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DERBY 726; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

In November 1949, just as this record was being released in fact, a film called All The King’s Men hit the screens. It was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel from two years earlier about a corrupt Southern politician who winds up being assassinated, a story widely believed to have been based on Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long.

The film starred Broderick Crawford who wound up winning the Oscar for Best Actor for that role. The fact that Crawford was not from the South, and obviously wasn’t a politician either, is hardly relevant to his ability to convincingly portray the ambitious firebrand who winds up in the Governor’s office. That’s what actors do after all, pretend to be something they are not.

They aren’t the only ones though, as we see here with The James Quintet. Though they were singers and musicians rather than actors, they too were about to step on the national stage in an effort to try and convince you that they were rock ‘n’ rollers when in fact they were anything but.
 

 

From The Kitchen To The Barroom
One look at the group and a quick scan of their résumés should be enough to tell anyone that these five guys were playing a part. We won’t go so far as to call them frauds even though in rock ‘n’ roll circles the authenticity of the performers, in the lead roles is a much more stringent requirement for acceptance than in acting.

Any way you looked at it though The James Quintet were an unlikely candidate for rock ‘n’ roll. An older club group who played their own instruments – including a mandolin, tenor guitar and two ukulele-type soprano guitars called tiples – as well as singing, they hardly had the look or sound that was making so much hay in rock ‘n’ roll. Or ANY style of music for that matter!

But that of course also meant in these strange times that they may have been MORE likely to at least get a chance to do just that and cut some rock songs because of the very things that almost disqualified them from being seen as legitimate rockers – the fact they were a refined group who both sang and played and who could be presented as somebody’s idea of what “acceptable” rock artists should sound like.

You just wouldn’t think it’d be little Derby Records who’d try and pull the wool over your eyes like this. They surely had no legitimate chance, and therefore probably little interest in, trying for pop acceptance like a major label would by dressing up, or dressing down as it were, a pop-styled group to pass off as rockers. Derby dealt in the real thing, they didn’t need charlatans to attempt to sneak in through the back door when no one was looking in order to make some headway in this field. That kind of duplicitous action was for the likes of RCA, Columbia, Capitol and Decca Records.

Maybe not surprisingly The James Quintet would soon wind up on Decca, though once on board their forays into rock ground to a halt, either by design or simply because Decca had far less knowledge of how to effectively recreate the necessary components for rock arrangements than Derby did. But the group’s improbable connections to this music don’t stop there because after that stop The James Quintet wound up at none other than Atlantic Records in 1952 just as that label was reaching its peak as the preeminent company dealing in rock.

Now granted they didn’t do much more than add backing vocals and instrumentation to the work of others while they were there, including working behind the Queen of Rock herself Ruth Brown on a lone release, and so that can be taken as proof that either Atlantic quickly found out they were incapable of carrying off a record in this realm on their own, or maybe they quickly realized that they were simply better equipped to back up other people from the get-go and never should’ve been placed out front to begin with.

But in 1949 they did get that chance when starting out and as undeserved as it might’ve seemed they did their best to take advantage of that opportunity and with Paw’s In The Kitchen they deliver a rural sounding rave up that makes a pretty good case for them to be given another shot if nothing else.

Besides, if their abilities alone won’t win you over as to their claim of being rockers then maybe their sheer enthusiasm will.
 

Let ‘Er In
There’s always an urge to skip over these borderline irrelevant artists as we try and speed up our travels through rock history so we can possibly get to cover 1950 before it’s 2050 but in the end we seem to give acts like this the benefit of the doubt and cover them anyway. It’s not that we’re softhearted, nor do we want to be viewed as being inconsiderate of visitor’s time asking them to plow through 2000+ words on an act few people have ever heard of and who made no notable impact on the course of rock ‘n’ roll. But there’s something worth examining when we encounter a group like The James Quintet who on the surface are ill-fitting in the genre any way you look at it, but who nevertheless make a concerted effort to try and fit in anyway, even if only once or twice.

Whatever their reasons are those reasons tell us a lot about the way rock ‘n’ roll was starting to be viewed in the music industry.

Remember, in the fall of 1949, even with a string of hits to its name, rock music was a style still considered to be at the bottom of the artistic totem pole. Pop music was celebrated, jazz was venerated, gospel was admired, even blues was at least appreciated, whereas rock was seen as frivolous at best, vulgar at worst. Yet that wasn’t stopping more and more artists such as The James Quintet, who presumably had other options and loftier ideals, from trying their hand at it.

On the surface it may not seem to be even worth noting but for a group that surely aspired to be respected to consciously follow a path that diminished their chances of ever being taken seriously in any of those other styles – guilt by association if nothing else – their decision to do so was meaningful. Were they simply so grateful for any opportunity to record that they’d consent to cutting something this crass and uncouth? Or did The James Quintet actually find some merit in this roughhouse music after all?

Who knows. Nobody thought to ask for their reasons for posterity. But if they hadn’t made this record then it’s doubtful anyone today would be writing about them, so whatever the reasons it turned out to be a good decision for that alone.

As for the record itself…
 


 

Gone Ballin’
There’s nothing subtle about this, you have to give them that much. Whether you want to give them anything more than that in the way of compliments depends on your tolerance for certain risqué topics such as drunkenness, spousal abuse (up to and including assault and battery with a deadly weapon), and the shamelessness of detailing all of these transgressions for public consumption with such unbridled enthusiasm.

