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ATLANTIC 894; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

Touchstone (n.) – A fundamental or quintessential part or feature.

In the now seventy-two year (and counting) history of rock ‘n’ roll music there are certain songs, some even older than rock itself, which form the bedrock of the genre, the terra firma the structure was built on, durable and able to withstand any number of interpretations no matter the era or the stylistic differences each artist brings to the table.

Though they’re rarely songs which will stand out in any rendition, they’re made of such solid materials that they also are rarely able to be completely toppled over by any wayward assault.

The indestructible nature of these songs means that whenever an artist – or their record label – is in doubt about which direction to pursue or what songs to tackle in an effort to fill out a recording session many of them invariably head back towards these touchstones time and time again.
 

 

Won’t Be Back ‘Til Fall
Usually “time and time again” is more of a generic term, or at the very least a sign that an artist would revisit the same song a few years down the road, but not in this case.

See See Rider was cut in the summer of 1948 at the same session as Midnight Special, an instrumental version which was essentially based on this one and that raises all sorts of intriguing questions regarding their intent.

When reviewing Midnight Special we posited that it was a conscious decision on Atlantic’s part to have Grimes head more purposefully towards the rock sounds that were finding favor with audiences over the past year. Though they had other Grimes cuts still awaiting release they openly defied the recording ban to get new material in the can that would help them achieve their goal. Whaddaya know, it actualy worked too, as that record when released in the fall gave Grimes – and Atlantic Records for that matter – their first national chart hit.

The decision to release that one, the instrumental, and shelf this one, with a vocal attached, would seem to have been the right one. Even in the years since it’s the former that remains moderately well known and while being a hit helps it’s also the better record. But here comes the questions without answers…

Was there any thought to releasing them back to back, as in on the same single, one taking the A-side and the other adorning the B-side? If not… why not?

In retrospect that seems like the wisest move for a number of reasons. The first is it’s designed to stand out that way, to show a bit of cleverness… arrogance… call it what you will, but pairing up a vocal version and an instrumental version of the same song draws attention to your creativity as a label and as musicians who can (presumably) re-imagine the song in two distinctly different ways.

The second reason it makes sense to put them out together is if it doesn’t draw any interest you’re not stuck with a second version of the same idea in the storeroom collecting dust.

Which leads to the third reason… when the instrumental became a hit while this one sat in cold storage it sort of negated the value of the vocal version of See See Rider because releasing it as a follow-up would only come off as a crass shallow move to capitalize on their success.

That mentality held firm for more than a year until Atlantic had little choice but to finally put it out as a B-side when Grimes was no longer with them.
 


 

See What You’ve Done
Anytime a talented group of musicians tackle the same basic song twice using a different approach the results, even if not equally pleasing aesthetically, are going to be interesting. In jazz of course this was standard operating procedure, the best bands re-arranged their best tunes constantly over the years. Grimes had come from jazz so this concept wasn’t exactly new to him either, although to cut the same song in two different ways in the same session, one right after the other, was a bit unusual.

But since this one was to feature vocals, courtesy of his sax player Red Prysock, making his debut with Grimes on this date no less, they at least had the means with which to change things up.

Now we’ve already heard Prysock “sing”, if you can call it that, on the appropriately named Nightmare Blues, released a year ago from this same recording session and on that one he sounded as if he were suffering from some undisclosed gastrointestinal issues which would put most men in the hospital. Red bravely soldiered on – much to our consternation actually – and we figured we’d heard the end of him.

But let’s not forget he came from a family with one great singer in it, his brother Arthur who remained one of the last stalwarts of the pre-rock black musical ballad style, first as frontman for Buddy Johnson’s great group, then on his own. But while they presumably shared the same parents and DNA, they didn’t seem to share the same skills. You wouldn’t want to hear ol’ Arthur blow a sax and you cringed at the thought of Red bellowing another song.

Yet on See See Rider he actually does a credible job, leaving us to wonder if it just took him awhile in front of the microphone to get comfortable that day, or whether this brand of song was more his speed.

Then again maybe it’s just that it’s such a familiar song that your own ears subliminally smooth out the rough spots for you.
 

Find Me A Good Man
The song of course was popularized back in in 1924 when Ma Rainey, one of the progenitors of the modern blues style, laid down her classic take with Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson in support. A decade later Wee Bea Booze had a big hit with her version and by the time Grimes and Prysock tackled it the song was a cornerstone of the blues.

Therefore maybe it’s not surprising that the opening to it is as as bluesy as Grimes would ever get, but even so it never quite descends into gut-bucket styled playing. Somehow he manages to evoke the deeper blues style while keeping one foot in the club scene approach he was known for with its distinctly jazzy touches.

In spite of that split persona, See See Rider is sturdy enough to straddle the fence but in doing so it never quite establishes itself as belonging anywhere specific, let alone being an altogether comfortable fit in rock.

Prysock’s sonorous baritone is a little too straitlaced to really convince us he’s the lovelorn suitor who is risking death or a murder charge to be with this woman. He sings just behind the beat, which itself is really slow and drawn out, but he’s staying in tune and keeping up the front he chose to deliver this and so we don’t find ourselves really bothered by his approach even if we’re not really knocked out by it either.

Since he can’t sing and play his sax at the same time during the bulk of this it means Grimes – along with the pianist who keeps the modest but consistent rhythm from slackening behind Red – are the focal points, something which should yield dividends because Grimes is so good yet frequently stays around the edges of a more crowded arrangement. But because this is taken so slow there aren’t many opportunities for Tiny to really cut loose leaving him to be content to find the gaps that are there and fill them with slicing notes.

Only when Prysock delivers the ultimatum does the energy pick up, mostly thanks to a well-executed group scream that really shouldn’t work – I mean, what are they screaming about? It’s certainly not excitement – but somehow that part works in spite of its inappropriate nature.

At the very least it shifts our focus to the instruments for their extended coda which, while fairly subdued as well, showcases them fairly effectively. When they close it out you’re actually expecting more to follow and you actually wish they stretched things out with another verse.

It’s hardly a great record but it never fails to hold your attention and that’s about all most B-sides can ask for so you get your money’s worth at the very least.
 

Going Away Baby
The most telling aspect of this however isn’t found by listening to this in isolation but rather by comparing it to the instrumental version to see how they changed things up to give the same song a different feel.

That one too is taken ponderously slow, but since Prysock’s mouth wasn’t singing it was free to wrap its lips around the saxophone’s mouthpiece and blow a sensuous lead. Basically he’s handling the same role on both versions – the lyrics – but the sax delivers those lyrical lines more effectively than his larynx does and when he later gets a chance to solo on Midnight Special he is rather whimsical in his choices. The piano that takes the mid-section is far more lively than anything shown here, while Grimes is largely taking a back seat to all of them until the ending which is sharp and precise in a languid sort of way.

That one was a mood piece in other words, whereas this See See Rider – by virtue of the vocals – is more of a one act play, sort of a monologue. Because Prysock isn’t the best actor to begin with though and because his role as a sax player is cut down here since he’s busy singing it’s not going to be as good.

But at least if they’d issued them as two-sides of the same single you could’ve better appreciated their creativity in tackling a touchstone song in multiple ways a lot easier than trying to recall a record that was fifteen months old by this point from an artist who was now on a different label altogether.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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