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ARISTOCRAT 3002; SEPTEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

What do you do when you’re a fairly new record label still struggling to get fully established in the marketplace… a marketplace which is splintered between disparate stylistic niches to begin with?

There were five forms of music for an independent label like Aristocrat to aim for with their roster of black artists, all with their own fan base and presumably minimal crossover. You had the blues, a growing movement now that it had embraced the urban electric sound and one which Chicago – where Aristocrat was located – would play a major role in popularizing. You had jazz which had the longest track record of commercial success but was in the process of breaking into various subgenres and seeing its hold over a unified audience start to slip. You had gospel which had consistent sales but little chance for breakout hits of the kind that all record companies dream of. And you had pop music, or the black version of pop, which featured light vocals singing pleasant melodies but possessed little to distinguish it from the more heavily promoted and more broadly accepted white pop styles.

Then you had rock ‘n’ roll, still a fairly new invention but one whose commercial might was becoming more and more apparent each week it seemed.

Within rock were all sorts of artists from saxophonists who detonated jukeboxes with their scalding horns, gospel-bred vocalists who stopped shouting to the heavens to focus on shouting to the devil – presumably over a woman they both were after, and you had a few vocal groups who could sing pop if they chose but were more successful in singing with a soulful bent to their voices while their sly grin gave their true intent away.

Like a lot of the budding indie labels Aristocrat had no real plan heading into their first year, employing a scattershot method in the hopes that something might connect. When they began to see some positive returns with the blues thanks to Muddy Waters they gravitated towards that while discarding the tentative jazz efforts they’d tried. They never had much of a hand in gospel, while pop was something seemingly outside of their abilities to attempt.

But when teenaged rock ‘n’ roller Andrew Tibbs became their first genuine star, scoring local hits that was capped off by a legitimate national hit along the way, the other avenue they’d pursue was suddenly a lot clearer.

So what do you do if you’re a vocal group proficient in all types of music, yet leaning towards pop, who found themselves enlisted to back Tibbs on a record and then given the chance to cut songs on their own?

If you’re smart, you try your hand in rock too and hope that clicks.
 

 
I Can’t Pay Your Bills
When we first met the Dozier Boys backing up Tibbs on the brilliant In A Travelin’ Mood from December 1948 it was such a dynamic pairing that Aristocrat then gave label credit to the boys on the next Tibbs release even though they weren’t on the recording. So much for honesty and integrity.

They were however on its flip side, In Every Man’s Life, for which they also received label credit, and their vocal support, though modest in terms of what they were asked to contribute, was quite good.

So in theory it certainly wouldn’t be a difficult transition to go from support of a rock singer to singing lead themselves, especially since they had plenty of experience on their own since forming in 1946, first as an amateur gospel group and then segueing into secular material the following year when they added Bill Minor as a new lead singer (and drummer, as the guys all sang AND played, which was somewhat rare back then).

But remember, this was 1947 when rock ‘n’ roll was just a glint in the old man’s eye and so their initial focus was on pop tunes, one of many who took the success of groups like The Ink Spots as proof that such a career was possible.

By the next fall – October 1948 – they were professionals who became a fixture in Chicago clubs where they met a wide array of people connected in one form or another to Aristocrat Records – bandleader Jump Jackson, who’d released the first rock-related record, Hey Pretty Mama on the label a year earlier, as well as meeting and working with Kenneth Tibbs, Andrew’s older brother, a singer himself. But it was Willie Dixon, legendary bassist who in time would go on to be the most vital musical component of Chess Records (as the re-named Aristocrat became once employee Leonard Chess took over the following year), who brought The Dozier Boys to the company’s attention in late 1948.

Their first session was backing Tibbs, both vocally and instrumentally, on four songs, only two of which saw release. Then not long after they came in to cut their own sides including their first run through of today’s song, but Aristocrat wasn’t happy with the results of that, though they liked the song’s potential and so they were quickly called back to re-cut Big Time Baby a second time.

It’s obvious though based on the rest of the material recorded that they were all casting about for a style to make their own. Some of the numbers are pure pop, nothing noteworthy about them and certainly nothing that interests us as rock fans. But two of the songs, including this one, showed that what they were best suited for after all was rock ‘n’ roll.
 

Running Back Home
For this session they were paired up with familiar faces in Eugene Wright and His Dukes Of Swing. Familiar to them, not to us who are meeting them for the first time here on Spontaneous Lunacy. Wright was a bassist who would go on to be in the acclaimed jazz quartet of Dave Brubeck, the only non-white member, which is where his legend was made. But everyone has to start somewhere and his somewhere was with The Dukes Of Swing (“Senator” Eugene Wright is still with us as of this writing at the ripe young age of 95 and his work in jazz should be known by all, but start with Brubeck’s immortal Time Out album and go from there)

The Dukes – who were conversant in swing but not tied to it by any means – were the house band at the Beige Room a basement club at the Pershing Hotel where The Dozier Boys had gotten noticed earlier that fall. Wright led the eleven piece band that played there and The Dozier Boys became their vocal group as needed.

The first run-through of the song a few days earlier had them backed by Sax Mallard’s group – and in fact it was Mallard who wrote Big Time Baby – and they were a solid outfit who recorded quite a lot. But since they’re replaced on this released take of the song by Wright’s group you can draw your own conclusions as to whether Mallard’s band was what the label took issue with, but Wright and company – which includes the soon-to-be-notorious Sun Ra on piano – deliver just what is needed to pull this off.

