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COLUMBIA 30157; MARCH, 1949

 
 

 

Editorial decisions can be the bane of any writer.

What to leave in and what to take out are oftentimes the most important factor in making a written account of something come off well. Too much boring minutiae and you risk losing readers who want you to simply cut to the chase. Conversely not providing enough background information might wind up having that same reader unable to get their bearings and giving up on the piece.

Then there’s situations like this one, where just a single number throws you into disarray, upending a seemingly perfect plan.
 

 
High Class Aspirations For Low Brow Entertainment
Columbia Records had signed a group formerly known as The Scamps when the recording ban came to an end as 1948 was winding down. It wasn’t exactly the kind of signing to draw notice. The Scamps were a modest club act, a vocal harmony group that also played instruments, competent in both regards but hardly anything to get worked up about.

But during the year in which record labels were prevented from cutting any sessions due to the musician’s union edict that lasted 11 months an unexpected development took place… rock ‘n’ roll, a bastard child conceived during lewd acts of musical fornication behind the barn that had been born a few short months before the ban was enacted had started to grow up and make a lot of noise.

Commercial noise, which to the record industry with their snobbish tastes and erudite image to uphold, is the one thing that might get them to drop their airs and skulk around the alleys looking for ways to capitalize on the latest undignified craze.

Of the four major labels (Decca, RCA-Victor and Capitol being the others), Columbia Records was the oldest and most dignified and thus the least likely to stoop to such lows as trying to appeal to the type of degenerates who were buying this rock smut in ever-growing numbers. There’s of course a racial angle to this as well, since rock was an entirely black art form and Columbia was virtually lily-white and the few African-American artists they did deign to record were ones who had a degree of respectability in white society.

Surely THEY weren’t going to be seen associating with any uncouth rockers!

But sales are sales and all money is green so, probably against their better judgment and while holding their noses as they peered into the musical abyss that separated what their view of good music consisted of and the godless racket that was emanating from the other side of the tracks, Columbia tried to find a handful of potential rock acts who might be dressed up, taught some manners and passed off as a distant cousin of one of their in-laws or something.

The group they came up with first was The Scamps.

Based on their earlier stab at the outskirts of rock on Solitude they were hardly a group you’d think was any danger to offend any respectable blueblood in the Columbia offices by breaking wind, picking their nose or playing rock ‘n’ roll too loud and enthusiastically.

But upon changing their names to The Five Scamps to mark their ascendancy to the big time label they decided to change something else too – their entire approach. Taking their cue from the sounds that had become increasingly hard to ignore over the past year and a half The Five Scamps tore off their collars, rolled up their sleeves and got down and dirty as best they could, trying to prove they belonged in the rock discussion.

Columbia might not have been pleased with this but they had little choice after bringing them in to make due with what the group offered them. Perhaps in an effort to throw everything against the wall and see what, if anything, stuck, they issued their first two records at once. Surely thinking none of that organized mayhem would find any takers they’d then be free to cut them loose and blame the decision to sign them on some hapless junior executive who’d be quickly shown the door.

Instead, though not outright hits, they met with a little more interest than anyone dared dream and they were stuck with them.
 

The Numbers Game
So that’s the backstory but this release, the first sequentially (Columbia 30157) was initially left out of the roll call of records reviewed here on Spontaneous Lunacy, owing to the aforementioned “editorial decisions”.

It wasn’t a decision I necessarily wanted to make, but the problem was the transformation from tepid harmony group on Solitude from December 1947 to the hair-raising rockers on the next release (Columbia 30158 which was either issued simultaneously or within a few weeks of today’s record), was so shocking that the story-line worked far better by eliminating this from the narrative.

You’ll find this happens quite a lot in other forms of writing, such as adapting a book to the big screen where entire chapters, even multiple characters, are excised from the story to form a tighter script. Sometimes this works quite well, it’s hard to imagine The Godfather being quite as compelling with Sonny Corleone’s wife undergoing plastic surgery and having an affair as happened in the novel, but there are definitely a lot of times where eliminating something cuts back on the depth of the story and becomes a detriment.

That’s what happened here.

So while I still think the Scamps/Five Scamps saga reads better when jumping from Solitude in December 1947 to Red Hot in March 1949 there was a missing piece to the puzzle in the record that actually launched their Columbia career. I rationalized that since it was cut at the same session and released at the same time it wasn’t actually a first step in their turnaround or a transitional record of any kind, but rather just a quirk of the release schedule. Columbia could’ve just as easily switched the numbers on the two records from this date and then Chicken Shack Boogie would’ve certainly merited a review here.

But since it screwed up the more compelling narrative that I was writing and since it WAS just a matter of which song got which number assigned to it AND since the song itself was a cover record of Amos Milburn’s #1 smash hit and not an original piece of work unique to The Five Scamps, it initially got the axe.

Now here it is, granted a last minute pardon (or in this case exhuming the corpse from the grave months after it had been put to death) and we’re covering it all the same.

