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DERBY 726; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Fitting in. Those are words that everyone has to contemplate at some point during their lives though the implications of just what that means may vary depending on the people involved and the circumstances.

Sometimes fitting in carries negative connotations, as I’m sure most people remember from when their mothers told them that they shouldn’t do something “just to fit it” when they were ten years old. In those cases the fitting in usually involves swearing, smoking or wearing some article of clothing that causes your parents to recoil in horror and want to hide their faces in embarrassment.

But while there were plenty of members of the musical establishment who came of age in the 1940’s who meant it exactly the same way when they chided artists who were slumming in rock ‘n’ roll for trying to fit in with this recent brand of unsavory music, in the case of The James Quintet “fitting in” was actually an attempt at commercial, if not musical, solvency.

What’s more, though their move in this direction may indeed have been an act of self-preservation it was one they seemed to have felt entirely comfortable making which meant, as unlikely as it seemed, with their first record they ended up fitting in just fine.
 

 

Steal My Heart Away
Regardless of background and experience in other styles, merely exhibiting the right musical traits to qualify as rock artists is just one factor in finding ultimate success in this field. You also had to leave no doubt that this was what you were destined to do and for The James Quintet their inability to succeed in this realm may have been because they couldn’t quite convince audiences of the sincerity of their attempts. Or perhaps it was due to a lack of promotion – after all, not many radio stations played this stuff and since there were just 25 open spots in a jukebox it wasn’t easy for a small record company to get an unknown group in the mix and be heard.

But then again perhaps the most sensible explanation as to why this group, and more importantly this single, didn’t launch them with the fanfare they surely were hoping for is simply because while it fully qualified as rock ‘n’ roll the two approaches they took were not exactly widely appreciated styles of rock… at least not yet.

The top side we reviewed yesterday was an absurd rave-up called Paw’s In The Kitchen, a record filled with domestic violence and prodigious drinking done in a whoop it up sing-along style that had all the makings of a musical train-wreck, one that was insulting to the fictitious characters they sang about and thus presumably also to some members of the listening audience if they thought they might relate to the situation, but somehow they managed to make it enjoyable all the same.

It wasn’t a hit of course, despite the label’s spurious claims in the trades, nor had any chance to be one for that matter, but they delivered it with a genuine enthusiasm and good humor that wasn’t belittling to anyone and if it did come off as more of a send-up of the style than the real deal it was a good send-up that got you at least grooving along with them.

But send-ups of the style, even well-intentioned ones, made it seem as if this was something of a sideline for them, just a group who good-naturedly were screwing around while not expecting to be taken seriously. If that were indeed the case then surely that would mark the end of their forays into rock ‘n’ roll. How many ways were there after all to act up in such a manner?

So in order to sway the skeptics and not have this passed off as some sort of elaborate joke The James Quintet would have to back that effort up with something else that fell into the larger rock ‘n’ roll sphere while at the same time perhaps stepping away from the type of performance which could be considered farcical by nature.

When you flipped the record over and heard the tight harmonies of I’m Just A Fool they did just that, so much so that even the most ardent defender of their cockamamie antics on the top side would likely be astonished by what they heard on this side.
 

I Love You More And More Each Day
Maybe the defining style of rock of the 1950’s, certainly the style which generated the most nostalgic wistfulness in subsequent decades, was “doo wop”, a name that didn’t exist until the 1970’s when it was coined to describe the unique vocal harmony records of groups who – as the prevailing image of the music attests – sang on street corners honing their blend while trying to attract girls.

The James Quintet were older and thus presumably far more professional than that (meaning they had the experience to hit the bars to find dates I suppose) but the basic concept of what they’re doing on I’m Just A Fool is the very thing that would reach full flower a few years down the road.

Yeah, those later records will sound a little more ragged, less polished and have mostly shed the vestiges of pop records that show up throughout this song, but then again there are parts of this record that you could lift almost intact and put on sides from 1953 or ’54 and they wouldn’t sound too out of place.

The intro however is pure pop… or worse than that. Danny Johnson sounds as if he’s playing a part in a melodramatic radio soap opera of the day rather than singing lead for a rock vocal group, so stilted is his delivery. The fact that he has a good voice, warm and resonant, is of little consolation if he’s going to take this in the direction of the mannered delivery of the tame pop groups of the day, but once the others come in with some truly sublime wordless harmonies Johnson seems to loosen up, allowing his emotions to match the lyrical sentiments rather than trying to gloss it over to hide his true feelings.

But it’s still an uneasy balancing act. Johnson lets himself go at times only to pull back at others as he tries winding his way through the rather shallow story, one that’s full of meaningless platitudes and harmless virginal longing that does him no favors.

When he holds a note for an extra beat here or uses a more breathy tone there you think he’ll turn the corner, his voice occasionally swelling in volume as you lean forward in anticipation before he lets the air out of the balloon by dialing it back down as rapidly as it started, almost as if Johnson the vocalist is as resigned to the outcome as Johnson the lead character who is singing of this romantic quandary, knowing all along he won’t get the girl and in the process won’t get us – the expectant rock fan – either.

