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KING 4257; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

As we reach the end of 1948 the days of jazz and rock intersecting on record are nearing their end. The surface similarities between the two forms are much closer in origins than most tellings of rock history would have you believe, as historians continually spread the myth that it was blues and country which contributed to rock’s formation, neither of which really had much at all to do with rock, especially early on. But while jazz was in fact its closest relative even that influence is now starting to become less pronounced, and records showcasing dominant jazz sensibilities are becoming far fewer in number as each side eases away from one another.

But there are still SOME who show a distinctly jazz mindset, either artist or backing band, not to mention producers, and since genre terms were more often an invention of marketers than musicians anyway there’s always going to be at least a little mixing at times.

So if you wanted to keep Tina Dixon out of the rock story altogether for skewing a bit too close to jazz, well, I could hardly blame you. Her absence here on Spontaneous Lunacy wouldn’t exactly leave a gaping hole in the narrative, if it was even noticed at all.

But I’ve decided to include her for a couple of reasons, some better than others maybe, none entirely worthy on their own but when taken together the reasons for her inclusion affords us an opportunity to provide readers with a few things we’re in need of here in the form of a) more female representation, b) more vocal exuberance in a year dominated by instrumentals, c) a deeper look at the aforementioned schism that soon wound up cleanly dividing rock from jazz and finally d) it’s not as if jazz historians are rushing to claim her for themselves!

In other words, somebody has to make sure that Tina Dixon’s musical career doesn’t completely vanish from the pages of history.
 

 
As we got into yesterday with Walk That Walk, Daddy-O, Dixon wasn’t entirely a jazz artist anyway, or even predominantly for that matter. When she got her start in music as a kid back in the 1930’s jazz was the dominant black performed style and so that’s where she landed.

Now she did excel – I suppose – within those confines, (possibly) writing and performing the enduring hit “E Bob A Lee Bob”, which while part of the jazz field was also kind of idiosyncratic to begin with. She toured with Jimmie Lunceford for three years, which was one of the top showcases for a vocalist in the big band era, but made no other recordings than her signature song (with another group no less) and was mainly a bandstand performer rather than recording artist.

But she was a legitimate B-level star, pairing with her husband, dancer Leon Collins, as a popular act in the 40’s, as she was dubbed “The Bombshell Of The Blues”, giving some indication as to her physical appeal in how she presented herself. But don’t let that moniker fool you, she wasn’t really a blues singer either. She was simply a versatile artist who could reasonably handle whatever stylistic milieu she found herself needing to tackle in order to keep working.

When the bandstand era gave way to something less refined – rock ‘n’ roll, among other things – Dixon had little choice but to go down that path as well, becoming little more than a club act after this brief flurry of activity with King Records, who’d signed her hoping they might craft her into something commercially viable.

They couldn’t.

It wasn’t that she was without talent or the commitment needed to make it work, it was just that she wasn’t someone who was going to define the music and for a female artist, especially in this male dominated genre of early rock, that was a hindrance before we even get to the fact that the material she was working with was fairly mediocre and certainly not anything to get her noticed and bring her the universal name recognition that would make each successive move she made highly anticipated.

But Dixon was nothing if not a survivor and someone showing that much determination to keep going even in the face of near constant indifference by the general public in the years to follow she deserves a chance to be rediscovered and remembered for her contributions, even if only fleetingly before we all move on to more well-defined territories in 1949 and beyond.
 

Good Enough For Me
So since we covered her background (and her future) yesterday, both of which are more interesting in terms of colorful activities than her brief rock stay, we’ll just get right to the record itself today.

Though she’s given far less to do here than on Walk That Walk, Daddy-O this is a record that suits her more. That may sound like a backhanded compliment, maybe even more so when we say that Parrot Bar Boogie is basically an instrumental that happens to have some vocalizing offered up to urge it along, kind of like Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips Pt. 2 fifteen years down the road. But while it’s true that her role here is more limited in terms of her time in the spotlight, that role is also more vibrant and more vital to the record’s appeal.

The piano that kicks this off lays down a sturdy rhythm, the left hand really holding down the bottom with an emphasis on the extreme low end of the bass keys, while the right hand dances all over the place. This gives it a strong foundation for the others to play off, though the riffing horns that follow are caught between jazz and rock thanks to the preponderance of trumpets, still a staple in jazz and which will be only a peripheral instrument in rock for most of the next decade. What they’re playing though isn’t strictly jazz per say, but rather more of a hybrid sound anyway and when they trade off with one another in a back and forth pattern leading into the vocals it takes off.

Dixon’s voice that follows this is strong and self-assured, far earthier in her tone than most proper female jazz vocalists, and that aspect is highlighted rather than downplayed by the use of call and response vocals with the men (presumably the band members). While they’re simply urging her on, crying out “Yes yes!” after everything she says, the effect is galvanizing as its mere presence keeps the energy from flagging and spurs her on even further.

