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SELECTIVE 103; JUNE, 1949

 
 

 

The most popular names for baby boys in 1949 were pretty traditional – James, Robert, John, William and Michael were the top five. The next five were no more adventurous either – David, Richard, Thomas, Charles and Larry.

In fact traditional – okay, boring – names have remained the status quo for years in America as William, Michael and James remain in the top ten well into the 21st century as well.

Edward isn’t exactly pushing boundaries when you get right down to it either though, as it was the 21st most popular boys name for 1949 and the eighth most popular for 1918 (after a familiar Top Three of – you guessed it – John, William and James).

Why this stroll down memory lane and why are we going all the way back to 1918, three decades before rock burst onto the scene?

Because 1918 is when Edward G. White was born.

Fascinating“, you say, just before uttering “Who the hell is Edward G. White?”

Well, thirty one years later he came into sight on the rock radar under the name The Great Gates, scoring a Top Ten hit and in the process helping to kick off the trend in rock for colorful, boastful nom de plumes that would reach full flower when rock’s most swaggering style known as rap came along three decades later… when Michael, James, John and Robert were among the Top Ten baby names of that year as well.

Since we have all that evidence as to the lack of creativity when it came to affixing names to the male of the species is it any wonder why someone bucking those trends would call themselves The Great Gates in order to stand out?
 

 
A Rose By Any Other Name
Just so there’s no giant mystery the “G” in Edward G. White was for Gates and thus his use of that as his surname (more or less) in this moniker is fairly simple. But hey, at least he was trying.

Now to be fair there have been plenty of singers we’ve met along the way who were going under names their mama didn’t bestow upon them. Cousin Joe. Stick McGhee. Chubby Newsom. Nicknames mostly in those cases. Then you had the likes of Big Jay McNeely and Crown Prince Waterford which were given to the artist as a colorful description to tout their prowess. Occasionally you had artists coming up with aliases of their own for various reasons – Doc Pomus was a way for the Jewish Jerome Felder to lose himself in another cultural persona. Manhattan Paul was how Paul Bascomb, a well-respect saxophonist with long-standing “good music” ties, was able to slip in to the rock party in disguise so as not to offend his loyalists from other styles.

Anyway, the point isn’t even who was technically first, but rather the increasing adaptation of an image designed to convey something distinctive and maybe a little mysterious before even placing a record on a turntable. Like a superhero who becomes somebody else when putting on a costume rock artists would go on in time to do the same thing. Christopher Wallace becoming The Notorious B.I.G., Kevin Donovan turning into Afrika Bambaataa, Reginald Dwight becoming Elton John, (complete with plenty of costume changes in his case), Sam Samudio transforming into the eccentric Sam The Sham (with a legion of crazed cohorts called The Pharaohs) and Roland Byrd stepping into a phone booth and emerging as the madly brilliant Professor Longhair. The intent was the same in most of those instances, to step outside yourself and become something of your own creation.

That’s how it was when Edward White first whipped off his coat and tie, transforming himself into The Great Gates, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound while scoring hits that have become almost completely lost to the mists of time.

Oh well, the superhero gig isn’t always easy… does anybody remember Captain Flag or Captain Flash who during this era tried throwing their capes into the ring only to disappear quickly when apparently nobody was very impressed with their lack of originality or superpowers?

Who knows, maybe all of them are hanging out together nowadays in an alternate universe with The Great Gates trying to put together a power trio to fight demonic bad guys and land a few bar band gigs on the side.
 

Get Right In The Groove
Gates had been born (according to the man himself) in Philadelphia (though according to researchers it was in Alabama) and his family soon moved to Los Angeles where he learned to read music but didn’t pursue it when he got out of high school. Instead he worked in dry cleaning and simply liked to sing for his own enjoyment until one day he was overheard singing by co-workers who encouraged him to enter a talent contest in which he impressed the crowd, the bandleader and everyone in the vicinity.

Though he turned down the nightclub gigs he was immediately offered for fear he wasn’t good enough, he did accept the bandleader’s offer to help him polish his skills and develop an act, learning basic presentation and delivery such as how to sing in rhythm along with the band, things he felt he was lacking in at that point if he was going to pursue music as a career.

Within a few months, in mid-1949, he’d progressed enough to be in the studio for tiny Selective Records cutting his first sides (rumors of a December 1948 session for major label Columbia appear to be just that – rumors). It’s probably not too surprising that with such a limited musical background that Gates would reach back to something familiar to kick off his recording career.

Erskine Hawkins led one of the premier big bands in the country during the 1930’s and 1940’s. A trumpet player who’d led the ‘Bama State Collegians, which featured the aforementioned Manhattan Paul when he was a respected musician named Paul Bascomb. Hawkins, a trumpet player by trade, composed the immortal Tuxedo Junction. His pianist at the time was Avery Parrish, who like Hawkins came from the fertile musical ground of Parker High School in Birmingham, sort of the jazz equivalent to rock’s Jefferson High in Los Angeles of the 1950’s.

