth Brown is going to play a huge factor in the record company’s rapid upsurge in the market. They didn’t call Atlantic “The House That Ruth Built” for nothing.

But we’ll try and leave some suspense regarding the particulars of her delayed and dramatic arrival at the label for that review still to come, yet since it does factor into this review we’ll tell you that following an accident which left her hospitalized she made her first appearance at the studios on April 6th while still on crutches and Atlantic had her cut one number that she herself wrote in her hospital bed, called Rain Is A Bringdown, which despite its quality wasn’t released until years down the road.

Normally no artist, even one they were looking forward to recording after such a long delay, would simply cut one song, for sessions were too expensive and required too much planning to come away with just one half of one potential single. But this wasn’t a session designed for her and so when she came in to get her first look around at what would be her professional home for the next dozen years and there was already a session taking place, Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, Atlantic’s owners, merely asked the band if they’d mind having her sit in as they cut her tune with her to see what she sounded like and so she could get a feel for the studio environment after spending the past few years performing on stage.

The band agreed and so, having cut – or about to cut – an unorthodox five songs rather than the more standard four (or six, or eight – an even number in other words, to be able to pair all of the songs together for singles without having anything left over), they sat in behind her on what would be her first recording experience in a career that would last half a century.

When Ruth looked around she might not have recognized most of the faces there, Johnny Brown – no relation – included. They weren’t recording stars themselves, Johnny Brown had cut one session, which resulted in the fantastic A Long Time on Modern earlier this year, but that had come out under the name The Don Juan Trio. Meanwhile the tenor saxophonist, Don Wilkerson, may have cut sides with Little Willie Littlefield but he too was a ways off from being known for his work with Ray Charles – ironically at Atlantic in the mid-1950’s.

But there was ONE figure sitting unobtrusively at the piano who was recognizable to anyone who would have any reason to be in Atlantic’s offices that day, for Amos Milburn was the biggest rock star in the world… and signed to Aladdin Records on the opposite coast.

See, I TOLDJA there was a scandal brewing!!!
 

Rockin’ On The Down Low
The odds that Aladdin knew – and would be okay with – Amos Milburn sitting in on a session for a rival label, even one that was at this point a notch or two below them on the totem pole, was slim at best.

Milburn had a fairly good relationship with Aladdin, who had every reason to kowtow to him now that he’d scored back to back #1 hits in the last eight months with Chicken Shack Boogie and Bewildered. The Mesner brothers who owned Aladdin knew Milburn was in New York on tour, and if they didn’t they soon would when his picture appeared in Cash Box magazine shaking the hands of one their distributors outside his NYC office, but as to what Amos was doing while in the city on his off-days, they probably just assumed he was chasing tail, rolling craps or drinking in his hotel room if not all three.

Instead he was in Atlantic’s studio with his road band – a band he was understandably proud of – and was offering moral and musical support to help them get some money and if possible even get them a hit, but mainly I’m guessing he was looking at it as a way to help get them some experience in a studio.

The reason they had none, or at least not as a unit, was because Aladdin Records still wouldn’t let them record with Milburn, and why would they? As good as they may have been, as compatible as they’d become with Amos after months together on the road, they were not – at least as of yet – in possession of the same high skill level as Aladdin’s regular sessionists made up of the cream of the Los Angeles crop, starting of course with saxophonist Maxwell Davis, who doubled as Milburn’s producer and was unquestionably the best in the biz at that job in all of rock.

They were joined by such guitarists as Gene Phillips or Chuck Norris, two guys with extensive résumés that put Texas Johnny Brown’s to shame. But how could someone like Brown be expected to GET that experience needed to match licks with those guys if he was never afforded the opportunity to record under the gun in a studio setting?

So Milburn assented to let them try, very likely in exchange for his own presence on the record, though of course Atlantic couldn’t promote that fact, although what was to keep them from dropping hints to their own distributors and radio connections. This is how Amos Milburn, arguably the top rock act of the 1940’s, and Ruth Brown, unquestionably the top female rock act of the 1950’s, and Texas Johnny Brown, an otherwise still obscure musician on the fringe of the rock scene who would go on to make a slightly bigger, but by no means BIG mark, in the blues all wound up in the same studio on the same day as Johnny Brown got his first unambiguous label credit for a song whose title – The Blues Rock – perfectly captured his own musical bifurcation.
 

