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SAVOY 716; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

In the music world there are lots of different roads to navigate but surely among the most frustrating for talented artists is the intersection where hopes and dreams collide with the brick wall that is cold hard reality.

Being skilled might get you on the road to earning a living playing music but was hardly an assurance of national stardom. No matter how good of a musician you may be there were other considerations that played an equal, if not greater, role in finding success.

For starters you had to be afforded the opportunity to be heard by the public, whether at clubs on stage or on radio, (remember, this was the 1940’s we’re talking about here) and increasingly, as it became ever more ubiquitous in the American home, on record.

To get a recording contract meant that some company felt that not only was the style of music you played worth pursuing – something which hamstrung rock ‘n’ roll with getting their foot in the door of major labels for years – but also that you yourself were unique enough to stand out and draw interest.

But even that was no assurance of being provided the best platform for discovery because you also had to contend with shortsighted record label owners who oftentimes treated records as if they were nothing more than interchangeable product, like wingnuts or canned vegetables.

Such was the case with the aspirations of Devonia Williams, the first female musician in the rock ‘n’ roll camp, whose attempts to establish herself as a headlining star were thwarted through no fault of her own.
 

 

A Troubling Situation
For those who landed on this page out of the blue and are wondering why we’re talking about Devonia “Lady Dee” Williams on a review for a group called The California Playboys, well, that’s the whole point of this extended diatribe. How the idiocy of a record label helped to sabotage Williams’s chance to break out on her own and perhaps become the rock ‘n’ roll version of Camille Howard, a pianist with Roy Milton’s excellent pre-rock band who first got a chance to shine on records under Milton’s name – but whose titles called attention to her contributions – before she got the opportunity to concurrently issue records under her own name, including some notable hits.

Certainly the comparisons stretched far beyond just surface similarities. Both were female pianists who were cornerstone’s of bands led by drummers (that would be Johnny Otis in Williams’s case). Each could sing, and would occasionally be called on to do so on record though their primary role was to lock down the rhythm on the keyboard. Each also were permitted, even encouraged, by their bosses, Milton and Otis, to pursue a simultaneous recording career on their own.

That’s where the comparisons end though because whereas Howard was given the proper build-up and promotion by Specialty Records, Williams’s was treated as something of an afterthought by Savoy Records, even following a minor hit with her first release in the winter of 1949.

That’s what this comes down really, as those who read yesterday’s review on the top side of this effort, Midnight Creep, already know, as a very good record and top notch band were reduced to little more than a way to pad the release schedule as the 1940’s drew to a close.

None of this makes sense, so you’ll forgive us for repeatedly hammering on these same points. Aside from inexplicably waiting ten months to release a follow up to a good selling single, Bongo Blues, by a first time artist, when Savoy finally got around to doing so they didn’t credit the record to Devonia Williams as they had on that first record, but rather came up with the name California Playboys to slap on it, eliminating any chance for fans of last winter’s hit to even realize these were the same musicians.

Way to go, Savoy! Congratulations on doing such a bang up job!

But in the interest of fairness let’s try – hard as it may be – to find reasons to possibly explain this lapse of judgment on the record label’s part.

We’ll start with the role Devonia Williams herself played on these songs. While an exceptional pianist, capable of storming boogies or more melodic pieces, she took something of a back seat on Midnight Creep which featured guitarist Chuck Norris out in front throughout the entire record. Dee’s fills were omnipresent, filling in the cracks and providing a strong rhythmic bed, but she didn’t even get a solo to show off her wares.

So maybe using that as a pitiful excuse… a mildly plausible reason, Savoy could’ve decided to highlight the collective nature of the band as a whole… by giving them a name to credit where they were from – California – and to ostensibly diss the group’s contracted leader who was a female by naming them the gender specific Playboys.

Mmm, that’s no good, let’s try again.

How about the fact that by bestowing upon an instrumental group a singular collective identity Savoy Records was actually way ahead of the curve in rock ‘n’ roll since no other group could make that claim. Even The Hep-Cats, a moniker assigned to the session musicians for Freedom Records, weren’t even consistently called that on the label and when they were it was always merely in a supporting role to the primary credited artist Goree Carter.

So shouldn’t someone involve get kudos for this amount of foresight, correctly envisioning an era when almost ALL self-contained bands were known by a group name, thereby making them the fore-bearers of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Earth, Wind & Fire and both Parliament AND Funakdelic (a group so nice George Clinton named it twice!)? I mean, that’s a pretty big deal, isn’t it?

Umm, no. It would be maybe if that was their intent and they proved it by promoting the hell out of the band, bringing them back in the studios for more sessions.. or even if they just released the other FOUR completed sides they’d cut back in February on two more singles issued under the California Playboys name.

But they did no such thing because they had no big picture plan in mind. No, as will be the case more often than not when trying to figure out the thinking of record labels over the years, Savoy’s decision boiled down to a simple of common stupidity.
 

So You Think YOU’VE Got Trouble?!?!
As for the musical analysis of the last side from that session led by Williams to see the light of day, which is the primary purpose of this website after all, we regret to inform you that it is not up to par with the two top sides of the singles, no matter what name they came out under.

But that doesn’t mean Double Trouble Hop is without any merits whatsoever, in fact, it makes a pretty decent case as to the prevailing wisdom in rock circles as to what the hottest and most reliable sounds were when it came to stirring interest in the fans of this music, as it centers squarely on the saxophones.

