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MERCURY 8071; JANUARY, 1948

 
 

 

Don’t run away, but we have here another early example of a pop song being converted into a rock setting…

I know, I know, these generally aren’t very good. In fact they’re usually pretty bad and I’ll save you the time of scanning down to the bottom of the page to find out that sad fact of life holds true here as well. This one is not any better than most in that regard. But trust me when I say this is still important stuff… (we’ll pause a moment for the inevitable scoffing, the chortling and the jokes).

Okay then, has everybody composed themselves? Good.

Now, back to the topic at hand which is the importance of studying these misguided attempts at bridging the gaps between genres as the start-up field of rock was trying to gain its footing and find its rightful place in the world.
 

Pickin’ Up
We know full well that process of establishing rock as a powerful creative force and commercial entity wasn’t always easy going. There was no blueprint in place to know just how it could be successfully accomplished and so there were many different approaches that had be tried. Those that worked well (commercially as well as aesthetically) would be picked up on by others and gradually refined. Those that didn’t work… such as this… could be discarded, or at least radically altered in the future. But the failures – every bit as much as the more successful innovations – are what made rock what it came to be over time. For how else would anyone know what it was that would wind up fully separating rock ‘n’ roll from everything which came before it?

These things usually take quite some time to figure out too. For the first few years of the idiom this type of cross-genre pilfering from rock’s side of the fence will happen fairly often, simply because these kind of pop songs are what were so well-established and heard, thus they seemed ripe for wholesale re-invention as a means of establishing rock itself. But over time as rock’s strength grew to thanks to the growing popularity of their far-more original material and presentation then the trend will start to reverse and we’ll see rock songs shanghaied by pop stars for the notorious “white cover versions” that will plague the field in the mid-50’s.

After the dust settles, though there’ll be some poaching from both sides at times, the two camps will tend to keep more to themselves from then on for the good of all mankind.

But until we get to that point we need to see what happened TO get us to that point in the first place, so we have to take a look at why the whole approach was destined to eventually be disavowed by one and all.

 

A Real Gone Chick?
The song in question in this review has a long history. There’ll be a test later, so take notes.

Ooh, Look-A There Ain’t She Pretty was written by Carmen Lombardo, brother of famed bandleader Guy Lombardo, and the song did quite well for legendary pianist Fats Waller in 1936, sung in a rapid fire scat-like style.

It was a novelty song pure and simple, but a pre-war styled novelty which meant artists of all backgrounds were drawn to it by the melody – bright, bouncy and wholesome sounding (don’t ask me how notes can SOUND wholesome, they just can!) as much as by the silly lyrics. As was the case in that era for any song with verified appeal it was covered fairly regularly over the next few years with artists such as Harry James, Clarence Williams and Bob Crosby (Bing’s brother) all laying down pretty tepid versions. As these piled up with diminishing returns the song probably was getting a bit long in the tooth after awhile to be seen as a source for a potential hit by anyone.

But in 1947 Buddy Greco revived it and it was a big hit for him on the Pop Charts, which is what led to its sudden reappraisal. Two groups we’re interested in did it next. The Charioteers, a black vocal group steeped in gospel but leaning pop (occasionally rock, as we’ll see down the road), cut it in a weird hybrid style. The piano was right from the barrelhouse, the backing vocals were, at times, fairly soulful and at other times, hopelessly corny. But the lead was delivered as if it were gimmicky exaggerated pop.

Was this a send up of it? Probably not, for the horns were square as could be too… I mean, a cornet solo?!?! REALLY???? So while it scored on the Race charts it was pretty far away from rock. Very far from it actually. Miles and miles away in fact.

The Treniers tried to change that.

As we delved into in our first meeting with the brothers on Hey Sister Lucy from back in October 1947, they were a solid club attraction that drew mixed-race audiences (or maybe more accurately drew white crowds enough to be booked in white establishments, as well as appealing to black audiences in their home environs), all of which made them very unique amongst earlier rockers, giving them a foot in the door of broader mainstream acceptance.

Their formula was split down the middle, roughly two parts music on one side of the ledger, and one part humor and one part pure showmanship on the other side. They sought material that could deliver all of those things at once and as was often the case early on that material need not be theirs to begin with. If it happened that a tune they did was popular already in another rendition, all the better, that meant the crowds would already know the song and thus could be more surprised, impressed and hopefully entertained with the way they reconfigured it for their own diabolical needs.

So in theory anyway Ooh, Looka There Ain’t She Pretty was right up their alley. A novelty song from a bygone era but one that was now receiving renewed interest (Guy Lombardo himself even cut a version of his brother’s song in ’48 – maybe with a push from Mama Lombardo over Thanksgiving turkey). The question would be, how would Claude and Cliff Trenier alter it to make it their own and how far would they take it into the still uncertain rock field?

