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SAVOY 716; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

In the annals of 1940’s rock, which is hardly a widely scrutinized period when it comes to historical analysis to begin with, there are scarcely a dozen artists who get even cursory mention in the broader focus on the big picture of rock ‘n’ roll.

You probably don’t need me to tell that The California Playboys are not among those popping up in the history books… not even in the footnotes.

Even here, where the whole point is to deep dive into every artist and record possible, no matter how insignificant, they’d be easy to overlook altogether. For starters there WAS no such group as The California Playboys, or at least the musicians appearing on this record hadn’t existed as a self-contained unit a week before they cut their only session for Savoy in the winter of 1949, nor did they remain together after the tapes stopped rolling, and almost certainly had no idea that they’d be branded with this name a full ten months after the fact on a record that came and went without a trace.

It’s quite possible – in part because of the name that adorned the record and in part because of how long it took for it to reach the market – that the “members” of The California Playboys never even knew this had been released.

So why review it here when we have – as of this writing – sixty nine years and eight months of rock records to review in this same fashion until we get up to those released this past week?

Well, two reasons actually. One is because it’s actually quite good and the other reason is, though the name The California Playboys is new to us, the band that existed for just one day in a studio is NOT new, since we already reviewed an earlier, and even slightly better, record months ago.

Welcome to the wacky world of stupid record label decisions, part twenty eight.
 

 
It’s Getting Late
Stop me if this is a little too obvious, but the general idea when starting a record company is to record musicians playing music to sell records to the public.

Sounds simple enough.

Yet it’s amazing just how many of them sabotaged their own chances at selling records by never removing their head from the ass to take a look around.

We’ve taken countless pot shots at many a record label owner these past two years, maybe none more so than Herman Lubinsky, often cited as the universal stereotype for the cigar chomping cheapskates who ran so many of the independent record companies of the 1940’s and 50’s. Though Savoy Records deserves ample credit for being first on the scene when it came to capitalizing on a market neglected by the major labels in the early 1940’s, in the process opening the door for lots of black artists to be heard, their track record after establishing their viability in the jazz (particularly be-bop) and gospel fields is a little shaky.

They remained in business for decades, so they actually lasted longer than most, but Lubinsky’s notorious cheapness wound up costing him one talented A&R man/producer after another, all of whom left the company after they tired of squabbling with him over pennies. As if that weren’t a difficult enough self-imposed hurdle to overcome, those same issues also led to the label seeing one star after another depart for greener pastures.

Thus far in the rock era we’ve seen two sax kingpins – Wild Bill Moore and Big Jay McNeely – make their name early on with Savoy and then head elsewhere before long. Over the next year or two the company would weather these defections thanks to a few remaining big names, Paul Williams, Billy Wright and the soon to be signed Johnny Otis who would give them their most prolific run of hits over 1950, but in due time he’d leave as well and Savoy would never recover. As rock grew even bigger throughout the 1950’s, the company that had been out in front of the curve when it began fell so far behind that they virtually stopped releasing rock records altogether by the end of the decade.

So what does that have to do with a non-existent group called The California Playboys whose one release disappeared without a trace as the 1940’s drew to a close? Well, maybe nothing on its surface, but it’s just that what’s contained within this record – and within this group for that matter – had the potential to help stave off that eventual decline if anybody at the company had the foresight to look at records and artists as long term investments rather than short term gambles.
 

Time’s Up
A year ago Lubinsky sent Ralph Bass, the latest in a long line of talented Savoy producers, out to the West Coast to scout talent and run a recording outpost there to help build the company’s roster. His first stop was Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club in Watts where seemingly all of the good young rock talent was congregating. Bass really didn’t have to look further than that, for while Otis himself was already signed to Exclusive Records – though a year later… just around the corner from where we find ourselves now… he’d be free and would wind up signing with Savoy – others in his orbit were not under contract and Bass wasted little time in snatching them up.

First on the docket was teenage sax star Big Jay McNeely who cut two sessions for Bass on the Coast and got two hits out of it on his first two releases no less, including the #1 hit The Deacon’s Hop, only one of the most important and influential rock records of its first decade!

Bass also managed to convince Otis’s piano player, Devonia Williams, to put together a group to cut some records under her name. She probably could’ve just recruited her fellow Otis sidemen and nobody would’ve been any wiser, but instead she called around and got a bunch of hotshot freelancers and cut a handful of songs designed to get her name out in the public eye.