We both may admire certain aspects of him from a distance, the girl perhaps liking his manners or his smile or his sheepish grin, just as we the listeners find some merit in his seemingly effortless delivery and the hints of understated power he displays, but in both cases we’re going to turn our attention to someone with more to offer. The girl will find a guy who is a little more assertive in his desire for her, and we’ll find a lead vocalist who is a little more – or a lot more – assertive in his quest to capture our attention in song.
 


 

Hard As I Try, It Can’t Be Denied
Though Danny Johnson undoubtedly has it in him to unleash his heartache and let himself wail more forcefully than he ever shows here, the others in The James Quintet, while similarly under wraps in how far out they can get, do plenty with what they offer, their voices blending together to form wispy clouds of harmony for him to float along on.

This is a mere glimpse of what awaits us down the road, as in the future more guys looking to get into rock ‘n’ roll will decide it might be best to team up, for it’s easier to succeed (in music or in love) when someone has got your back.

So far the vocal group contingent in rock has had two standouts, The Ravens and The Orioles, one act in The Five Scamps who’ve been downright schizophrenic and then the roster has been filled out by a handful of pop groups tentatively veering into this field either entirely by accident or because they were looking to capitalize on the popularity of rock without fully understanding what is required to actually be successful in it.

Sometimes they just about hit on the formula but then maybe it scares them and they scurry back to the more staid pop music realm before they start to hyperventilate.

In truth that’s probably the case with The James Quintet who despite their uptempo and largely silly attack on Paw’s In The Kitchen were at heart a pop act who combined solid vocal ability with equal instrumental skill, albeit with instruments that were hardly cornerstones of ANY musical genre. A mandolin? Johnson’s own tenor guitar? A pair of tiples? Though here they’re not called upon to do much, they certainly don’t get in the way either and that lets their voices hog more of the spotlight.

Unfortunately when the others DO get the full glare of that spotlight in the bridge it blinds them, their tone reverting back to the pop aesthetics. They sound okay doing it, especially the shared ”I’m just a fooooooool… and nowwwwwww gooooodbyyyyyyyeee” line, but it too doesn’t have enough urgency to win you over.

But when they’re left to simply “ooh” and “ahh” behind Johnson some of their passages are mesmerizing, the sound of the voices intertwining is sheer delight and provides a template for what is possible if you try to accentuate that, build upon it and let that serve as a more vital component to a song than it’s ever allowed to do on I’m Just A Fool.

In fact the knowledge of where this approach would soon lead might be the very thing that actually prevents you from appreciating this record more simply because you realize that with a little more recklessness they could’ve really had something here instead being content to merely hint at it while they remained partially hidden behind the gauze-like arrangement the song has affixed to it in order to stifle its more base urges.

It really does sound quite lovely at times, both their voices and the record as a whole, but in order to advance the cause for rock as a whole, not to mention establish themselves as a vital group who could attract an eager and enthusiastic audience, they needed to be far more bold in their attempts than this.
 

You Stay In My Dreams
Each avenue of early rock had to fully distance itself from whatever tangentially related older style it drew from. The horn-led tracks needed to break away from the tighter jazz brass sections, in the process switching the focus from trumpets to tenor saxes and the tight written arrangements favored by jazz bands to looser head arrangements with plenty of cruder improvisation needed by rock to establish it as something markedly different. It took awhile but by mid-1948 they’d largely succeeded in doing and so consequently success on the charts followed for that new style.

Vocalists of course came in all shapes and sizes but each had to take on – or at least emphasize – characteristics that weren’t prevalent in something that could be found elsewhere. Whether it was the coarsening of your tone, the ramping up of the emotional fervor or the shedding of the open-throated precise reading of the lyrics in favor of something more guttural, those who did these things moved up in the rock world while those who failed to do so fell back down, if not out, of contention.

Vocal groups dealt with all of those issues but took on the added responsibility of trying to create a distinctive sound with the backing singers that didn’t borrow as heavily from pop music and yet wasn’t gimmicky by trying something designed not to offend more than to aid in the atmosphere of the song.

That there were so few who’ve tried their hand at this niche to date means groups entering the fray don’t have quite as many marked roads to follow and are left to their own devices to try and figure out which route to take. The James Quintet, either by instinct or by luck, stumbled into something that had real promise here and which, based on both sides of this record actually, led you to believe that the next time out they’d improve on these attempts, take what works pretty well here and discard those slightly outdated ideas which conspired to hold them back.

Of course they did the complete opposite, reverting back to a safer approach after this for the most part and left it to someone else to come up with the next innovations that were needed to advance the cause further. But if you take the time to do an autopsy on the group when they died in the pop world you’ll find they were among the first of the species to exhibit signs of a very important chromosome or two which had they accentuated more fervently might’ve made them stars instead of going down in history as merely tantalizing curiosities.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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