Trying to figure out the mindset of Tiny Grimes over the past few years has been an exercise in futility.

But it’s also been a lot of fun and very often rewarding.

Of all of the former jazz artists who made the move to rock ‘n’ roll, Grimes has been arguably the most intriguing. Not the most stylistically conflicted, that’d probably be Earl Bostic who continued to cut records under every conceivable genre known to man. Yet unlike someone like Joe Morris who once he made the switch in 1947 rarely looked back, Tiny didn’t always stick with rock exclusively… or for that matter didn’t stick with record labels either.

From Atlantic to Gotham, back to Atlantic and back to Gotham with a rumored stop at Coral in between which was merely press agent hype with no basis in reality, the mercurial Mr. Grimes now winds up at a new record label out of Chicago and will do his best to put them on the map… although in which genre remains to be seen.


Rockin’ In The Windy City
Though it was never a major contributor to rock ‘n’ roll, or any other type of music, United Records was a briefly important addition to the Chicago music scene, handling the spillover from the more established Chess Records when it came to artists.

They had some fairly impressive blues artists on their roster led by pianist Roosevelt Sykes, along with jazz saxophonist Tab Smith who was their most consistent seller. They were the first label to sign the local family gospel act The Staple Singers and would go on to have a number of rock vocal groups under their umbrella as well.

How they ended up with New York based guitarist Tiny Grimes is fairly straightforward. The company started operations in October of 1951 at the same time that Grimes was in town for an extended stay at The Brass Rail.

Since he had no current recording contract to honor, he signed on the dotted line with the new label and came into the studio the last week of November and cut his first four sides which were immediately hyped to the trade papers as being forthcoming.

For some reason it took awhile for them to actually put out the first of them, Rockin’ The Blues Away, but it was worth the wait as this more or less defines the entire early direction of the company.

Though hardly typical for its time, it’s still nice to see this is where they were placing their bets… a driving rhythm with some scintillating guitar work with a throbbing piano and pulsing sax to give those at the house parties around town something to dance to.

Blown Away
As we well know, Tiny Grimes came up in the jazz world and was one of the first guitarists to get heavily into bop, which was a largely improvisational form of music.

Listening to this record you can see those roots showing, though it seems a little too organized to be a jam session put to wax. But at the same time there’s not quite the normal rigid structure that would suggest it was worked out in detail before the tapes rolled like the majority of rock songs would be.

Like a lot of jazz-based guitarists there’s a sense of experimentation that comes through on Rockin’ The Blues Away, as if Grimes himself was curious about where this song would lead as he starts off playing a compact riff with drums and piano laying down a steady discreet groove behind him.

His tone is excellent, a slightly hollow ringing that reverberates in your ears, its notes shimmering after the fact to let the effect linger. It’s melodic without being something easily recalled, mainly because he quickly abandons it in favor of something totally different, thereby giving it that improvised jazz feeling. That first deviation thirty seconds in is well played but the weakest aspect in a rock setting simply because it doesn’t have a clear point to make. It’s a lighter interlude rather than driving home the primary theme.

But even when he returns to something with more bite to it, the framework that most rock fans are used to – riffs and rhythm all working together – starts to break down but luckily that’s when Tiny starts to show off his skills, ripping off some sharp little runs while the sax creates a more palpable backdrop for him to stretch out over.

Grimes never is anything but the main focus here but his performance naturally has highs and lows based on your preferences. The rock fan may not be enamored with his meanderings after the one minute mark, though he gets an incredible array of emotions out of the strings, yet he never fails to hold your attention with each line because of that variety.

When he finally starts playing with more consistent aggression in the third minute you can see a lot of the indulgent lead guitar stylings of the stadium rock solos that took hold in the 1970’s, though Grimes is not letting it get away from him as so many of them did on stage.

I’d be lying if I said you could pause the track now and recall any of the earlier runs he went on, but it’d be just as untruthful to say that you’d be inclined to do so, because each subsequent sound improves on what went before it.

The record may not be nothing but an immensely talented guitarist showing off his versatility, but sometimes that’s more than enough to make a fairly deep impression.


Alone At Last
You do have to wonder if United Records truly had their finger on the pulse of the market with this release. Though it was sure to appeal to rock fans, it wasn’t the kind of succinct hook-filled instrumental that would ever become a genuine hit… though it was a huge turntable hit in Jamaica.

The flip side meanwhile was truly a song without a stylistic home, a surprisingly beautiful rendition of Duke Ellington’s Solitude that had excellent rock-styled fretwork, but the vocals – by whoever takes them – veer far too close to pop for that side to fit comfortably in the rock field, though the whole thing is nicely done, whatever you want to call it.

Maybe they felt that hybrid sound would attract some jazz fans who still followed Grimes, but in issuing that one they held back two even more futuristic rockers from this same recording date which finally came out in early 1954 and even then still sounded cutting edge in many ways.

Which means that it was left to Rockin’ The Blues Away to try and establish the record label and re-establish Grimes in this field.

It may be too quirky to do either of those things, but all in all it still provides more proof that there was no more talented guitarist in rock ‘n’ roll at the time and gave notice that should he ever fully put his mind to rocking out from start to finish, Tiny Grimes might just melt the speakers with his playing.

With this release at least we can have some newfound hope that he’ll get that chance in the future.


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