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ATLANTIC 869; JANUARY, 1949

 
 


The wheels at Atlantic Records are finally rolling. Slowly maybe, but at least they’re rolling in the right direction.

After what could be most politely termed a decidedly inauspicious first year for the soon-to-be premier independent label in the country, Atlantic’s fortunes have begun to take an upturn thanks to the artist we’re meeting again today, Tiny Grimes, who gave the label their first gen-u-ine hit record last time out with Midnight Special.

It was hardly a HUGE hit, barely cracking the national Billboard listings, but when you’ve yet to do so prior to that you’ll take ANY sign that someone out there is listening to what you’re churning out as cause for celebration.
 

While the record may have brought in some much needed capital to Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, owners of Atlantic, it also brought a measure of joy and relief along with it, tangible evidence at last that the fledging company wasn’t a complete waste of time and energy. But the funny thing is as soon as you reach that first benchmark instead of being satisfied you want even more.

So Atlantic, as well as Grimes himself (let’s not forget him in all this), now had to set their sights a bit higher the next time out and find a way to capitalize on what recent gains they made, careful not to let down those who enjoyed Midnight Special by heading in a totally new direction, yet still needed to advance that formula and build upon it going forward.
 

Across The River
This however was not a sure thing, for they hadn’t yet been back in the studio to properly follow up that record with something intentionally in the same vein. Instead Hot In Harlem was cut at that same session back in August and of course nobody at the time knew the reception that awaited Midnight Special.

While it’s true that Ertegun and Abramson had spearheaded that recording in the hopes of capitalizing on the rapidly evolving rock market that was becoming more apparent everyday in the summer of 1948, particularly for moody instrumentals, they were still without any actual success to date when they did so and therefore may have been prone to hedging their bets by not putting all of their musical eggs in one basket.

This was further complicated by Grimes himself, an iconoclastic figure who never did what was expected of him even under the best of circumstances, and so it’s easy to envision him acquiescing to their calls for a rock number as long as they’d let him spend the rest of the session cutting whatever tickled his notoriously far-flung fancy at the moment. Sure enough, as this record starts to unfold it would appear as if he’s inadvertently sabotaging his own career by following up a bluesy rock hit by heading back into the jazz world from which he came.

The saxophone that starts it off is nice enough, nothing gripping by any means, but suitable for another rock instrumental workout. But your first sign of trouble is when you hear the drummer riding the cymbals behind him, letting you know this is already compromised by conflicting ideals. That’s a JAZZ trait, not a rock element where increasingly it’s the stomping backbeat that’s defining the medium. You hold your judgment for awhile longer but when a tinkly supper club piano comes along for an early solo thirty-five seconds in you lose your patience along with your lunch and quite possibly your marbles if you had high hopes coming into this.

What are they THINKING?, you ask yourself in utter disbelief. Why on earth would you retreat to the safer, but by now far less commercial, sound of cocktail jazz when you just made legitimate waves with rock ‘n’ roll?

You knew Grimes was quirky and unpredictable, and even allowed yourself to admit it could be endearing in a way, but this was just suicidal! Why even bother making records commercially if you were going to intentionally sink your own career. Just stand on the corner with an open guitar case collecting spare change from passer-bys as you played whatever whimsical sounds struck you at that moment.

But then Grimes abruptly pulls back from the abyss, shrugs it off as if it weren’t as close a call as it so obviously was, and he goes about his merry way like nothing happened at all.

His guitar solo that follows is certainly jazzy, but it’s not JAZZ. Since rock has very little in the way of guitar precedents to follow by this point it’s entirely reasonably to suggest that this might wind up being the first such movement even. Though it’s hard to envision a generation of four string virtuosos springing up and following Grimes lead like he was the rock pied piper, stranger things have happened.

The guitar has a nice tone to it, his lines are clear, sharp and fluid and while he’s far more technically proficient than many future guitar slingers that certainly wouldn’t make this stand out at the stage we’re at. In fact, what DOES stand out is the fact it’s got such a distinct sound to it that separates it from the rest of rock.
 

 

A Renaissance
Ultimately what salvages it isn’t Tiny’s guitar, as well played as it is. It’s the saxophone, the already dominant rock soloing instrument, the sound which defined the previous year with a string of instrumentals that relied on it to honk up a storm or set a lethal groove. Here it’s played by Red Prysock, who made his debut on Midnight Special, and who co-wrote this song and he quickly shows why he’d soon become one of the leading proponents of the rock instrumental over the next 6 or 7 years.

