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MANOR 1154; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

How’s that old saying go again?

If at first you don’t succeed… try something blatantly salacious!

Well, that might not be how it was said in most walks of life, but in rock ‘n’ roll that altered statement is about as reliable a game plan as can be found.

In other words, when in doubt and you want to make a name for yourself as a rocker, get down and dirty.
 

We first were introduced to The Four Tunes way back in April 1948 with Confess, a rather genteel ballad of romantic longing that was barely a half step away from the pop confines the group had made their reputation in over the past few years.

In fact, although all of the songs included here on Spontaneous Lunacy indeed belong in the rock ‘n’ roll archives it doesn’t mean all songs are equally comfortable within that realm. Subjective scores affixed to the bottom of each review aside, the outer boundaries of ANY musical genre are going to be a bit flexible and the last ones through the door are always going to be somewhat conspicuous in their presence.

Nowhere is this perception more acute than with those artists who straddle the mainstream pop divide but it helps from time to time to define the parameters to see how wide that gap truly is.

Rock ‘n’ roll, as we’ve taken pains to point out numerous times over our travels here, was the sound of a new generation of artists and listeners who were united in their restless craving for cultural freedom which was given voice by this music. Ever since, even as the audience shifts with each successive generation, that attribute will remain a core identifying factor of the music.

In many ways the music becomes a statement of purpose, of outlook and identity unto itself. A surefire method for distancing themselves from the established accepted cultural standards.

Pop music, lest we forget, IS the established accepted cultural standards.

Mainstream pop is music for those who no longer seek to define who they are by what they listen to. Though certainly not an insult it’s largely music to be listened to in passing, modestly enjoyed but often with a certain sense of emotional detachment. A transitory moment of aural scenery forging a fleeting connection which is easily severed.

Hardly a life or death matter. Not like rock ‘n’ roll, which when it burns hottest can seem nothing short of life or death to those who need it most.


Needless to say it was never life or death to The Four Tunes who had made their name before rock ‘n’ roll reared it’s ugly head. While they may have had it in them to perform it at a technical level, being a quartet of skilled singers with enough social insight as recently graduated members of that community to understand it’s urgent pull for those who fell under its spell, they had no NEED to use it to define who they were and what they wanted in life. What they wanted they already had and it was pop music that had given it to them. Like most pop acts they were comfortable where they were and they sang music for those audiences who were comfortable with who they were as well.

Or were they?

One of the more interesting aspects of the dawn of rock music is trying to discern the mindset of those who just missed coming of age in that brief period of 1947-1949. Artists who came along just before that time under different ground rules with different measures of success, but those who, had they arrived just a few weeks, months or even a few years later would’ve found themselves squarely in the midst of the rock revolution too and forced to make a choice as to which side to align themselves with.

But by establishing themselves just before rock’s birth most of these acts were content where they were and probably looked down upon rock artists as being somehow beneath them. The rougher style, the gaudier arrangements, the cruder material, the slightly lower audience were the very things these older artists had tried to get AWAY from. Even back in the mid-1940’s before rock existed there still were different audience factions to aim for and groups like The Four Tunes had aimed high. Unlike most who did at the time they actually hit what they aimed at and scored as a legitimate pop act, first in the upper crust of the black community while backing Savannah Churchill on I Want To Be Loved (But Only By You), which was #1 on the Race charts for two full months in 1947, but more recently they entered the predominantly white Pop listings with Time Out For Tears with Churchill. In 1948 that was still a rare and enviable achievement for any black artist and so surely there was no reason for them to stoop to the level of trying to satisfy the rowdy young juke-joint clientele that made up rock’s main constituency by cutting something racy and tasteless.

Yet here they were doing just that.
 

Grease On The Old Ball Bearings
Whereas on Confess you could make the case that they were merely drawn into rock’s outer orbit circumstantially, owing as much to the still unsettled boundaries of the rock vocal approach as to any overt intent on the part of The Four Tunes, the same can’t be said for I’m Gonna Ride Tillie Tonight.

Here there’s not much uncertainty about their intent. This is about as far away from the kind of mannered pop music they’d been hitting with as can possibly be. Try as you might to equate the frilly piano opening and the lightweight Doot-dootily-doot-doot of the backing that follow with a harmless novelty concept, that idea is blown to hell the second the lyrics come spewing out of Pat Best’s mouth. If 78 RPM records had come with Parental Advisory stickers in 1949 this would’ve been absolutely plastered with them.

Truthfully when they started slapping those infernal things on records in the 1980’s I’m pretty sure the following enthusiastically sung chorus dating back forty years STILL would’ve earned one from Tipper Gore and her jackbooted thugs.

