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COLUMBIA 30163; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

Arguably no artists we’ve covered in rock’s first year and a half have pulled off such a complete turnaround as The Five Scamps when it comes to not just their output, but their entire stylistic approach.

In fact they went so far as to not only change their musical outlook but their name along with it, ditching the moniker The Scamps which they were credited as on their first outing back in December 1947 and becoming The Five Scamps when they re-appeared on the scene in March 1949.

Okay, so it’s not exactly Norma Jean Mortenson becoming Marilyn Monroe but in terms of musical transformation the difference between the mild Solitude and the absolutely scorching Red Hot was no less a shocking turnabout than discovering Clark Kent was really Superman underneath those glasses and silly hat.

But which version of the group was the real one? The mild crooners who’d been around in one form or another for over a decade or the scalding rockers who sounded as if they just exploded out of the rock ‘n’ roll womb?

The answer is… we’re not quite sure yet.
 

 
Doesn’t Know Her History
The reasons behind a creative re-invention aren’t hard to figure out. Usually it comes down to either the artist in question wanting to explore a style that they genuinely loved but had been reluctant to try earlier for fear of alienating their potential audience, or the flip side of that, realizing their audience wasn’t big enough to fill a taxi cab and so in search of a larger crowd to keep them working they tackled something more popular.

Neither approach has the best track record.

In the first scenario the established artist’s fans are often skeptical if not outright hostile to seeing their idols suddenly jump camps to something outside of their own interests. Think of those we’ve criticized for doing just that around here but in reverse, such as when The Ravens and The Orioles attempted to court older pop listeners with watered down deliveries that took them far away from the earthier more emotionally uninhibited styles that caused the rock fan to embrace them from the start.

Now there are some, Ivory Joe Hunter among those we’ve met to date, and certainly in the future guys like Ray Charles, David Bowie, Sly & The Family Stone, Neil Young, Prince and Childish Gambino have effortlessly moved from one motif to another with no loss in quality or commitment from their audience, so it can be done. But that’s certainly not the boat that The Scamps found themselves in when making their rather drastic move sometime over the course of 1948.

For starters they were unsuccessful leading up to that shift, even though they’d been around for years and had some recordings out. When the musicians strike put all new sessions on ice for the duration of 1948 Modern Records dropped them altogether and they went a full year without a contract. That, as they say, is a reality check.

So when they got another chance, with a major label in Columbia no less (HOW they got signed to them is a bigger mystery than Stonehenge) they correctly assessed the landscape they’d grown up in had irrevocably changed and if they hadn’t been able to break through in that more tepid style when it was in vogue there was little chance to do so now when the trend was for uptempo rockin’.

Who knows, maybe this is why Columbia signed them, looking for a group that COULD sing classy – so as not to taint their label by their mere presence (and in the CD era their Columbia releases would be shuttled to retrospectives on their later OKeh subsidiary which specialized in this kind of music, almost as if they were STILL wary of having the Columbia brand sullied by association even forty years down the road!) – but who may be capable of cutting something that would gain them all a foot in the rock ‘n’ roll door.

That it did. The newly christened Five Scamps tore the roof off the building on Red Hot leaving listeners to wonder if they had sold their souls to the devil in order to be so convincing, both vocally and especially musically.
 


 

Which brings us to the difficulties with that second approach mentioned earlier, the one about switching lanes because you were getting nowhere in the one you’d been traveling in. Despite the power of Columbia Records to promote their records they didn’t have the connections in the types of places accustomed to selling or playing rock ‘n’ roll and so, as great as the record was, it failed to chart, as did it its immediate predecessor, their solid cover of Amos Milburn’s #1 rock hit Chicken Shack Boogie.

Now the question about which version of the group is authentic comes back into play. Obviously no label or artist knows the reaction of what was going to come out of their initial session and so if they put all of their eggs in one basket and that basket broke they’d have to scrape them off the floor just to make an omelet, probably their last meal right before they were shown the door. So they grabbed another basket off the shelf that day and cut some sides that might be a little more inline with Columbia’s overall mindset when it came to what was worth pursuing.

To everybody’s shock, not least of all the conservative heads of Columbia, Red Hot hit the Top Three on Cash Box’s regional charts in places as far-flung as San Francisco, Cleveland, Ohio and Virginia thereby validating their artistic choice, their abilities and rock ‘n’ roll’s commercial prowess all at once.

But that left them with the more compromised material from last winter sitting on the shelf. Not about to let it collect dust for eternity Columbia Records issued it on their next release, Fine Like Wine, and so we’re given the chance to go back to those moments of indecision and see The Five Scamps hedge their bets somewhat as they try to straddle the line between rock and more moderate pursuits, something we know from experience rarely works.
 