Parrish worked as an arranger for the ‘Bama State Collegians and wrote After Hours, a moody piano piece that while relatively simple – a repetitive groove designed to get you in a trance – became a standard of the genre, universally known as The Negro National Anthem. So as far as source material goes, even well into the next decade, this is something that really needed no introduction.

Just so we don’t leave any loose ends, Parrish fell upon hard times after leaving Hawkins, was partially paralyzed in a bar fight in 1943 and he was unable to play piano as a result of his injuries for the final sixteen years of his life, dying in New York in 1959, a tragically forgotten figure in American music.

But “After Hours” lived on in countless renditions with Dizzy Gillespie turning in maybe the most acclaimed version along the way, featuring an all-star lineup including Sonny Stitt on saxophone, while Fats Domino even loosely adapted it for one of his most melancholy hits, Natural Born Lover in 1960.

But the unlikeliest of all of its descendants was probably the version turned in here which transformed the crawling seductive pace into a rather raunchy sax-based rock rendition.

Oh yeah, one other thing, Gates added lyrics, making its source even more obscured.
 

The Joint Is All Rocking
The first thing that stands out on this somewhat unusual take of the song – aside from the altered title Late After Hours to symbolize the stylistic shift perhaps – is that the pace has noticeably picked up. It’s still not an upbeat tempo but it’s gone from sleepy to restless which suits the setting the record will have to appeal in if it wants to make any headway amongst the rock crowd.

Among the musicians tasked with carrying this out are a few names which will become somewhat more familiar as we turn the corner into the 1950’s, led by saxophonist Marvin Phillips and pianist Richard Lewis.

Phillips actually will make his name more as a vocalist down the road, usually in duos with either Jesse Belvin, Carl Green or Emory Perry (with both of the latter two under the names Marvin & Johnny), but Marvin always played sax too and did so quite well, as he adapts Parrish’s piano figure to the horn, the change in tone of the instruments giving it a much different feel. Lewis for his part adds a percussive effect on the keys, adding a rhythm which is then supplemented by harsher fret work by Jesse Ervin, another name who will be popping up from time to time playing behind some of the next generation of rockers.

All of these guys were much younger than the 31 year old Gates. Phillips, who gets the featured role instrumentally in this – even getting a shout-out from Gates mid-way through, urging him to “Blow, Marvin, blow!” – was all of 18 years old at the time and it was his first excursion into a studio after getting his start briefly playing behind an all-girl band.

Their instrumental work is solid if unspectacular, but certainly played in a manner that places it well within the rock idiom. The song’s jazz origins are all but obscured by the intentional crudity of the arrangement which is clearly designed to highlight the rougher aspects with Gates screaming and ad-libbing remarks before he jumps in with his proper vocals thirty seconds into the proceedings.

“Proper” is probably not the best way to describe him even though he does deliver the primary lyrics with a mellow reserved tone, not quite crooning, certainly not smooth like the pop crooners in any case, but definitely bringing it closer to the original mood the Hawkins jazz instrumental had conveyed.

But it doesn’t last. He can only make it so far it seems before the musicians ramp things up causing Gates to become overpowered by the urge to lose control of his senses. He’ll interject a scream, a bellow, a cry of exultation at the drop of a hat, then as the musicians ease back Gates will abruptly settle back into a calmer demeanor himself, almost as if it never happened.

Instead of being disconcerting or even harshly off-putting the shift in intensity not only solidifies its rock credentials – not that there was much doubt before, but there’s absolutely no doubt after hearing him break loose – but it also provides a much different atmosphere than any other interpretation of the Hawkins framework you might come across.

The Phillips solo on sax is gritty yet steamy, almost sensuous in a rough sort of way with Earl Brown’s drums asserting themselves with an impatient air to get you even more in the groove. It sounds as if the temperature in this club is reaching triple digits, making it more a sauna than a nightclub, but while it might have you passing out from heat exhaustion were you trying to dance in the cramped environment if you were there, by merely listening on record you maintain consciousness and can better appreciate what they’re laying down.
 

Everything Is Really Alright
As reasonably effective as it is in the right setting I wouldn’t say that it was a likely bet to become a national hit nor did it give too much indication that the musicians behind him would go on to make names for themselves in the future. Yet that’s what happened in both cases.

Late After Hours hit #6 on the R&B Charts at the tail end of summer, albeit it just for one week, and as stated three of the players behind him all had long and fairly successful careers of their own, much more notable than The Great Gates himself, who went on to record for a variety of small labels and under a handful of names. Nothing else he did made as much noise as this, but he didn’t waver in his intent, cutting rockers to the end.

When his recording opportunities dried up in that vein he learned the organ and kicked-off a second career playing that instrument and getting more releases at the end of the 50’s and into the 1960’s before settling in under the similarly unusual heading of The Man In The Moon and playing clubs into the 1980’s.

Thus The Great Gates, while certainly not “great” in the historical sense, is nonetheless a great example of adaptability and survival in the rock world. He wasn’t someone who had sought a career as a professional musician but he was skilled enough to more than get by when the opportunity presented itself by presenting himself in a distinctive fashion, both by re-imagining a song seemingly out of his musical sphere and by making sure you remembered the name it came out under… at least for a little while.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of The Great Gates for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)