That’s not to say that the song itself, the vocals OR the band are a seamless fit in rock ‘n’ roll. There’s still some compromises that stick out right from the start as The Dozier Boys’ group vocals that lead this off are oddly being delivered in an airy tone that recalls pop far too much for our comfort… but maybe was more comfortable for them which could spell trouble for this being able to connect.

But fear not for once Bill Minor’s lead takes over he gets things on track with an elongated and soulful ”Welllllllll” leading into the story that has all of the requisite rock-related topics covered and which, for a change, results in the singer taking charge and bettering his situation.
 

Gone Baby Gone
When we first meet him he’s bemoaning the fact that his current gold-digging girl is demanding a Cadillac even though he’s already bought her a car (just a Ford, though let it be said they weren’t exactly giving those away at dealerships in the late 1940’s either). Rather than merely bitch and moan to us about it, then bite his lip when he returns to her each night, figuring his nightly rolls in the hay with her are the trade off for such high-end financial expectations on her part, he decides to ditch her altogether and return to his old girlfriend from back home.

Now of course this leads to two rather obvious questions, the first being why should we expect his old flame to take him back after he presumably dumped HER to move up in the world with somebody else. The other question is if this one was so generous in her displays of love to begin with, as he boastfully claims now, then why did think he was upgrading when he started seeing Parasite Patty in the first place?

Alas we’ll never know, but he’s not the first ungrateful dolt who had his head turned when he got to the big city and he sure as hell won’t be the last.

Though Minor’s voice isn’t on par with someone like Andrew Tibbs, he’s got decent pipes and manages to inject his delivery with some – forgive me – “minor touches” that are quite notable.

We’ve touched upon some of the differences between singing in a pop style and a rock style and one of the areas that best illustrates the respective styles is how notes are held. In pop of the 1940’s vocalists had a tendency to let their elongated notes “drift down”, like a leaf gently falling to the ground. They’d sing in full voice and then gradually let up on the projection of it to soften it before it landed. Listen to Dick Haymes, Perry Como or Vic Damone, all of whom had huge hits in 1949, for plenty of evidence as to this technique.

But rock singers weren’t so passive, they’d alter their tone, their pitch, their intensity… anything to keep you off balance and keep them emotionally invested in the song’s message. Some, like Tibbs, would throw in melisma until it was dripping from the grooves, but Minor goes easy on this yet still manages to make it distinctive. Listening to how he downshifts on the line “She knows how to treat her ma-annn” is like a sneak peak into the dominant form of rock group singing from five years in the future.

The others don’t always pull their weight, and increasingly as the song goes on they’re entrusted with carrying too much of the load. Most disheartening is the under-powered bass vocals of Benny Carter, who’d been a revelation behind Tibbs on In A Traveling Mood, but here sounds as if he’s been laid up with a case of pneumonia for a month and can’t muster the power to really make his presence known.

Call it a tale of two vocals – Minor is first rate, the others merely passable, and even that might be generous considering the far-too buoyant refrain ”she can do that, she can do that” that gets tired after about a half a line.
 

Cuttin’ Out
The same tale of two cities critique befalls the instrumental backing as well. Though Wright himself was the bassist and entrenched as the bandleader, Sun Ra was the arranger, still under the name Sonny Blount, and unfortunately there’s a split in the aims here that make the end results a little disconcerting.

The horn riffs that open are decent enough, nothing great but serviceable enough with some nice fills by Blount on the keys, but the horn solos that appear in the first break are a case of being good in concept but bad in execution. The baritone’s initial honks are the sound of a goose with a head cold and the tenor which follows suggest that whichever musician was manning the instrument – Bill Evans or Melvin Scott – was asthmatic, as no notes are held long enough or played strong enough to make a positive impression.

So to recap the first half of the record contains far and away the best vocals courtesy of Minor, yet the weaker instrumental backing. The second half of Big Time Baby reverses that, as the tenor saxophonist without the breathing problems seems to take over for the stretch run. He’s not delivering the most consistent of performances, as it ranges from quite good to quite unusual in the span of a few seconds, but at its best the lines have some grit and urgency to them that elevates the proceedings enough to keep you reasonably satisfied, even as the group vocals dim your enthusiasm somewhat.

One wonders what the Mallard led first version from a few days earlier sounded like by comparison which would lead them bringing in a new group to lay this down instead. Chances are it was a case of Mallard’s crew playing far too light and pulling this much closer to the pop realm, as you’d suspect upon hearing the Dozier Boys first release She Only Fools With Me backed by Mallard from that session which came out in April 1949 and positioned them as harmless pop group.

But Wright’s crew, while better suited to this harder driving music than Mallard might’ve been was hardly ideal either, their musical background being also a few years out of date, though they compensate just well enough to make Big Time Baby fit in rock ‘n’ roll, even if the clothes they’re wearing are a size too small to really look sharp.

That’s often the case in early rock though, as we all know by now, when record labels made due with the artists they had under contract and the bands they had access to and tried their hand in a style that was deemed commercially promising even if it wasn’t necessarily the style that any of them would’ve chosen on their own.

Yet enthusiastic about it or not, The Dozier Boys do a good enough job to be welcome on the scene, especially one that was still in dire need of more vocal groups to off-set the solo singers and instrumental groups that were dominating the roll call of releases. That this record was cut almost a year before it got released hurts it in comparison to the now current trends in the field, dragging it down from what might’ve been an average rock release in the waning days of 1949 to one a little behind the curve entering the home stretch of 1949, but it’ll suffice.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of The Dozier Boys for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)