Normally this is where we’d offer up a disclaimer about how songs shouldn’t glorify behavior that causes harm to others, especially when it comes to physical brutality in marriages. We realize that most songs are fiction but for the sake of our own conscience and in case there are any misguided people looking to music from seven decades in the past for a blueprint on how to behave we figure we better play it safe and not seem like we’re advocating for violent drunken behavior.

But that also usually assumes the one on the receiving end of the attacks are the fairer sex, whereas in Paw’s In The Kitchen it is actually the wife who is on a rampage and her husband is but a mere innocent victim of his little woman, a gin soaked barfly who wields a particularly lethal rolling pin when she comes home from her nightly stints at the corner pub.

Betcha never saw that one coming… and by the sound of it when Paw gets bopped over the noggin’, neither did he.

The song is presented by the group in a rowdy sing-along fashion as they essentially take the role of this incompatible couple’s children. They’re certainly used to this behavior because they jump right into the battle that’s presumably being waged nightly between the pair, offering us no backstory or even a moderately calm set up before springing the fireworks on us.

Their eagerness to recount this tale is its strongest attribute. You can almost see their smirks turn into grins as they go along, which may also give some insight as to how this was crafted in the first place. They get a shared writing credit for this which indicates they were probably just fooling around at first, singing this as a send up of the raunchy gusto so many rock songs specialized in. Maybe they just had the chorus, repeating it with increasing fervor as the others join in, and over time they work it up a little more on the long rides between shows, coming up with the role reversal to give this a unique twist. It’s nothing they’re taking seriously but while singing it they let themselves go in a way that they probably hadn’t before while crooning more genteel pop-styled songs. That kind of enthusiasm is contagious and it never fails to crack them up when they’re looking at another long night at a small club performing for a distracted audience and getting maybe $20 a man for their troubles if they’re lucky.

So what the heck, why not record it if they get the chance? Surely if it brings a smile to their face it might do so for a record buyer as well and since they have no well-established image as recording artists to adhere to then this might even get them a small novelty hit.

Stranger things have happened.
 

Why Can’t Mama Stop?
Though the joy they sing with is evident in each line and makes this far easier to appreciate, and musically they also have some of the basic requirements of playing rock ‘n’ roll down, as this contains a steady backbeat to propel it along (probably a sessionist, since their group had no regular drummer, and it should be noted that’s the most emphatic sound on the record) and a nifty tenor guitar solo in the break, but the song itself is rather thin.

Thrown right into the middle of ongoing marital discord Paw’s In The Kitcnen plays like a skit rather than a story. She goes out to the bar where she guzzles gin and he’s left to try and get dinner ready. Though they don’t comment directly on the flipping of the “traditional” roles that in 1949 found virtually every housewife chained to the stove, surely that is a not so subtle undercurrent they were hoping would find some laughs as well.

But while we can allow ourselves to be mildly amused by the image of the henpecked husband in an apron meekly preparing the meat and potatoes for his soused wife when she stumbles in, we don’t get a chance to savor the details, not that any are served up, because she just comes in, grabs the rolling pin and conks his skull, sending him and the plates of food crashing to the floor. The punchline is her telling him she’s “going right back to get some more”.

More gin I assume, unless she means more food now that the dog is gobbling it off the kitchen floor and possibly off her unconscious husband’s face.

The group – playing the part of their “kids” remember – aren’t too perturbed by this scene, as they whoop it up in the background, their hand-claps and barely suppressed laughter being the focal point of their performance, but they at least do try and take a step back at one point and wonder why their dear old Mom is such a souse. They can’t understand why everyone else in the family doesn’t touch booze but she apparently throws it down like it was water.

But even here they’re not exactly distressed by the implications their mother is plastered every waking hour, or that their family’s rent money is winding up in the saloon-keeper’s pocket, or that their old man is sprawled out on the linoleum with his eyes rolled back in his head and drool hanging from his lip while their dinner never reaches their stomachs. Instead they approach these queries about where their mother acquired her taste for the hard stuff with the same carefree good-natured zeal they’d exhibited while recounting the rest of the story.

There’s not even a tag scene to at least give us one more chuckle as there’d be if she wound up in the drunk-tank, maybe alongside their milkman with whom it could be implied she was having an affair, or maybe their minister or even just a random collection of winos. Poor Paw doesn’t even manage to get his head bandaged before the song cuts out.
 

Cleanin’ Up After Maw
Though we can hardly recommend the lifestyle this presents, or as a record to further the cause of rock ‘n’ roll in general, as a somewhat absurd song to pass time with your (probably equally drunk) friends it has a certain charm. Their wholehearted effort alone is commendable, especially since more mannered singers in that day and age usually wouldn’t be caught dead rocking away so mindlessly, whether for fun or for profit.

The James Quintet didn’t profit too much from this, unless they actually wound up getting those other record contracts by virtue of Paw’s In The Kitchen, which is highly doubtful considering the output they had down the road when signed to those more prestigious labels, but they certainly don’t do anybody any harm in cutting loose like this.

Well, nobody expect their poor ol’ Paw, who now has his ignominy shared with the public for eternity.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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