If You Get The Blues
Now that you’ve read the somewhat convoluted, but hopefully intriguing, backstory we can finally let you in on the result of this subterfuge which is as a record this is surprisingly middling for the assemblage of talent involved.

You wonder how much real thought went into this clandestine session beforehand. It certainly doesn’t seem as though they came prepared with anything other than the kind of set-filler used on those long nights in the sticks when they were on stage for four or five hours with little respite. When they’d get their half-hour break the band would typically come back on before the headliner and hold down the fort with a generic blues vocal such as they offer on the flip side of this – There Goes The Blues – which is nothing but a straight country blues song featuring his downtrodden vocals and none too interesting at that.

But the other songs a road band would typically be expected to feature during their standalone spot before being rejoined for the conclusion of the show by the star would be a pair of instrumentals, something jazzy maybe for them to show their chops and then something grinding to get the crowd’s shoulders grooving as a lead-in for Milburn’s return.

This record is that type of song.

It’s hardly very innovative, nor intended to be dynamic for any of the participants, but it’s at least a fluid sound, definitely citified rather than rural, with the horns taking as big of a role as Brown’s guitar in the overall arrangement, all of which is helped by the presence of the most famous non-sideman sideman in rock manning the piano on this day, though staying largely in the shadows.

But while the parts of The Blues Rock all fit nicely together, and to that end the repetitive riff that Brown plays while the horns take the lead is so simple that it becomes mesmerizing in spite of simplicity, the fact it wasn’t designed to be a show-stopper on stage hurts it as a record that needs to be sold under its own power.

Brown’s guitar and Milburn’s piano start off together with Amos playing the showier part, though even that is just some modest finger-flexing on the treble keys. The horns come in, slowly droning to add flavor and then Brown takes his solo. He’s got a nice tone, slightly bluesy for sure, but with a lightness of touch that helps take the onus of the backwoods image off it.

The rest of the time he just plays that riff, which is the best aspect of this. The horns are fine in their own spot, but they too aren’t attempting to do much other than take up space with something pleasantly melodic. Milburn’s brief turn in the spotlight is typically well-played but not in any way a stand-out performance and the overall song itself as conceived shows itself to be just a mild diversion – a time filler.
 

Come And Gone
Since there seemed to have been no DIRECT fallout from this we can’t be sure the Mesner Brothers discovered Milburn was moonlighting for another label, but since the other label didn’t see any sales from The Blues Rock they could hardly complain much.

Atlantic, however they might’ve been hoping for a covert Milburn hit now that he was at the peak of his popularity, had to be fairly disappointed in the outcome of the session, for not only did this not get them any action but they were apparently so unimpressed with the rest of the three sides they got from these guys that they never bothered to put any of those out and it’s not as if they were overflowing with the top notch releases yet as they would be a few years down the road.

Maybe the most interesting thing to ponder is the presence of one of the songs that went unreleased which someone titled Bow-Wow!, a song which would wind up being the first this band recorded for Aladdin under Milburn’s name in the fall when he finally convinced his own company to let his road band in the studio. Though that song didn’t become a hit in its own right, it would turn out to be as good as any rock instrumental over the past couple of months and the Christmas themed flip-side recorded that same day by this group would indeed hit the charts, as would the follow-up Brown, Wilkerson and company recorded with Milburn, who now began recording with these musicians more often – though not exclusively – after that.

So while The Blues Rock might not have had any benefits that could be seen by the naked eye, the mere fact they got a chance to record might very well have provided the impetus for them to be given more chances down the road which they capitalized on.

Whether the story behind it was more enigmatic than it appears upon further review, or if it was even less furtive than we make it out to be, the fact is it served a purpose in giving some good musicians a chance cut their teeth in the studio, something for which we can all be grateful, even if the record itself they came out of that studio holding is nothing special after all.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Texas Johnny Brown for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)