Unfortunately the lead saxophone here, played by Gene Montgomery, who was hardly a slouch on the instrument, already well known for leading the house band at the Down Beat Club on Central Avenue in Los Angeles during this time, is noticeably off kilter, out of tune and unsure of himself giving much of this a rather slapdash feel.

Like the top side this too starts with Norris’s electric guitar, which is a good idea to set the scene, but it doesn’t last long once Montgomery comes in sounding as if he’s suffering from food poisoning from ingesting some bad seafood or something. His lines are draggy to begin with and so any misstep is going to be far more noticeable, as he botches some notes and have you wondering why they either didn’t stop the take and start over, or why Savoy chose this of all things as the B-side when they had another four tunes in the can. Who knows, maybe Montgomery’s condition became worse and he turned green and was carted out on a stretcher before the day was over. He’s got a good reputation, he played with such legends as Dexter Gordon and the Down Beat Club was known for specializing in rawer material than many of the jazzier clubs along the block, so maybe this was just an off day for him, but it unquestionably is threatening to sink the entire record before we even get up to speed.

It’s not ALL bad though, as the others are in top form when they’re given the chance to be more than window dressing in the arrangement. Unlike the A-side, Midnight Creep, which is notoriously hard to locate a clean copy to hear, the same is not true for Double Trouble Hop which appears on the Johnny Otis comp, The Original Johnny Otis Show Volume II, along with even one of the unissued sides from her session with Savoy. This is of course ironic considering that Williams was technically recording outside of the Otis’s sphere, but who really cares about the particulars since hearing it unencumbered by surface noise allows us to get past the crudity of the horns and find the buried treasure scattered throughout the track more easily.

Norris for one seems incapable of playing anything on guitar that’s not immediately captivating and you wish they had doubled down on that instrument after his showcase on the top side, but after his effective lurching intro he’s only playing light fills interspersed with a few harsher interjections when called for, which isn’t quite enough to suit us. Meanwhile Williams is entrusted with helping to create the primary rhythm along with drummer Roy Porter who stands out with his emphatic work on the kit, but neither of them get any time in the spotlight which might’ve helped to take the burden off the lead horn which sounds as if it might crack under the pressure of cutting the mustard in rock ‘n’ roll.
 

Trouble No More
For most of the first minute Montgomery vacillates between barely tolerable and brutally awful. He’s either hungover and having trouble clearing the cobwebs out of his head, or else he has completely misjudged the point of rock ‘n’ roll and thinks that crudity means you don’t have to follow normal musical rules like staying in tune.

So it’s hardly surprising that the best moments of Double Trouble Hop – at least to start with – don’t feature him at all. Forty seconds in the other two horns, probably tired of his wobbling about unsteadily around the studio, shove him away from the microphone and try to get this back on track, doing a decent job at that herculean task. Led by trumpeter John Anderson this is actually fairly rousing and has us – for once – welcoming the intrusion of the usually ill-fitting trumpet out in front of a rock release. Yet the reprieve is soon over for once they step aside Montgomery comes back to foul things up, missing notes so badly that you’re just about ready to give up on the whole thing, or at least are anticipating seeing a big fat (1) at the bottom of this review.

But maybe the antacid he had finally kicked in, or the dirty looks the others were giving him spurred him into bearing down some more because just over a minute in Montgomery starts to redeem himself with some urgent blowing that gets better as it goes along, as if he finally figures out what those funny looking keys on the horn are for and starts utilizing them correctly. Who knows, maybe the slow pace early on was tripping him up but from here on in he pulls off some solid honking and some nice melodic judgement in his less frantic moments, not to mention benefiting from a few rude interjections by Richard Brom on baritone to add a certain off-color flavor that is always welcome.

Mind you, none of this is going to challenge the best sax instrumentals on the market in 1949 but the end results are not without some merit. Once they settle in they’re headed in the right direction and the way it was written certainly shows that they grasp the fundamental requirements of a rock instrumental, provided the musicians themselves appreciate the form enough to treat it respectfully that is. But while it eventually whips itself into shape how much do we have to credit them for simply doing their job capably when it comes to handing out a score?

Double Trouble Hop clocks in at just under three minutes and though arguably Gene Montgomery is at least average in what he lays down for two thirds of that – and gets the best contributions from Norris and Anderson during the first third when things threatened to go off the rails entirely, but that doesn’t mean we can overlook the fact that the centerpiece of the song takes so long to get his feet under him.

We have to downgrade accordingly because not only is it jarring to hear him have so much trouble taking off, but it makes the journey far more harrowing than we want to endure just to get from point A to point B. By the time they reach cruising altitude we’re so relieved that the turbulence on this flight has stopped we run the risk of over-crediting things we have every right to expect from those who do this job for a living, like warm food, a clean bathroom and seats that don’t have the stuffing sticking out of them. Once we’re finally back on solid land we need to take a step back and realize that – although we landed safely, which is always the primary concern – the trip wasn’t the smoothest of rides.

Again, none of this was Devonia Williams’s fault even if she was the one who chartered this plane to begin with, and it’s a shame this would mark her last real shot at establishing herself away from the confines of Otis’s crack band for whom she put in a decade of stellar work.

Though come to think of it, maybe when Lady Dee heard they were going to issue this uneven track as one half of her second release on Savoy SHE was the one who came up with the name The California Playboys to distance herself from the barbs that were sure to come from those who gave up on this record after the first minute.

If so, we may be able to take Herman Lubinsky off the hook for at least one otherwise downright mystifying decision.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of The California Playboys for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)