Not far enough unfortunately.
 

 
 

A Wax Doll
Don Hill’s tenor sax that kicks it off plants its roots on the rock side of the fence, though the way it’s played those roots aren’t too deep. Right off the bat you sense a missed opportunity. They could’ve used Waller’s uptempo version as the basis for theirs, ramped it up even more to the point of sheer lunacy with saxes honking and the two Treniers scatting like they were hopped up on some drug not yet discovered and in the process turned it into a maniacal farce, yet with a musical underpinning that made it sheer rock mayhem. As we’ll later learn Hill was more than willing and capable of such gaudy displays with his horn, but rather than really cut loose they all play it safe much to its detriment.

Instead Claude and Cliff trade their patented wisecracks over this supposed beauty in the spoken intro. Now admittedly that’s a big step up from the way most other versions start off, giving theirs a measure of actual humor for a change. After all the novelty aspect in the other versions of this tune was in the wordplay of the song itself and by 1948 it was pretty dull (actually for 1936 it was still pretty dull, but apparently dull was “in” that year).

The Treniers aren’t TOO lecherous however, which would’ve improved it further, but by now you’ve lost hope of it being transformative and are just hoping for some consistent quality. Once they launch into the song itself their singing of it is smooth but with a bit of a soulful tinge to it. Don’t get alarmed though, they’re not turning it into anything great, just making sure you don’t fall asleep on them right away.

But by the sax solo you’re dozing off again. Of course by contrast the aforementioned Greco version that inspired this to be cut by The Treniers in the first place would have you sleeping soundly until about 1959 when Bill Haley and The Comets (who were big Trenier fans) decided to pull this out of the mothballs. Needless to say it didn’t help Haley’s flagging career any then either.

The Treniers vocals return and are the best part of this still, but that’s not saying much. In fact it may not be entirely true either because Hill’s closing notes playing a standard fade works better than anything else he’d done thus far, mostly because it leads to the ending of the song and consequently allows us all to wake up and change the record.

To think, this makes The Charioteers version seem even worse by comparison!
 

You Are Bound To Fall
Is that being a little rough on them you wonder? Well, no, it’s really not.

The Treniers DO manage to drag it out of the utterly bland and make it merely mildly bland. They sing well, their harmonies are always tight, they know how to deliver a lyric with good inflection, and while the band is uninspired here they’re certainly not incompetent. They do the best they could with it… well, that’s not true either.

They do the best they felt they could get away with doing at the time is more like it. They spruce it up some hoping to appeal to a different audience but they make sure that the more typical crowd for this brand of straight-arrow material won’t revolt over their rendition when they’re playing an Elks Lodge Meeting Hall somewhere in Reno or Battle Creek.

As such its aspirations are too low for it to work, even if it meets those cautious aspirations fairly well. Their idea to hijack this might’ve been solid but their plans for executing it didn’t go far enough. They still haven’t figured out how to ramp up the musical side of the equation to the levels of anarchy it would thrive on, both so rock fans would appreciate it for simply how it all sounded while at the same time the manic delivery would serve to bolster the humor to the older crowd who would merely take it all as one big joke, all while The Treniers could let the underlying framework keep it rooted to the source material enough to be recognizable to everybody.
 


 

By shortchanging both sides – keeping the music more under wraps on one hand and stopping short of turning the song into a total comical farce on the other hand – it only guarantees that this appeals to neither demographic.

Looking at it from OUR angle though and judging it accordingly, we’ll have to admit that in terms of soulful delivery this version was far better than Greco’s milquetoast pop hit (and The Charioteers quasi-pop offering too for that matter), probably seeming almost sacrilegious to those who preferred nothing stronger than vanilla ice cream in their drinks. This might’ve even gotten a rise out of those squares who thought it risqué for toying with it at all and if so The Treniers probably chalked it up as a mild success when playing for that crowd.

Yet in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll this was decidedly tepid and downright boring when you get right down to it, a chocolate milkshake perhaps, though made with skim milk, but nothing that would put hair on your chest. That they COULD’VE put a few fingers of bourbon into that milkshake to, well… shake it up more, is what makes it so disappointing. They choose to straddle the fence rather than pick a side and you can’t get anything of value out of that.

A bad record is easy enough to dismiss and forget but this was more like a blown opportunity, especially for a group that actually could’ve pulled it off had they really tried, making it seem like it was a joke that everyone could enjoy while the whole time the joke would’ve been on those who truly didn’t get that they were what was being made fun of.

That’s the kind of subversive attitude rock embraces, the kind of attitude really ambitious groups are drawn towards providing. Sadly, in this case, it’s the kind of attitude The Treniers steered clear of, at least for the time being.

It’ll be awhile before they recover their edge.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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