The first of these, Bongo Blues, was damn good and a minor regional hit to boot and a record that had an unusually long afterlife when a Pittsburgh disc-jockey who stayed on the air for an eternity used it for years as his theme song. You’d think that Lubinsky would’ve been thrilled they got strong sales out of a session that seemingly had very little forethought. That maybe he’d think about signing them to a longer deal than the one-off session fee they got. Perhaps do a little something to promote Williams, especially since, let’s face it, they had themselves a built-in angle for publicity since there were so few… scratch that, since there were NO other female instrumentalists in rock ‘n’ roll at that time.

Instead Savoy Records sat on the rest of the sides they laid down until nearly a year had passed upon which time they finally hauled Midnight Creep off the shelf and promptly issued it under the name The California Playboys.

So much for continuity. So much for promoting the featured name in this aggregation. So much for good business sense. So much for the long term prospects of Savoy Records when these were the kind of boneheaded decisions that were being made.
 

West Coast Jam Session
The record’s an instrumental, as you might’ve guessed as Williams only sporadically recorded vocals. But she’s not even the focal point of this song, which I suppose might’ve had something to do with coming up with a group name, though Williams’ piano is certainly omnipresent.

The real star is guitarist Charles “Chuck” Norris, who of course also played on the release from last winter credited to Williams outright. Born in Kansas City, raised in Chicago and rising to some level of prominence (at least among other musicians) on the West Coast in the 1940’s, he – like everybody else at that time out there – became acquainted along the way with Johnny Otis and thus with Devonia Williams. When she needed a group behind her, he tagged along.

Thus he becomes another one of the more unheralded early rock guitarists, who like many (Goree Carter, Pete Lewis) possesses a definite bluesy-bent to his playing. Norris would cut a number of solid records for a wide array of labels but never with any notable success, thereby allowing him to drift into historical obscurity.

Now I can’t blame Lubinsky for not seeing the potential in rock for the electric guitar in 1949. To date there weren’t many who even used it prominently in their work, rock was still largely a tenor sax/piano based music. But all music is still about stirring curiosity and creating excitement with what’s played and the aptly named Midnight Creep more than suffices in that regard.

As a late night mood piece this is exquisitely put together. Norris’s guitar isn’t harsh and aggressive but transfixes you throughout as it eats up the vinyl like a predator. Against a backdrop of Williams’s spry piano and a horn section that provides a steady, slightly woozy, melodic bed for him to crawl over, Norris plays at a steady methodical pace, never rushing and never unsure of his direction. He’s got a destination in mind all along and he’s taking his time to get there.

His tone is biting, yet warm enough to not be off-putting for those not used to hearing the instrument used so prominently and its has the atmospheric components of what we’ve come to expect in rock songs even if what it achieves that aura with is still not widely known…

In short it’s hypnotic, moody and a little mysterious, beckoning you to follow it further into the shadows, which as we know is a place any rock fan worth their bad name and reputation instinctively heads.
 

The Dark Hours Before Dawn
With so many tenor sax instrumentals on the market, both the wild raucous affairs and the slinky grooves, this might not have been the best bet to score a hit but it was a much stronger bet to set a trend if enough other rock artists heard it.

Record companies tend to be wary of the new, preferring to revisit the old, even if at this time in rock the “old” meant a few months old at best. Savoy probably saw this as too out of step with the honking and squealing instrumentals they’d scored with, so they put this out as little more than a stopgap filler in their release schedule, probably never giving it a second thought.

But by offering something decidedly different, yet which seamlessly fits into the rock milieu all the same, Midnight Creep was expanding rock’s possibilities and had the potential at least to help ease the transition into another approach… another era… should it be heard that is.

Maybe the target is TOO easy, Lubinsky has taken an awful lot of criticism over the years and perhaps not all of that is fair. It’s not like he offended Devonia Williams and she refused to sign a deal because of it… at least we don’t think so.

But someone has to take the blame for the fact that talented artists producing quality material were rendered dead on arrival because of the inexplicable decisions someone made as to when to release this and who to credit that record to. Those are hardly the kind of moves that should result in excessive brain cramps, in fact it’s about as basic as it gets in the music industry – follow up a good selling record credited to Dee Williams with another record by Dee Williams without waiting so long that both have been forgotten.

That shouldn’t require a manual with step by step instructions to figure out.

Instead The California Playboys go down in history as the answer to an obscure bit of musical trivia while Savoy Records, though their commercial peak was just around the corner, was already giving every indication that they wouldn’t be at those heights for long.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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