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ATLANTIC 865: OCTOBER, 1948

 
 


For such a legendary label, Atlantic Records was off to an inauspicious start to say the least. They had only two artists on their roster who were even worth the paper their contracts were written on, Joe Morris and Tiny Grimes. Everyone else was dead weight.

So when it came time to release another Tiny Grimes record in 1948, his third to date, it was cause for celebration.

Grimes first release from the previous winter, Boogie Woogie Barbecue, had been a nice hybrid sounding early rocker, featuring John “Badman” Hardee’s sax alongside Grimes guitar. Though nothing that put them ahead of the field, it was at least in line with what else was going on in the burgeoning rock community. The follow-up that April however, That Old Black Magic, while interesting was not quite in the same vein, it was a bit more jazzy, harkening back to what he’d emerged from while at the same time also trying to stay connected to the emerging rock sensibilities without fully committing to either one, thus remaining stuck in between styles.

Now since Tiny was a respected young jazz vet, and since Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson were longstanding jazz fanatics, and since – let’s face it – jazz actually had a viable track record when it came to eliciting widespread interest among the record buying public, it’d be interesting to see which direction they went in with their next offering. Would they return to that rocking earlier style he’d tried in February that was starting to make more and more waves as the months passed, or would they venture back further into the more established, and thus less risky, jazz realm?

If you were placing money on it the far safer bet for long-term commercial success in 1948 would still have been jazz, which was why Midnight Special is such a welcome surprise, because this moves headlong into the sultry rock night air.
 

It Gets Late Early In Here
Though hard to imagine today with Atlantic Records legacy in rock ‘n’ roll known by one and all, in 1948 there WAS no building of a legacy to worry about, only paying bills, which in Atlantic’s case had to be scraped together with whatever change they could dig out of the couch cushions in the office, and so they didn’t care where a hit came from. Jazz, rock, blues or polka for that matter. Just sell some damn records!

But in the summer of 1948 things were starting to come into focus around them, should they be paying attention. Namely, the records that were burning up the charts – especially those coming from artists with no real track record in terms of big sales – were coming from this style of music suited to the alleys in the hours after the clock struck twelve.

Not jazz, but rather rock ‘n’ roll.

Therefore the best bet for a quick hit – one that might catch some immediate action, even if it was forgotten in two months time – was to abandon your jazzier inclinations and head deeper into the realm of raw, gritty rock, especially if you had an artist who was capable and willing to indulge in such tawdry displays. But potential hit or not that was still something not many record men with a deep appreciation for jazz would’ve considered.

But struggling record men, that’s another story.

Thus in the midst of the ongoing recording ban Ertegun went to Cleveland where Grimes and his band were ensconced – now with a new saxophonist Red Prysock, taking the place of Hardee – and furtively cut some sides in hopes of capitalizing on the rock boon before it went under and took Atlantic down with it.

If there was ever a specific moment when the Atlantic empire was born, this was it. Not the release of the record exactly (though without the release there may not have been an empire in the future), but rather the decision itself to head west, cut this on the sly, aiming squarely at the growing marketplace that still seemed uncertain to most in the industry.

That conscious decision was the one that allowed the label to turn the corner. The gamble (I won’t call it a risk because they had nothing to lose, and that includes whatever penalty their musicians were hit with should the illicit recording session be uncovered) that it was THIS music that they should pursue at this stage, their high-fallutin’ jazz snob backgrounds be damned, is what put them on the map.
 

 

See What You’ve Done?
Atlantic was a label that had released nothing but instrumentals thus far and it probably didn’t take much for Ertegun and Abramson to get the pulse of the records with the steadiest action in that realm these first six months of 1948.

Paul Williams, Sonny Thompson… even their own Joe Morris’s Lowe Groovin, from the spring, which had been their best selling release to date, all shared the same basic traits. A slow, churning groove, slinky and bluesy, with some tenor sax to add the right late night atmosphere. That’s what was selling and it was a pretty basic formula to latch onto if you had the right personnel, which they did in Grimes and company.

Keep in mind too, this was cut before the more raucous sides by Wild Bill Moore and Hal Singer really hit big. Thus, seeing the landscape that was attracting the most attention Atlantic did what any respectable company worth their wax did – they shamelessly stole the idea!

That’s not being facetious at all, in case you’re wondering. They were smart, they did what worked and worried about setting trends later. For now hopping on existing trends before they faded from memory was good enough if it might get them some sales and keep the company from going under.

Now in their case they had some definite advantages. First off was the fact that unlike a lot of labels where those in charge were musical nitwits, both Ertegun and Abramson had genuine musical passion and a deep knowledge and interest in its history. So without knowing who came up with the idea, be it one of them or someone in the band, it shouldn’t be surprising that they not only stole the concept of what kind of record to make, but in fact stole the song they used for it too!

Though the title they affixed to it for this record was Midnight Special the origins of the song this is based on was the old blues “See See Rider”, done way back in the 1920’s by Ma Rainey, one of the foremost blues women of all time. The song dates back even further than that, perhaps being one of the cornerstones of the blues style itself from the previous century. Rainey was the first to expose it to a broader audience on disc though and from there it became disseminated by thousands through the years. Atlantic Records themselves would live to see it take on a new life a decade down the road. But for now the basic idea of it proved adaptable for their purposes.

