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APOLLO 1164; JUNE 1950



Every so often around here a record is included less for it’s own role in rock’s ongoing evolution and more to show how the larger musical scene was being impacted BY rock ‘n’ roll.

As you may have already guessed this is one of those instances and while The Three Riffs were hardly a rock group in any way, shape or form, they’re not altogether unfamiliar with the genre thanks to their previous supporting gigs on the work of other artists records.

Since their stylistic DNA was usually far removed from rock ‘n’ roll this record provides the perfect opportunity to show how this bastardized music we’re celebrating was busily corrupting western civilization more and more every day.


Just One Time, Then You’ll Know It
It’s hardly promising to have to report that The Three Riffs are the least compelling aspect about this whole affair, even if their participation confirms just how potentially lucrative rock was becoming for record companies seeking to make inroads in the marketplace.

The Three Riffs were a vocal group formed while still in school in the 1930’s in Cleveland, even managing to get a record put out in 1939 before spending the next decade as a fairly busy club act specializing in harmony singing, a few skits and dancing. Every now and then they’d get a record deal, none of it amounting to anything largely due to the fact they often were merely serving as a backing vocal group for others, such as with their first tentative foray into rock alongside the similarly out of place nightclub singer Manhattan Paul on Hard Ridin’ Mama.

By 1950 they’d been around the block too many times to count over a dozen years in the business and while still able to earn their living in show biz with their club work and even some local television appearances, the cold hard truth was that unless they were still starry-eyed optimists they had to know that this was all simply a long road leading nowhere.

So naturally a group like that would be amenable to doing whatever a record company wanted when it came to material and so when Apollo signed them up they tried their hand at anything and everything. They tackled a novelty song – Barbecue Ribs, written by musician/comedian and soon-to-be television star Steve Allen, as well as a straight-forward harmony tune Driftin’ that features some sublime background harmonies at points but is far too pop-oriented otherwise to be of any interest to us. As the flip side of this release they did a light nightclub song/skit called Cherry In My Lemon N’ Lime which is probably more in line with their normal show material and the best representation of where their real interest lay.

Of course none of that had any tangible connection to rock and so they might never have appeared on rock’s radar if not for the fact that they rounded out the session with Jumping Jack, a more conscious effort on Apollo Records’ part to make some headway in rock ‘n’ roll.

It didn’t work naturally, as the label would scuffle along on the outskirts of the genre until signing some more talented and suitable artists, while for the group that’s the focus of this review the song seems only to confirm the general impression of them through the years as being a versatile act who could do a lot of different things fairly well without actually standing out doing any of it.

The Kick Of Cognac
This is a record that seems to be borrowing components from a musical scrap heap and piecing them together to come up with something usable. That it actually runs once they turn the key is probably the most surprising part of it all.

The boogie piano sets a fairly strong base for the rest to work from but when The Three Riffs come in singing in a stop-time fashion, presumably to boost the dramatic anticipation for what follows, your expectations sink.

It’s not that they sing badly, it’s just that they sing badly for rock ‘n’ roll. Their style here is all detached coolness and no deep rooted conviction. They’re not exactly dismissive of what they’re singing but they’re singing for a more cultured audience than us, making for an artificial performance that goes over better with the cocktail crowd than a keg party.

The melody though is nice and while the descriptive instructions for the dance called the Jumping Jack are going to be roundly ignored by any self-respecting rock fan listening (like we’re going to follow steps laid out by THIS bunch?) what they’re detailing actually has a fair amount of good-natured flow in their lines.

But as stated you can’t fake authenticity. You either believe in the music, and more importantly the mindset of those who gravitate towards the music, or you don’t. They don’t. Nor do they try and fool us much into the thinking they do, which I suppose is to their credit.

In a lot of ways they’re merely acting as another instrument on the session, their vocals – especially during the second half of the record – are just serving as rhythmic punctuation, repeating the word “Jump” a few times before finishing the title and starting over and though that’s hardly anything noteworthy unto itself it is a lot more effective than it’d be if they tried telling us more about the dance, the song or – god forbid – the types of people who might interested in rock ‘n’ roll, which they’d be sure to get completely and laughably wrong.

Essentially they’re minor players on their own record, which is good since the major player needs as much room as possible to stretch out and convince you of its legitimacy as a rocker.

Your Senses Reel
Considering that for most of their recorded output prior to landing at Apollo this year The Three Riffs were in a supporting role more often than not should make them feel right at home here, since they’re clearly not what this record is built around.

The headliner – or at least the focal point since he’s not officially credited – is Apollo’s resident A&R man, saxophonist Bobby Smith, and while he never quite turns Jumping Jack into a true rocker he takes it closer to that territory with some searing playing along the way.

In truth Smith’s stand-alone moment here is rather brief and not as incendiary as he might’ve taken it with a more rambunctious vocal lead-in, but when contrasted with the lightweight vocal approach The Three Riffs have chosen, then Smith’s parts really jump out at you.

The best aspects actually comes in between and behind their vocals, as Smith seems as if he’s pacing the floor waiting for them to step aside, melodic but restless.

Once he gets his chance, the drums – cymbals more than snare and bass drum – and the hand claps of someone on the floor manage to lift the energy and Smith responds with a swashbuckling attitude, employing a deeper tone, some stuttering lines and lots of coiled twitchy energy without ever truly busting loose.

When The Three Riffs return to the microphones that’s when Smith gets more into it, giving off the feeling that he wasn’t done yet and they’re intruding on his turf, as he snorts and paws at the ground with increasing fervor, the two parties both elevating their game to convince you they’re no longer just playing the part. Keep in mind that Smith was a respected ex-jazz musician who like so many in that field found that rock sessions paid the bills once the musical landscape began to change. Rock may never have been his true love exactly but he put his heart into it when called upon and in many cases that’s half the battle.

Here he takes what was on paper anyway a fairly uninspired outline and adds plenty of color, elevating the record, and in some ways legitimizing the artists he’s backing, in the process.


A Short Stop
The bigger story here isn’t The Three Riffs, nor even Bobby Smith’s continued contributions to the genre, but rather the fact that increasingly rock ‘n’ roll was being seen as a good career move for those struggling to make inroads via more traditional methods.

In this case it was both the stagnating prospects of career club act The Three Riffs who probably figured they had nothing much to lose by tackling Jumping Jack as a rock offering. If it went over well they’d get some attention for it and could head further in this direction more the next time out, if not then they could drop it from their set altogether, or at least scale it back and refine it with a less boisterous sax on stage and make it into another novelty-esque performance they were used to featuring.

For Apollo Records, an independent label who’d had most of their success with gospel, this was another attempt at squeezing square pegs into round holes hoping that one of them might actually fit the part. They wouldn’t of course but the fact they were trying it with more artists showed the round hole aspect was what they should be focusing on, and once they were able to get some suitably round acts – ironically from the outskirts of gospel – to commit to rock ‘n’ roll their fortunes would improve.

This release may have been insignificant in rock’s eventual takeover of the commercial mountain but showed that a lot more people were willing to expend some energy and get into shape in order to try and make the climb up that hill.


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