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KING 4497; DECEMBER 1951



We know all too well the historical neglect, ignorance and outright denial of the earliest rock era (1947-1953) by the general public as well as the musical press and it’s not necessary to delve into the obvious and insidious cultural reasons behind it.

What’s far more interesting at this point is the handful of songs from that era which have managed to seep into the public’s consciousness in spite of that.

In one instance it was the relentless promotion of a song by a prominent figure involved with the recording (Sam Phillips) to boost his own historical credit for rock as a whole, and at other times it was because a song had some notoriety thanks to salacious content or because it was an early hit by an artist who’d get even bigger down the road.

In this case however the artist has been criminally ignored over the years for the most part, the record wasn’t officially a hit nor does it contain anything in the way of naughty passages for people to get excited about.

Instead it lives on, though usually just as footnote, because the song has been so consistently revisted by other artists – large and small – and while none of them had hits with it either, the cumulative effect of all these versions appealing to all sorts of different fans from different eras means the original has never completely faded from sight.

In the end however it’s the record itself which makes the strongest case for its enduring legend.


All Night Long!
In 1956 rockabilly icons Johnny Burnette & The Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio cut a blistering take on the song that featured a busted amplifier which made Paul Burlison’s guitar sound demonic with its fuzzed-out distortion and while the record sold little and Burnette and his brother, bassist Dorsey, each went on to pop idol status later in the decade, the handful of recordings made by this group have such an intense following that it was inevitable the record achieved cult status.

In 1965 The Yardbirds cut their own rendition, one that’s far more reined in with a tasty Jeff Beck solo while Keith Relf’s harmonica carried an equal amount of the instrumental weight during the bulk of the song and the star power of that group over time brought far more attention to everything they recorded.

In 1974 Aerosmith slowed the rhythm down slightly while Steven Tyler pushed the vocal pace to give it more tension as Joe Perry showed off his guitar skills with clean crisp playing that traded precise incisions for the scattershot assaults of earlier records. By the end they’d stepped up the pace and showed what 70’s arena rock mindsets could do with a solid composition and their status as one of the biggest bands of the times ensured it’d be widely heard.

In 1977 Motorhead reconfigured it for metal, bringing in yet another subset of fans and by this point its eternal riff was a ubiquitous presence in rock ‘n’ roll forever after. But that riff was present from the very start when Tiny Bradshaw wrote and recorded The Train Kept A Rollin’ in 1951, a year in which rock ‘n’ roll was already the dominant form of music in the black community, both commercially and creatively.

It’s probably not all that surprising that someone who’d been around as long as Bradshaw had stolen the building blocks from a song from another idiom even older than rock ‘n’ roll.

What goes around, comes around.


A Ditty He Learned In The City
You wouldn’t think of the names Freddie Slack, Ella Mae Morse, Ella Fitzgerald and The Ink Spots to have any association with rock ‘n’ roll but they brought the world a song called Cow-Cow Boogie in the early 1940’s.

It had been written in 1942 for Fitzgerald to sing in a movie but the scene was cut from the final print and so the first released version came by way of vocalist Morse with Slack on piano and was a million seller. However it isn’t rock in any way, shape or form musically, attitudinally or otherwise. It’s a send up of a cowboy song with its easy loping pace, albeit backed by a jazzy group with a prominent trumpet solo. Only Slack’s gentle piano rhythm hints at something to come and is buried so deep in the mix that half the time you only sense its presence.

When Fitzgerald, maybe the most skilled female vocalist of the Twentieth Century, teamed up with The Ink Spots two years later for their version, she took the verses while the group divvied up the interludes among them. Here the rhythm was a little more pronounced but hardly emphatic and this too had a trumpet solo, although thankfully it’s a muted trumpet. It’s distanced from the hillbilly send-up of the original, but is squarely in the laid back pop-jazz motif, sung well as you’d expect, but not something that could possibly be called a building block of rock ‘n’ roll around the corner.

What Tiny Bradshaw lifted from these renditions was the basic rhythmic structure – then beefed it up considerably – and the thematic principle, or more accurately, a few lines such as “trucking down the old fairway”.

Everything else about The Train Kept A Rollin’ is so far removed from the mindset of those earlier songs that it has to qualify as original… or at least a Frankenstein monster reworking of the idea.

As was his want, Bradshaw comes roaring into the picture infectiously spouting gibberish while he changes up the entire premise from a cowboy to a city dame who is heading out on her own with Tiny in pursuit. The pace has been sped up considerably, the vocal energy – as always with him – is twitchy and impatient, while the musical arrangement has been utterly transformed into something far more muscular.

Though the galloping rhythm is still there, it’s now far more prominent and being carried by the ensemble in tandem including shuffling drums, piano, guitar and horns and unlike those infernal trumpets here we get Red Prysock contributing a slow burning, yet still scalding tenor sax solo while the drums stomp behind him. It’s crackling with energy yet still straining at the seams itching to cut loose even more – which shows you what Burnette, et. all, saw in it – and with Tiny at the helm it’s got a palpable sense of adventure to it.

Not only is it raring to go musically, but the story embodies the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll perfectly. Whereas Cow-Cow Boogie reflected the rambling nature of its era, patiently searching for something different, here they’re in a hurry to find something new and exciting, hopping a train rather than riding a horse, racing forward rather than meandering along the route, unable to hold back their desires (sexual as well as geographical, or did the true meaning of the “heave and ho” line fly over your inexperienced head?).

Rock ‘n’ roll was in a hurry to change things and wasn’t sitting by passively waiting for it to happen, but rather it was taking control of the situation and making sure the world bent to their will.


Better Be On Your Way
Sometimes a song that gets remade countless times by other big names who achieve more lasting recognition for it, will cause people to retroactively claim the original is the best work of the artist in question… see Roy Brown and Good Rocking Tonight for just such an example.

But in Tiny Bradshaw’s case those who say that The Train Kept A Rollin’ is HIS best record are 100% right.

Not that his other sides weren’t really good in their own right, and some were more popular at the time than this, but while it certainly helps its reputation that the overall tune is as familiar as it is, allowing modern listeners to sort of anticipate where it’s going and be enthusiastic to jump on board with Tiny while he takes us there, it’d still work just as well had nobody else ever thought to revive it in the future.

There’s a casual ease to Bradshaw’s delivery which is far more endearing than any of the other rock versions to follow. Not to say those don’t have their own merits which in some cases equal this overall, but we can sense that Tiny is the only one of them who actually seems assured will get what he’s after.

The others are in frantic pursuit of the girl who is slipping away from them, while Bradshaw is riding alongside of her – or on top of her – the whole way.

It’s a record that is so confident, so self-assured, so perfectly constructed that there’s no need for any worry on their parts. The arrangement is effortless, the interplay between instruments is flawless and even the call and response chorus adds to the appeal, giving it a sense of communal joy rather than merely intense frustrated desire.

It goes without saying that all of the records contribute to a greater whole, adding colors and shades to the bigger picture, but it should be equally clear that it’s the original that all the rest are trying to live up to.

No wonder they couldn’t let ‘er go all those years.


(Visit the Artist page of Tiny Bradshaw for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)