I ain’t pumped Tillie in a long time
But I’m gonna pump Tillie tonight
I’m gonna pump poor Tillie right down the line
And I’ll ride her out of sight!

There’s no need to read between the lines on this, in fact there’s no subtlety to it at all. It’s as straightforward as it gets and just in case you doubted what they meant they go on to advise:

I’ve got to put on my brand new rubber
Then she’ll ride so doggone smooth
I must put on my rubber
To get Tillie in the groove

Well, at least they’re advocating SAFE sex. No unwanted pregnancies here! Somehow though I don’t think the local board of health will be handing this record out to unwed girls as an instructional lesson for first dates.
 

So I’ll Never Never Stall
While the music that accompanies this is hardly scintillating, the focus of course is squarely on the lyrics and the manner in which they deliver them goes a long way into revealing their intent. Unlike on the more mellow concoctions they usually stuck to delivering I’m Gonna Ride Tillie Tonight finds them shedding their demure vocal approach along with their clothes, singing in a far less refined tone. It’s not raunchy certainly, there’s no grunts, squeals or moans interjected into the proceedings here to fully drive home the point, but they definitely sound revved up for that type of action later on. It might be somewhat controlled exuberance but try telling that to the guardians of good taste who recoiled at the mere thought of such activities.

Keep in mind the context too, our favorite word here in so many of these reviews, but vital in understanding how all of this stuff was dealt with at the time. Rock music was definitely not welcome in mainstream white society and in 1948 it was mainstream white society which made the rules and set the standards of puritanical acceptance. Though there’d always been some appeal in slipping a hint of suggestiveness through its guard from time to time the pop record industry was always careful to present it in a harmless way.

Now of course nobody listening to pop records were so naïve as to think that Makin’ Whoopee was about baking whoopee pies, and unless you’re completely dense it’s not hard to read into Frank Sinatra’s Five Minutes More that he’s horny as hell and isn’t pleased with his date sending him on his way with just a peck on the cheek, but they were done in a manner that didn’t require you to acknowledge this, or even be aware of it! For years the standard approach saw white pop artists shorn of their carnal instincts by the powers that be and they were relying on that respectful image to mislead you into thinking they were all asexual virgins whenever songs skirted the edge of decorum.

But BLACK artists were forcibly castrated on record in order to negate any thought of sex – which of course to whitey meant forced sex with helpless Caucasian females – and if you went against that dictum you risked embodying the stereotyped image of the leering male predator which to much of white America in 1948 was an invitation to be lynched.

That’s not to say these songs didn’t exist. We KNOW they did, but they were intended solely for the black audiences of the blues or rock ‘n’ roll. In other words, they were the LAST thing an already successful pop crossover group would do if they wanted to remain welcome in the high class environs they were only just now beginning to be admitted into.

For a group like The Four Tunes who had just gotten their foot in that door to risk having the door slammed shut forever by releasing something like this is all but incomprehensible on the surface, even if they wanted to pretend it was merely a lighthearted novelty record.
 

Tighten Up The Screws
But it’s impossible to hear the song and have any doubt as to its goal – the entire song is designed to titillate and/or offend.

That leads to the unanswerable question as to WHY they suddenly sought to appeal to the rock market – one still smaller, far less affluent and without the means to support the group in the type of higher class venues they’d found themselves now appearing in. It wasn’t as if their sales were slackening off and were in need of a shot in the arm wherever it came from. If anything releasing a record so flagrantly obscene as I’m Gonna Ride Tillie Tonight, where even the title left nothing to the imagination, was a road to hellfire and damnation, not to mention radio blacklisting and societal ostracism.

They could argue that it was all in good fun, that euphemisms about bicycles and plenty of double entendres were essentially harmless – which of course they were – but at that time and in that cultural landscape was that an argument you could possibly win? Even if you could would the benefits of doing so, even getting a mild hit out of it, be worth the potential fallout?

Hardly.

Though it’s difficult to say what the direct result of this was, as there doesn’t seem to be any signs of an organized boycott of their records and threats of potential charges of indecency leveled at them, the fact remains their recent success (two Billboard hits and three in Cash Box in 1948) stopped cold after this release. It’d take until 1953 for The Four Tunes to make the charts again and you wonder if the powers that be simply tossed them aside in disdainful protest.

Most of their subsequent records returned them to the safety of the pop world and they would only occasionally veer in rock’s direction so if this record was indeed to blame for their commercial downturn it would appear that it was a massive miscalculation on their part, even though to our ears it was among the best songs they’d ever do.

In the end I guess they did ride her out of sight after all.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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