Why? Well, because the whole point of this project is to review all of rock, one song at a time, and this was a rock song that’s worth hearing. It also was something that kept popping up over the next few months when I’d reference it when talking about The Five Scamps or Columbia’s tentative move into rock, yet I’d have no link to the actual review since it never was reviewed here.

This, then, is my belated effort to make amends.

 

 
 

Back To The Chicken Shack
On the surface none of this should work of course. The Scamps weren’t likely to have found the key to becoming legitimate rockers no matter how long they’d had to work on it and their slight name change couldn’t be counted on to craft a whole new identity for them, either in the public’s mind or their own for that matter. As for their decision, or Columbia’s decision, to have them tackle Chicken Shack Boogie a record that was already done definitively by Milburn, its creator and one of the absolute best and most committed rockers in the world, that was hardly a battle they could win creatively or commercially.

In other words, it was almost as if they were being set up to fail.

So of course they succeeded.

But of the rock sides they issued first Chicken Shack Boogie is the weaker of the two, in part because it existed in the looming shadow of Milburn’s classic which nobody had any chance to surpass, but also because in an admirable attempt to sidestep a strict remake of Amos’s song they re-crafted it in unique fashion.

Milburn’s original featured a rolling groove established by his own piano and Maxwell Davis’s sultry tenor sax. The two instruments worked hand in hand to pull you in before Milburn ever opened his mouth to tell you about “the place where all the bad cats meet”.

Though The Five Scamps will prove themselves in short order to be fine musicians certainly capable of carrying out Milburn’s arrangement if they so chose, they instead alter the arrangement in a fairly inspired way to distance their rendition from the more familiar version. By kicking off with horns blaring a stop time refrain the entire mood of the piece is changed. Whereas Milburn’s was an alluring sound, something that compelled you to go along with them because it sounded so invigorating, The Five Scamps is more of an announcement from the corner that attempts to get your attention more than capturing your soul.

Yet it works in that regard, turning your head to hear what it is they’re laying down. When James Whitcomb’s voice comes in he starts off by speaking in a seductive tone, the prototypical snake-oil salesman with narrowed eyes and an ever present sly mischievous grin on his lips. Milburn had also delivered the lyrics in a semi-spoken patter but his came off sounding more as if he were talking amongst friends, or the gang on the corner, asking for directions to this joint among those who knew of its pleasures firsthand.
 

Let’s Have A Ball
As The Five Scamps version goes along Whitcomb’s delivery shifts just a bit, both from that honeyed-toned intro line but also from the manner in which Milburn won you over. Whitcomb goes from being the snake-oil salesman to being the shill, the hapless every-man employed by the grifter to act the part of the innocent who tries to stir up interest in his fellow onlookers by asking scripted questions designed to lure in more suckers. His manner is exaggeratedly square by design, yet underneath it you know he’s far hipper than the modest sap he’s making himself out to be. His references to the goings-on at this Chicken Shack club are far too knowing to be coming from somebody who’d never stepped foot in such a den of inequity before.

Meanwhile the others let on that they’re all a part of this ploy to get you to the club where their confederates will take your money for a cover charge, drastically marked up prices on booze or food, or maybe even newly installed meters on the pay-toilets.

Their riffing saxes are warmly inviting, the electric guitar is playing lines as sharp as a stiletto, another aspect that wasn’t found on Milburn’s, and while The Five Scamps version seems less boisterous it may actually come across as slightly more dastardly.

You get the feeling that Milburn wants you to go along with him to get juiced, to get high, to get laid, to have fun… The Five Scamps may want you to partake in all of that too, or at least that’s the bill of goods they’re selling you, but whereas Amos is going to be drunk right alongside you having a ball, The Five Scamps are going to be sober as a preacher on a Sunday morning counting the money as the flock enters this unholy church ready to deposit their hard-earned pay into the collection plates.

Theirs is a scam in other words.
 

Decisions, Decisions
But musically it’s NOT a scam. Not in the least.

Though theirs isn’t the first version of Chicken Shack Boogie you’d reach for, nor is theirs the one you’d use to define what rock ‘n’ roll was shaping up to be in the latter stages of the 1940’s, The Five Scamps are completely legitimate in their efforts to be rockers.

Though they were forced to take a different approach on this in order to distance themselves from Amos Milburn it wasn’t out of any repudiation of his style, nor any discomfort with the dominant rock mindset. It was merely a creative choice – and a good one considering the circumstances – a defensible one at the very least.

 

 

As for the editorial choice regarding our decision to bypass this in the reviews initially, that wasn’t so defensible in the big scheme of things, so we doubled back to do right by them.

The other choices by the parties involved have similarly mixed results. The Five Scamps would justify their decision to jump wholeheartedly into rock ‘n’ roll with their next release whereas Columbia Records’ decision to tentatively explore rock’s potential, in the process tainting their snooty image, judging by their extremely limited investment in all but a few big name acts over the next seven decades, may be one they’re still regretting.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Amos Milburn (October, 1948)