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ATLANTIC 886; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

Well, this is kind of awkward, isn’t it?

That must be what the parties were thinking following their split earlier in 1949. It wasn’t a long marriage, even as record company and artist pairings go, just about a year, but it was definitely a successful one, as Tiny Grimes became the first to earn a national hit while on Atlantic Records, thereby helping to legitimize the company and keep it solvent enough to pay pesky rent and electric bills that seem to keep coming in even as the hits aren’t coming out.

But earlier this year Grimes departed for Gotham Records leaving behind a few recordings made when they were still a happy couple, reminding Atlantic what once was.

This then is like a recently divorced couple forced to get together and make nice for a kid’s birthday party or wedding. They’ll smile and say there are no hard feelings, insisting that “we’re both in a better place now and much happier”, yet they’ll be furtively eyeing one another from across the crowded room secretly hoping the other is not TOO happy with their new sweetheart.
 

 
The Show Must Go On
These kind of breakups happen all the time in music, or they once did anyway, when record companies were the only way of getting your music out to the listening public. Though there were a lot of record labels it was still somewhat of a closed society, you had to land a deal and then that deal had to pay off for you to get another contract. All of the power was in the record company’s hands… until you scored hits that is.

Even with some commercial returns however you might not have gained the upper hand completely, record labels still had plenty of ways to steal your money – charging you for the sessions, for free giveaway records used in promotions, for printing costs and probably the stale crackers and cheese they served at your recording session, not to mention under-reporting record sales, claiming writing credit for your compositions and of course they tried to make sure they owned the publishing too – but once you were a star you at least had some leverage.

The biggest hammer you wielded was this one – you could always walk away at the end of your deal and go to somebody else’s waiting arms.

Grimes had done that when he went to Gotham Records out of Philadelphia. Looking back from 2019 with only Atlantic Records remaining in business from the 1940’s independent label boom and with well over a half century of major artists scoring countless hits as their legacy, Grimes’s decision probably seemed like a poor one, but in 1949 that was hardly the case.

Though not quite a step up, more like a hop sideways, Gotham was every bit as competitive as Atlantic was, though truthfully neither was poised to dominate the rock world just yet. Gotham had been where Earl Bostic got his start – and his first regional hits – before defecting to King which left Jimmy Preston as their most commercially potent star, one bigger than anybody reasonably comparable on Atlantic’s label at this point.

That “anybody” on Atlantic’s label who probably was their most consistent seller of course was Grimes himself, or had been anyway and the question is, did he drop them or did they drop him?

The reason the latter is possible, though hardly conclusive, is that after struggling mightily the first year and a half in business, where only Grimes and fellow jazz man turned rocker Joe Morris kept the grim reaper from the company’s door, they’d scored with two recent signings, Stick McGhee, who notched a #2 hit with Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee, by far their biggest seller to date, and then Ruth Brown, who notched a #4 hit with So Long in the summer. It’s been speculated that Atlantic jettisoned Grimes because of their recent success with artists who may have been deemed more commercially viable long term.

But I doubt it. The reasons for this skepticism (and for the record it’s not as if many people CARE nowadays who dumped who in this deal, outside of a few… umm… lunatics that is) is simple: Sales are still the goal from ALL of your artists on the label, not just two recent acquisitions with no track records to show for it outside of their debuts for your company. It’d be foolish to think that Grimes – and Morris who also left at this time – would be easily replaced and even if someone did equal or better their sales that didn’t mean they still wouldn’t have sold more than the stiffs they had remaining on their roster like Jimmy Earle and The Four Sharps.

The other reason it’s unlikely is that Ahmet Ertegun, who never shied away from an interview, rarely spoke of Tiny Grimes, in spite of his role in keeping Atlantic afloat. Had it been Ertegun who jettisoned the guitarist rather than the other way around Ahmet very well would’ve been far more magnanimous than he was when crediting those who helped build his empire.

So let’s go under the assumption it was Grimes who had recorded as a sideman with Gotham in the past, that was the instigator in the break up, leaving Atlantic to morosely sift through their remaining sides to release as a belated farewell to their one time beacon of hope as he waltzed down the street with someone else.
 

The Play’s The Thing
You may be asking whether a song written by Dutch composer and orchestra leader Jacob Gade in 1925 as Jalouise, a tango that accompanied the silent film Don Q. Son Of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., would be appropriate for rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps Ertegun, sore at being jilted (if that’s indeed what he felt happened), even released it to undercut Grimes’ transition to a rival label, maybe even hoping to call into question his loyalty to the rock genre.

Well that would make for an ideal side-story for a song called Jealousy, but it’s doubtful that anything of the sort was afoot. For starters Grimes himself chose to record it and while its origins are far removed from rock ‘n’ roll, his playing style definitely brings it back into the fold. Though certainly not loud and aggressive, nor ahead of its time in any way, the song manages to fit into what would become a comfortable and quite popular niche in rock over the years – the ambient instrumental.

For a more familiar reference think something along the lines of Santo & Johnny’s Sleepwalk from 1959 which was absolutely huge with rock fans, or any of the versions of Caravan or Harlem Nocturne, or in the vocal realm Besame Mucho, the latter three which were compositions originally conceived for other forms of music but their melodies were intoxicating enough to be easily adapted for rock instrumentation and given an exotic quality to them. In that context this record is more readily acceptable for those who’ve already grown to feel that rock ‘n’ roll is all about noise, noise, noise.