The lyrics are about sex, but obviously being an instrumental that wouldn’t be a problem and thus stripping the words also serves to distance it some more from those origins. But the song had been proven to have legs, as a version by Wea Bea Booze topped the Race Charts in 1943, almost twenty years after its initial commercial interest, which showed that it contained something simple and alluring about it to pull listeners in.

It also had the right construction for what they were looking for – the right meter, the basic repetitiveness that went into making a solid groove, and most importantly it allowed for some embellishment on the part of a skilled band.

Grimes definitely had that part down pat. With the addition of Prysock, who’d go on to become one of the pre-eminent rock sax exhibitionists of the 50’s, albeit a little less known than a few sessionmen who had the advantage of playing on far more cuts by far more artists, Grimes’s outfit, which also included Jimmy Saunders on piano, Ike Isaacs on bass and Jerry Potter holding down the drums, could work wonders with an idea like this.
 


 
 

After Midnight
Saunders piano slows things to a crawl in the opening and “crawl” might never have been better utilized as an description than here, for his simple left hand riff sounds like an arachnid from a Tim Burton movie working its way across some unfortunate corpse laying about.

Heavy sounding, even leering in a way, almost taunting the listener with its unhurried pace, it sets a somewhat menacing mood to the record that is expanded upon when Prysock’s sax enters through what sounds like a creaky door in the house of the Addams Family (Thing? Is that you?) gently swaying, like drunken skeletons sashaying in the moonlight. It sets an ominous tone if nothing else, certain to catch most listener’s attention.

Any unfortunate soul who’s not paying strict attention yet promptly gets waylaid in the alley as three sudden blasts from Prysock make the blood run cold before lapsing back into the groove, slightly more urgent now as the cool, clammy air envelopes your senses.

Yeah, already you know this was definitely gonna work.

As has been seen – or heard – with the other prominent groove-related rock instrumentals thus far, the success of those records which worked best was done by creating an unshakable mood. An instant transportation to a setting conjured up by the music and embellished by your imagination. There hasn’t been a lot of action in any of them, not by Paul Williams, Sonny Thompson or anyone else for that matter. There’s been no stunning displays of virtuosity on a sax, guitar or piano. No wild drum breaks or jagged rhythms. Because of this I’ve frequently used words like “hypnotic” and “trance” for a reason.

They’re infectious in a way that’s subliminal more than anything. In fact, I’d argue that unlike a lot of rock ‘n’ roll where a crowd adds to the feel by increasing the vibrant communal give and take, with these records it’s almost better to be alone… or if not quite alone – I mean, if you’re out after midnight surely you better not be alone, otherwise you might as well have stayed in for the night – but rather lost in your own world momentarily. That minute when the booze or reefer kicks in and the action around you in the club, or on the dance floor, or at the bar or out on the sidewalk as you step into the night air again seems to be frozen momentarily and even though you may be standing still, not speaking, not moving, not blinking, not breathing, you seem to yourself to be the only one truly ALIVE at that moment.

The rest of the world just stops.

If you’ve been there, in real life or simply by listening to something hit you in just such a way, you know the feeling. If not, listen to Midnight Special because it DEFINES that feeling.

 

 

Wake Up
The harder you focus, the more in danger you are of being carried away. Grimes and Saunders trade off in the first extended deviation from the established melody, leading you out of the club, onto the street and into trouble if you don’t watch your step.

Before you can step into traffic, or get rolled by a shadowy figure waiting around the corner Potter snaps you out of it by cracking the skins so that you can clear your head for just a second and come back inside as Prysock eases you right back into sleepy headed oblivion until Grimes cuts loose with a short, sweet, stinging coda that serves as last call before the lights go up and everybody is dumped out into the night.
 


 

Wide awake, distracted by the hustle and bustle of life going about its daily ritual, sunlight streaming brightly into your eyes, the world around you a blur of noise, movement and the constant hum of action everywhere you turn, Midnight Special would probably leave absolutely no imprint on your mind. You wouldn’t likely notice it playing and if you did catch a few notes you’d be too alert to ever fall under its spell.

There’s really not much to the record when you get right down to it. As a cold piece of wax, or a song streaming out of a computer somewhere while the one who’s listening is in command of all of their senses, the simple analytical summary offered up in response would probably be something along the lines of – Ehh, it’s okay, nothing special.

But after dark, when those types of people (a/k/a – the squares) go to sleep, rock ‘n’ roll and those who imbibe in it come to life and for them, in that distinctive mystical realm of the witching hour, songs as atmospheric as Midnight Special are their lifeblood.

This is what Atlantic Records understood fairly quickly and capitalized on, getting their first chart hit in the process. That it took them a full year… took them until midnight in fact if you want to look at it that way… shouldn’t be held against them.

Actually, all things considered, it’s probably more fitting that way.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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