Wherever, or WHATever, the Parrot Bar Boogie may be, a dance named after a club I’m assuming, the lyrics are merely a starting point for the boisterous enthusiasm. It’s not supposed to make sense or lead anywhere. After she offers up what masquerades as the “verses” with the band replying, the roles are sort of reversed, as the instruments take on the melody and she takes on the “Yes yes” .

The first horn break that follows starts off strong with a back and forth pattern buttressed by drums accenting the exchange, before leading into the horn solo. That’s the record’s featured spot in the arrangement and it’s rousing and energetic enough, making sure to get anyone listening onto the floor. This fits in squarely with what was going down all across rock at this point, maybe the construction of the horn section itself isn’t as streamlined as it could be, but they make due without it sounding forced or artificial.

Dixon comes roaring back, her voice as commanding as always, yet she’s not given anything more to contribute besides that enthusiasm. The lyrics don’t change, it’s just a circular refrain with no storyline to go with it. You almost get the sense while listening that you stumbled onto the record halfway through the session and missed out on the entire set-up, plot and characters and are looking around the room hoping somebody might clue you in. But they won’t know either because there simply ISN’T a song to be found here at all, not in the usual sense anyway.

For all intent and purpose this is an extended jam session nothing more, nothing less. A fairly well executed one to this point, but it’s not going to improve and shore up its deficiencies now, so you just hope they manage to keep up what works long enough to get you to the finish line.
 
 

 

Yes Yes… No?… Yes, I Guess
They don’t quite do so.

The second horn solo is dominated by the trumpet and while it may be played with reasonable skill and energy that can’t change the fact that it’s still a trumpet, and by virtue of its tonal qualities and the still dominant jazz-precedents the trumpeters themselves were brought up on, it is ill-suited for the dirtier, grittier, raunchier sound rock requires to fully connect. It will take another decade or more for the instrument to discard these outdated features and develop its own rock characteristics and even then it will still be used comparatively sparingly.

As a result the air is let out of the balloon somewhat during the second half. It’s as if they had a really good idea to start off with, then instead of building upon that, they merely thought it’d be enough to carry it the rest of the way. Their mistake was in trying not to make any mistakes by going for something outside their comfort zone rather than pushing harder to find something to truly set them apart. The jazz aspects hold back the rock attributes in a way which satisfied neither constituency.

With no defining musical concept to ride the song begins to skate on thin ice and with each refrain they’re at risk for breaking through and sinking it altogether. But at least Dixon traverses the surface with skill, letting herself go to a degree all while being certain not to crack the ice and send them all to the bottom of the pond. They make it safely back to the edge where they all promptly take off their skates and probably head for warmer climates for their skill sets. Jazz for the musicians, the clubs for Dixon.
 

 

They may not have been quite the best fit here, but they handled what they needed to do with solid professionalism and underlying skill that is to be commended. I suppose what we really can bemoan is seeing yet another female not having the best material and arrangement for making a truly definitive mark. The writing could’ve been tighter and they should’ve added at least one normal stanza to the proceedings, especially after the break, or at the very least they could’ve cut loose even more and turned the ending into something chaotic enough to overcome its relative lack of structure otherwise.

Still Parrot Bar Boogie is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. It works about as well as could be expected for something relatively flimsy and gives you some idea that Dixon wasn’t in over her head in the least.
 

Back To The Bar
The unfortunate result of the slightly compromised intent is that this becomes both Dixon’s rock debut and her epitaph rolled into one. This is all we’ll wind up seeing of Dixon before she fades into the transient stage of her lengthy career on the fringes of the black entertainment circuit (and no, we won’t be covering her X-rated comedy skits from the 70’s, sorry to let down those who were looking forward to the review of “Naked Nun”, “20 Years Of Sex”, “Press The Meat”, or “Hot Nuts”). I still will say with reasonable confidence that she DID in fact have what it took to be successful in the rock world. I don’t think she’d have ever been a star here either, but with slightly better – and more up to date – material and arrangements, she could’ve competed and held her own on most nights.

But then again rock was no longer struggling for acceptance and therefore had no need in carrying artists who weren’t pulling their weight just to fill out the roster. Rock had mostly shed the excess dross from its stylistic construct by now and while there’s still some lingering ideas that need to be fully excised from their thinking the best artists – the trend-setters, the hit-makers and the game-changers – already seem to know this and have moved far beyond the conflicting ideals that still held sway only a year earlier. It’s simply that the message hasn’t quite reached all of those who try and jump on board… like Dixon, making her one and only foray into this realm.

Yet even here the attempt by outsiders to join in was a solid one showing that what they’ve heard over the past 16 months has begun to sink in through osmosis alone. Had they bothered to stick around the changes they’d have to make for this to fully connect are relatively simple in concept, keep what works here, the storming vocals and first solo, and then simply shed it of its outdated constrictive clothing epitomized by the trumpet and the lack of any lyrical framework.

While I’m sure we’d all like to see Dixon prancing naked across the rock ‘n’ roll prairies what it really means is that jazz musicians themselves needed to strip off their suits and show off their form a bit more. All things considered though we’re more than glad she stopped by for a visit.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Tina Dixon for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)