Prysock’s style is as tough as a longshoreman and as smart as an economist. He has the agility to trade off lines with Grimes and the assertiveness required to not take a back seat in the proceedings. Though it might be Tiny Grimes’ name on the label, he’s merely sharing the spotlight – and the credit – with Prysock, and it shows that Tiny is not quite as recklessly unconcerned with commercialism as we feared.

Now, at last, Hot In Harlem starts to fit in perfectly with what rock has thrived on the last 14 months or so. This is a bawdy sax workout aimed squarely at the constituency that has elevated rock ‘n’ roll from curiosity to craze in the blink of an eye. Yet it’s also an expansion on the basic form by way of Tiny’s own unique contributions, which over the second half of the record really start to take hold.

Prysock’s increasingly urgent horn lines are matched by some fleet-fingered playing by Grimes, who foreshadows the style that will become ubiquitous in the era of Scotty Moore, Mickey Baker, Chuck Berry and their disciples in the mid-50’s. In fact at times you’d swear his lines were transported from ten years in the future, yet at other times he’s distinctly rooted in the jazzier-late 40’s mindset which provides a nice contrast. The way he switches off between the two distinct approaches, using the latter to answer Prysock as if his guitar was a voice, or perhaps an effect used for a Harpo Marx-like mute, sounding bashful or ashamed before launching back into a high-spirited laugh, is something to behold.

No, it’s not always the most appropriate sound for the type of 2AM sweat drenched dancing (either on the floor or in the bedroom, take your pick) that the best rock was shaping up to showcase, but it works all the same because it’s so well played and – unlike many off-the-cuff improvisational rock instrumentals to date – so well-thought out.

The aural dance between the two dueling instruments of Prysock and Grimes is something that would be worthy of our interest no matter the context they placed it in. Following that rather timid introduction they place their battle in an entirely appropriate forum and push one another further and further in their quest for supremacy, letting us the listener swing back and forth for which we’re pulling for, all of which only makes it that much more appealing.

In the end it’s probably a draw and surely the judges will be voting more with their own aesthetic preferences. Those who are fans of later era rock, where the guitar wrested control of the sonic center, will surely give the edge to Grimes, and they’ll have a strong case for that vote. Grimes’s playing is so sharp it could draw blood at times and his countering the more boisterous horn lines makes for a thrilling contrast and is worthy of all the praise you can muster.

But those who still get their rocks off to the raunchy tenor sax solos where all sorts of lurid possibilities are suggested with each explicit honk, squeal and cry will feel just as strongly about Prysock’s contributions. His presence is what assures this was rock to begin with and which provided Grimes with the solid foundation from which to build.
 

Between Riots
For all of their skills, for all of the dynamic interplay they’d showcase over the next few years, for all of the esteem other musicians in multiple fields held them in neither Tiny Grimes nor Red Prysock have had their legacies carry on as they should.

Even Hot In Harlem, a perfect showcase for their abilities, is missing just enough components to make it essential listening, to make it an unquestioned smash that will define the winter of 1949.

Instead the slower steadier groove of Paul Williams’ currently rising hit The Hucklebuck gave fans of that method of seduction an outlet for their sensibilities, while the more over-the-top hystrionics of Big Jay McNeely’s rapidly growing smash The Deacon’s Hop opened the door and let all of the crazed degenerates who sought the closest thing to a sexual orgy they could find on record have their way.

By contrast Grimes and Prysock are caught somewhere in the middle. More skilled perhaps and with a better drawn approach, yet somehow lacking the alluring nature of what those others found.
 

 

Don’t get me wrong, this is still really good and entirely fitting for the era it lands in, but faced with competition that gave each of the dominant tastes of the day a more direct release for their interests this was bound to get lost in the shuffle to a degree.

Atlantic didn’t get a hit out of it, Grimes didn’t see his stature elevated just when he needed to capitalize on his last venture to cement his place in rock’s hierarchy, and Prysock, his name not known by even those buying the record, saw others who had their feats promoted with flashy nicknames and the kind of gaudy exploitation that was fast becoming standard operating procedure in rock, failed to make headway in that regard.

But forgetting all of that, the fickle results of the charts and the historical placement of its musicians, we’re finally starting to see consistent progress being made, a sense of unified direction to take advantage of the now booming rock marketplace. In that context the advances shown by Grimes, Prysock and Hot In Harlem all more than suffice.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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