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KING 4357; APRIL 1950

 
 

 

Whoever first said “Timing is everything” must’ve been thinking of bandleader Tiny Bradshaw and how close he came to missing out entirely on the very thing he was born to do – rock ‘n’ roll.

That he managed to slip in the door before it got slammed in his face for appearing to be unsuited for the part at a quick glance is one of those rare examples of fate actually having pity on someone.

In this case that “someone” was about to pay back fate for believing in him.
 

 

I’ve Had My Fling, Seen Everything
Listening to any Tiny Bradshaw song gives you a few distinct impressions, the first being he wasn’t much of a singer technically speaking, but he knew this and didn’t try to be anything but who he was, which was an energetic, enthusiastic master of ceremonies who had an unerring grasp on how to lead a band and create a memorable performance. That’s what allowed him to survive in music for twenty years over multiple styles without a chart hit of his own to show for it… until now that is.

Oh, he’d been moderately successful along the way, mostly backing others in clubs throughout the swing era with his tight-knit crew and occasionally writing some songs that did well for various artists, but Tiny himself just seemed destined to be window dressing on a stage that already had plenty of glamorous stars far better suited to the spotlight than him. But when rock ‘n’ roll came along in 1947 it offered him the perfect platform to showcase everything he’d picked up over the years, from playing big shows to tiny clubs, from getting headlines to getting ignored in equal measure.

But survivors manage to survive for more reasons than just being modestly capable at their job, especially in a field like music that never was at a loss for qualified musicians to take someone’s place. For Bradshaw, a short, gawky, somewhat zany man who already looked much older than his 42 years, the reason he was able to stick around until the type of music he was best suited for came along was because of how damn LIKABLE he is, a quality which is apparent each and every time he opens his mouth.

There’s something about hearing him joyfully croak his way through tunes that makes you actively start rooting for him, in part because he’s so gregarious that you sense it can’t possibly be an act. He’s sounds like the kinda guy who’s loaning you lawn equipment and telling you stories about the neighborhood five minutes after you move into your new house, someone who is already your friend and who will be your friend until the end of time.

That’s a hard quality to fake and it goes a long way in helping him overcome whatever reservations you may have about him OR the records he’s cutting.

Not that Well Oh Well really needs much help because this is such a vibrant record in every way, from showcasing his out-sized genial nature to just how much information he packs into the lyrics which are sliced and diced into bite sized portions with an oddly effective staccato style of presentation.

On the surface the song basically embodies the entire rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, reading like a loose-limbed manifesto on living life to the fullest with examples galore to color in the details.

Oh yeah… those details… we should talk about those first, because that’s half the story to this one.
 


 

Make The Two Of Us One
Early on in rock ‘n’ roll the notion of tackling an already successful pop song brought with it some serious reservations on the part of listeners who were naturally wary of the idea. After all the music industry was conservative by nature and when mass popularity was the ultimate goal that often meant pandering to the mainstream… the same mainstream whose outright dismissal of Black America is what precipitated the birth of rock ‘n’ roll itself in the first place just to ensure that one form of music accurately reflected the community’s tastes, views and outlook in life.

Down the road rock acts would learn how to utterly re-craft older pop material and put their own stamp on it, whether it was doo wop groups adding dramatic new frameworks to existing songs or Fats Domino instilling an old cowboy tune like Blueberry Hill with his distinctive charm, rockers decided not to be so respectful of the origins and learned to trust their own artistic aims when revisiting them.

Arguably the first to REALLY prove this to be true was Tiny Bradshaw on Well Oh Well which while technically an original song he and producer Henry Glover “wrote”, was actually a reworked update – a sequel actually – to a venerable pop standard from the mid-1940’s called San Fernando Valley.

Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy with the sequin shirts, sang it first in a 1943 picture of that name, but it was Bing Crosby’s laid back rendition the following year that became the smash.