A fairly recent popular version of this song was cut by Harry James in 1946, which is loud and brassy before settling into his trumpet backed by a dancing piano and then switching back to the blaring horns again. It’s… well… interesting I suppose, but honestly that rendition sounds more like a theatrical production than a record. Even for a 1946 record it’s awfully brash and busy.

The Boston Pops Orchestra led by the great Arthur Fiedler had a widely known version back in the mid-1930’s which is beautifully arranged, dramatic but restrained and yet can’t help sounding like the music for a panoramic travelogue film… or maybe something played during a skating routine at the Olympic games.

A few years later in 1951 Frankie Laine got some acclaim for his vocal version (originally the composition was strictly an instrumental) and while his delivery is as melodramatic as always which is a bit of an acquired taste, his definitely has the unmistakable feel of the tango it was written for which helps put it across.

So how does an ex-jazz tenor guitarist turned rock bandleader fit into this picture?

Actually it turns out he fits quite well.
 


 

Act One
The record starts off with one of the more intriguing drum patterns we’ve encountered and while it doesn’t last long it pulls you in right away and when Grimes enters you’ve been primed for something fairly exotic and he doesn’t disappoint.

The first thing you notice on Jealousy is his guitar tone. It’s such a clean, clear sound – what a warm cloudless sunny summer day would sound like if Mother Nature could somehow aurally recreate beautiful weather’s feeling and vibe.

When he switches up after just a few seconds, more of a slight shift in melody than anything, you almost feel let down. Like the blissful mellow high you just had was dissipating before you’d fully had it envelop you.

But fear not, Red Prysock is coming along to pick up where Grimes soon leaves off and while you may not think a saxophonist known for his boisterous playing could dial things back enough to try and keep the spell from slipping completely away, think again. He’s playing as soft and tender as we’ve heard him, gently caressing the melody with a warm tone of his own. Yes, it’s a little jazzier than we’re used to with him but it’s hardly out of place in the song.

Think of it as a way to decompress in rock after so many barn-burners they’ve collectively offered in the past two years as even the drums are keeping busy in constantly interesting ways without drawing too much attention to themselves. But as you’re letting yourself slip into a trance the more this goes on, in the back of your mind you just know something is going to upend this before long. Surely they can’t stay riding this pleasant wave forever.

But as Red and Tiny trade off with one another trying to mesmerize each other completely, all of which is answered hauntingly by the drums, maybe… just maybe… you start to reconsider.

Nahhhh… they’re about knock you on your ass if you’re not careful.
 

Act Two
After lulling you into that dreamy haze they suddenly rattle your senses with a back and forth ramping up of energy which is quite good, but unfortunately they don’t have anywhere to take it musically once they’ve opened your eyes again so instead they take you to a strip club.

Well, not literally, I don’t think 78 RPM records came with nudie pictures back then, or any kind of pictures for that matter, but Jealousy certainly sounds like something you’d hear floating out onto the street in a part of town that still may be classy enough to walk down the sidewalk with no worries, but if you’re coming out of a certain type of establishment you might want to hide your face just in case somebody is there snapping pictures to blackmail you for a few bucks.

Yet when you get right down to it, those clubs and the flesh they peddle aren’t so much arousing on their own, they require a certain… ahh… “state of mind” shall we say, for the patrons to get anything out of their trip inside. In other words, unless you’re so horny going in that you don’t care that you’ll be surrounded by a bunch of strangers as you all leer at a vacant-faced girl taking off articles of clothing then the experience is a little unsettling,

It’s the same here. This passage is strip club music for those working the bar at the joint, men who’ve seen it all so many times they don’t even notice. Prysock’s tone is very good at times but even his attention wanders and the drummer now shifts to something far more simple behind him and while it may be louder than what he offered earlier on it actually is much less noticeable.

Grimes during all of this must’ve stayed outside, smoking a cigarette or talking to the doorman, or maybe making a phone call. When he finally rejoins them it’s not inside this den of inequity, but rather the others quickly grew bored with the impassive ladies in the floor show and headed outside for some air.

Now the mood shifts back to what it had been earlier on, a slow, languid feel, but our senses have been irrevocably altered by that unwelcome detour. We can’t get back in that dreamy mood that we enjoyed so much at the start, even though Grimes is playing with the same light touch as he had been earlier.

We’ve had the spell snapped and when we look around we see the city streets in a different light. No longer magical, we notice the trash in the gutter, the dented fender of the car parked along the curb, the hustlers looking for action and all of the ways we can be robbed, cheated and swindled if we’re not careful.
 


 

Act Three
Mood music in any style seems simple enough to perform – something that keeps its listeners in an artificial state of mind by not varying the approach too much and have them risk seeing the wires you’ve attached them like they were marionettes – but if you treat it as simple then you wind up with soulless muzak piped through an empty diner or a hotel elevator at three AM.

Jealousy is the tale of two approaches, both done with the right intent but only the first of which works to its full effect.

If you could somehow duplicate, or better still if you could extend, the vibe that carries the first half of the record you’d have an absolute gem of a song. But even when it falters it does so in a way that probably was inevitable and they’re still doing their best so you can’t curse them for their choices by any means, but rather you have to just accept that eventually all spells are broken and you should be glad you were allowed to remain under it for as long as you did.

Kind of like Atlantic Records who now were abruptly woken up and left with an empty feeling over the loss of an artist who had just silently slipped away as they dozed.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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