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ABBEY 3017; JULY 1950



Oh no, what are YOU guys doing around here? Why do you have to stop by and mess up the narrative just when we’re rolling along so smoothly?

It’s mid-1950 now, rock ‘n’ roll is firmly established, the most consistently successful black music style over the past few years, its commercial clout is growing stronger each and every month and now these guys, of all people, want in on it?

This reeks of shameless opportunism… of crass condescension… of egregious hucksterism.

C’mon now, haven’t you guys got anything better to do? If your career is so stagnant that you’d resort to singing rock ‘n’ roll after all these years maybe you’d be better off living up to your name by opening a locksmith shop in town or something…

Why should we be forced to review their pitiful efforts at fitting in, wasting precious time when we could be focusing on those artists who actually understood what rock ‘n’ roll was all about.

Okay, okay, if they insist we’ll let them come to our party, we’ll put their record on and we’ll let it play until the very end, listening to it intently and scrutinizing each and every note…

Then we’ll bash them unmercifully for intruding on our fun and send them packing, making them wish they’d remained sequestered in the bland pop wing of the old musicians home with the rest of the decrepit groups of yesteryear who when they heard the commotion being made by this more exciting brand of music outside simply closed the windows, turned off their hearing aids, rolled over and took another nap.


Never Stay In One Place Too Long
So just who were The Master Keys and how did they find themselves cutting a rock song after a career in the hinterlands of mannered pop, you ask?

Well, the group’s origins are found way back in the late 1930’s when a few of the original members sang together in The Norfolk Jazz Quartet before two of them moved on to a gospel group called Selah Jubilee Singers who performed for a couple of years without much to show for it.

When that outfit subsequently broke up three of them, the two original members of the Jazz group and one from their gospel stint found yet another singer and they became The Master Keys in 1945. They cut some records – typical frothy pop songs like You’re Not The Only Apple On The Apple Tree – and while these were hardly anything special and didn’t sell much, they somehow got a lot of mileage out of them, or at least whoever owned the masters did, as the same songs were released on three different labels over a four year period – Top Records in 1945, 20th Century Records in 1946 and Jubilee Records in 1949.

By the time Jubilee got a hold of those old songs that original foursome was down to just one member. The bass singer had been killed when he was minding his own business on a street corner and shot by a stray bullet from a dispute across the street in late 1946 and the other two packed their bags and left by 1948 for parts unknown.

The one remaining member – John Moore, ironically the last one to join back in ’45 – cobbled together a new group with the same name and managed to get a contract with Abbey Records. Moore himself was 32 now and considering they were appearing in classier clubs and had done a long stretch on stage in England meant that it was highly unlikelyutterly inconceivable… all but impossible that they were aware rock ‘n’ roll even existed.

Singin’ And Shoutin’ All Day
Their first release on Abbey seemed to prove this as it was a two-sided dreary pop record that wouldn’t have excited anybody even ten years earlier and surely wasn’t going to stir interest in 1950.

The top side of their second and final Abbey release, Don’t Cry Darling, all but confirmed they were not interested in rock ‘n’ roll and so you’d be forgiven if you didn’t even bother to flip it over to hear what else they might have to offer.

Understandable though that reaction would be, if you failed to check out Mr. Blues it’d be your loss, because quite surprisingly it’s a record that sounds as if it came from another planet compared to the rest of their middling white-bread output.

Though they’re still hardly vying for the first team on the rock vocal group roster, this nevertheless shows that with the right attitude and a fairly suitable composition even a group as out of touch as The Master Keys could produce something modestly appealing in rock ‘n’ roll after all.

The piano gets things off to a decidedly modest start, their efforts then being further compromised by the jivey group vocals singing nonsense syllables that follow, but once the real vocals start and the story unfolds that’s when things begin to fall into place.