One of the reasons why we go to great lengths at times to talk about earlier pop and jazz artists and songs on Spontaneous Lunacy is because knowing the musical climate of the current and preceding era is vital to understanding what rock was breaking away from, competing with AND drawing from in subtle – or in this case not so subtle – ways and this is the perfect example of how it could be done and still be unique in its own right.

Crosby’s record is an absolute treasure, even if you don’t generally appreciate traditional pop songs Bing’s brilliance as a vocalist is on full display here, especially the first half where he lags so far behind the beat that you almost think he lost his way, drawing out certain syllables to transform this flimsy theme into a sly character study, even throws in a blink and you’ll miss it way of tweaking the word “be” (“where yours truly really ought to BE-eee”) which Dean Martin soon adapted as his defining vocal quirk in pretty much every song he ever sang.

Though the song itself is admittedly pretty slight, the lyrics seemed appropriate for the War Years wherein a guy decides to pack up and move to a part of the country where the peaceful hills rolled forever and the opportunity to create your own life seemed to be similarly endless. It’s an optimistic dreamer sort of song that finds the singer settling into blessed contentment.

Which is why Bradshaw’s unofficial updating of it as Well Oh Well is so damn audacious, because it blows up the entire narrative and does so with demented glee.
 


 
 

Let’s Forget The Trail
Much of the references Bradshaw makes in his own lyrics are drawn directly from the earlier song – the RFD mail service, the Reverend Thomas who’s going to marry Tiny and his girl, etc. – but here all of those quaint sentiments are upended and in fact refuted by Bradshaw’s new more frantic modern outlook.

Well Oh Well is the sound of someone who’s decided NOT to run away and hide from the world as Bing was happily doing, getting out of the rat race as it were, but rather someone who finds he NEEDS the excitement and can’t fathom giving it up. He’s brash in his declarations, energized by his own determination and convinced that those listening are just as eager for action as he is.

And of course they are, otherwise they’d be listening to Crosby’s pop music and not Tiny’s rock ‘n’ roll.

The band matches Bradshaw’s enthusiasm with some wild playing… hand-claps establishing the rhythm while the horns riff between his stop-time vocal lines, the piano backing him as he sings the more traditional lines while the sax blows a counterpoint to keep everything properly balanced.

When that horn takes its solo it might actually be TOO melodic and not frenzied enough by comparison and so Tiny tries getting it back on track by bellowing his first word coming out of the break, a rock ‘n’ roll huckster making his manic sales pitch to the masses for all he’s worth.

Too sincere to be a send-up yet too cockeyed to be taken entirely serious, this was something so joyous… so life-affirming… that you couldn’t help but get swept up in it, even if it went against your better judgment.

Throughout it all you and he both hang on for dear life, white knuckled maybe but thoroughly enjoying the ride and unable to wipe that silly grin off your face no matter how hard you try.
 

Gonna Stay Right Here Where I’m At
Improbable though it may be, this is what established Bradshaw at last as a rock bandleader to be taken seriously, the record hitting #2 on the Billboard charts where it remained in the Top Ten for a whopping 21 weeks.

Yet as good as it is, as invigorating as it is to listen to even today, as determined as Bradshaw sounds to fit into the existing rock landscape and as happy we are that his persistence finally paid off, there’s still the sense that Well Oh Well was more of a last word than the start of a new chapter.

Ironically that wouldn’t turn out to be the case, as we’ll see in the coming years when Tiny Bradshaw remained creatively astute and musically committed to rock ‘n’ roll and had some very good, very big and very important records on the horizon, but stylistically anyway THIS record, as terrific as it sounds, was straddling the eras in ways not entirely explainable by its older lineage which makes the precise timing of its release crucial in both its success and in confirming Tiny’s credibility as a rock act.

But don’t let that slight downer of a disclaimer stop you from appreciating this for what it does so well… not only giving Tiny Bradshaw a well deserved spot in the rock pantheon, but also providing us with another excuse to throw off the shackles society is forever attempting to put us in and instead allows us to forsake the quiet simple life Crosby championed and howl at the moon with the rest of the rock degenerates until they haul our asses away and lock us all up for having too much fun.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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