Who Needs Books?
When you listen to this, especially if you’re the type with a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to being asked to consider whether something not plainly obvious at first glance really belongs in the discussion, you might rightly say that this record, on its own without the recent unquestioned rocker on their résumé, likely wouldn’t be included here.

Fair enough.

But as regular readers know artists who have wholeheartedly indulged in rock ‘n’ roll get the benefit of the doubt – at first anyway – when they seem to step away for a side or two. The longer they stay away from rock’s core aesthetics the less welcome they’ll be (though that’s not a criticism of their choices, or a knock against what they’re putting out, but simply a necessary split to keep the blog focus on its primary objective which is the full history of rock ‘n’ roll), but their choices when it comes to moving further away are every bit as important as their choices for moving closer to rock in the first place, so it has to be looked at.

Besides, as tame is this seems at first, especially when compared to the incendiary workout they exhibited on Red Hot, there’s a sly undercurrent to this all the same that makes it much closer to the rock styles of the recent past here on Spontaneous Lunacy as well as a lot of what is to come, and that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

I suppose this is as good point as any to remind one and all that rock vocal groups in general are always at risk for having their authenticity called into question when the deviate even slightly from an all out rave-up. Because their focal point is centered around voices, not instruments, there’s not many ways other than bearing down when they’re singing to create an edgier sound that would remove all doubt as to where it belongs. Yet as we know not all songs benefit from that approach.

This is true even in songs that aren’t vocal group records, it’s just that when a Jimi Hendrix eases back on his playing or Guns ‘n Roses croon Don’t Cry there’s automatic leeway granted their stylistic diversions. In fact it’s often used to praise them for their diversity! The same is not always true when it comes to vocal groups, who are often the first to be shunned for failure to draw blood with each and every song. Hey, prejudice exists under a variety of guises and musical prejudice when it comes to genre labels is no different.
 

When Her Charms Are In My Arms
Anyway, while The Five Scamps by virtue of their conflicted stylistic history and varying intent with their past recordings may have a more tenuous claim to a seat on this particular bus than most, the attributes they bring to Fine Like Wine actually fit in nicely with what we’ve accepted with open arms thus far.

For starters there’s the obvious connection with The Ravens. The entire vocal arrangement is drawn up with them in mind. Though the lead is a baritone, not a bass, it’s clearly designed to suggest Jimmy Ricks, arguably the best and certainly the most distinctive rock vocalist of the 1940’s. The vocal bridge delivered by a falsetto as the others harmonize behind them both throughout is the standard Ravens approach, and thus the standard rock vocal group approach to date.

Beyond that though there’s the playfulness the whole performance is draped in that gives it an alluring texture that’s captivating no matter the field it lands in. Even as the record steers closer to pop sensibilities in some of the passages they’re shading it with a sly devious quality, from poking fun at her lack of brains and then giving her a backhanded compliment when they then attempt to rectify the situation by saying it’s only conditional – “Her I.Q.’s only fifty but in the dark it’s 99” – hardly a scholar either way!

Lighthearted as it is the group comes off as sounding as if they’re having a blast, almost as if they were just screwing around for the fun of it, something accentuated by the fact the only instrument heard is the choppy piano accompaniment. That might come as a disappointment to those so captivated by their instrumental prowess displayed on Red Hot, but this arrangement suits this to a T.

The harmonies are expertly judged, their tone is soothing with just a touch of soulfulness. What makes them stand out so well is the melody which rolls along effortlessly, sounding familiar on the first listen. Perhaps this is due – in retrospect – to a similarity with The Dominoes Pedal Pushin’ Papa, their belated 1953 sequel to the monster hit Sixty Minute Man (which of course means that nobody in 1949 would be aware of it), but regardless of your associating it with that cut or not it does show that Fine Like Wine has deeper connections to the more typical rock vocal groups than might meet the eye.
 

Soon You’re Gonna Say Congratulations
How far into the rock territory something this mellow is perceived to be probably says more about the listener than the song, but regardless of the listener’s perceptions of rock’s boundaries the song itself is too enjoyable and delivered too well to criticize outright.

 

 

The Five Scamps may never have had a religious conversion when it came to embracing rock, and certainly they were at the mercy of their record label more than most when it came to the ultimate direction they’d be asked to pursue, only because they didn’t have a stack of hits to fall back on and Columbia Records was obviously a powerful enough company to make good on a threat to cut them loose if they didn’t stick closer to something the A&R department deemed commercially promising, but if they DID split the difference here they managed to do so with a lot class.

So while Fine Like Wine may not be anything you’d serve up to convince somebody of the group’s rock credentials, for an after dinner drink it’ll go down smooth and easy. Like a bottle of something from tried but true wineries like Oyster Bay or Abbey Creek, there’s plenty here to enjoy for anybody’s palette.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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