All The Cats Around Town
The story is an appropriate one for rock involving a guy who apparently has a job as a traveling stud horse and goes from town to town where he gallantly fulfills women’s needs while their husbands or boyfriends are powerless to stand in his way. Considering that Mr. Blues was Wynonie Harris’s well-publicized nickname chances are this song was 98% factual with just a few names and places changed for legal purposes.

Phillip White, 35, is on lead and he sounds as if he’s been around the block quite a few times. He’s clearly trying to emulate The Ravens’ Jimmy Ricks and unlike so many who attempted that daunting task he’s actually pulling it off with a fair amount of ease.

White’s tone is suitably rich and vibrant and rather surprisingly he delivers his lines with the implicit knowledge of their hormonal content. Songs of this nature never come off well when trying to leave some wiggle room for the singer to avoid culpability should charges be leveled against them for obscenity and musical degradation and considering this group’s background you had to assume they’d do their best to steer clear of the lyrical implications. Instead White smartly takes full ownership of their lewd intent, smirking his way through it with shameless confidence.

It eases up a little over the second half, though the others join in singing his praises in a weird sort of way by urging him to come back as if they wanted to partake in his services as well, something that might’ve been done to plausibly deny this was about what we all knew it was about. When White returns he’s now shifting its meaning further and claims it’s his “singing” that all the gals are crazy about.

Sure, singing… that’ll work to throw off the moral detectives! Nothing suspicious about that, is there? After all, he’s a vocalist, not a barber or a grocer, so why not say you’re merely serenading them on their front porches and hope the censors are gullible enough to buy it.

Unfortunately that evasive action takes some of the sting out of his earlier declarations of a more carnal form of “making music” as it were and so while all of them put in a good effort and have you reasonably convinced that they were in fact compatible with rock ‘n’ roll – both in a musical sense and rather shockingly a cultural one as well – this probably won’t be putting The Ravens out of work any time soon in spite of how effectively they seemed to master the required nuances for the job.

I’m On My Way
You might think that if The Master Keys manage to pull off this charade as a legitimate rock vocal group well enough not to draw scorn for their attempt, then the same probably can’t be said for the backing musicians hired by Abbey Records to accompany them.

One listen to the dross sounding support on their earlier single (cut at the same session no less) wouldn’t exactly fill you with confidence that they were going to loosen their ties – if not their girdles – enough to be able to reasonably cut loose here, but in spite of the long odds against it they actually manage to hold their own reasonably well… at times even surprising you with what they bring to the table.

Mr. Blues features a pretty simple accompaniment for the most part – piano and drums carrying the rhythm for most of it – but just because it’s easy to play doesn’t always mean it’s easy for musicians to consent to playing it, so just their willingness to go along with the program is reason for optimism.

The surprise comes in the instrumental break, a position usually taken by tenor saxes, but since none were around they chose a guitar instead. It’s played with a dogged determination if nothing else, single string plucking higher up on the scale giving it a slightly wiry sound, adding character and a faint trace of tension to the proceedings.

Of course it happens to coincide with the worse aspect of the backing vocalists singing an inane “hey bop… hey bop… hey bop, hey bop, hey bop” refrain that gives away their uncertainty about how to best try and pull the wool over our eyes, but while it certainly doesn’t add anything worthwhile, at least they are doing it in a way that’s not attempting to be condescending.

Then again the fact they actually mean it might be more damning to their credibility.


Here And Gone
Skepticism abounds going into a record like this and surely the powers-that-be at Abbey Records were just looking for something that jumped a little more than their gloomy ballads, almost viewing it as a novelty offering when you get right down to it.

Needless to say Mr. Blues didn’t sell and thus they had no real reason to pursue this any further – their club work was presumably paying the bills enough to not cause them to completely overhaul their act and despite some strong reviews in the trade papers they never recorded again and their careers ended soon after.

But had they just taken their own advice when they crooned in the fade “Come back and shout some more” maybe the final chapter in their story might be a lot different and we might not be saying goodbye to them right after saying hello.


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