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ATLANTIC 858; APRIL, 1948

 
 

 

Early rock ‘n’ roll was very much like a guy coming home one night after tying one on with some buddies who were smart enough to just drop him at the curb rather than try and escort him inside and incur the wrath of his wife or girlfriend who expected him home – sober – hours ago.

Usually the guy doesn’t think he’s quite as drunk as he really is and so he attempts, rather unsuccessfully, to slip inside undetected. He can’t turn on a light and have a good look around to see where he’s going which only makes matters worse and soon he’s stumbling around in the dark, banging his shins on anything and everything in his way and making quite a racket in the process, all while blissfully unaware that anybody at all might notice because of course HE doesn’t notice how conspicuous he’s being.

That was rock in early 1948. Trying to come up with a hit almost stealthily, simply because they didn’t have the confidence, instincts or track record to know exactly what they were aiming at and so they too stumbled around in the dark hoping that out of sheer luck they might make it safely to their bedroom and pass out, reliving the wild time they had just getting there.

Needless to say it didn’t always work.
 

In Its Spell
Atlantic Records had signed Tiny Grimes – he of the respected jazz lineage of Three Cats & A Fiddle as well as working with the likes of Charlie Parker, Slam Stewart and other high priests of bop – and basically let him loose in the studio, not knowing exactly what he was after musically and not really knowing themselves what direction to point him towards either. I’m sure the intent was to stick with jazz, at least on Atlantic’s part, but Grimes, as we’ve already detailed with his initial entry, Boogie Woogie Barbecue, was far too iconoclastic to do anything that was expected of him and so he ventured out into the foggy swamps on the edge of rock ‘n’ roll.

Truth be told that wasn’t as unlikely as it might seem, for there was far more jazz DNA than blues in rock ‘n’ roll’s family tree despite what modern historians would have you believe. The reason for this was quite simple. The overwhelming majority of musicians who were playing on rock records throughout its first decade (if not two decades) had cut their teeth on jazz – not blues – and while they certainly modified, and simplified, what they’d learned in their jazz days, they still were adapting that style to what they were called upon to do in rock. Blues artists on the other hand for the most part stuck with the blues and rarely were hired as sessionists and since commercially blues was on the uptick at this point while jazz’s pre-war popularity was receding, there was more incentive for jazz cats to head elsewhere in search of a new sound and new audience. Ten or twenty years down the road the reverse would be true, as blues commercial peak slackened its artists were drawn into rock to try and connect.

Grimes is perfectly representative of this early migration of jazz refugees to the rock shore but he’ll be followed by hundreds more, from the greatest 50’s rock guitarist, Mickey Baker, a jazz expatriate who found more money and fame in rock, to the greatest studio band in history, The Funk Brothers, all of whom were frustrated jazziacs who turned to rock sessions to earn a buck at Motown in the 1960’s and, as it turns out, to build their legend.

Tiny Grimes was first in that regard and if he didn’t quite make the same widespread impact as those later artists did, that was understandable too.

Since rock itself was just getting started at the time it didn’t have quite the same commercial reach as it would down the road and so Grimes wasn’t moving into an already popular field and hoping to be pulled along by it as later artists would, but rather he was among those were attempting to make it popular to begin with. A much harder task, but one even more challenging for an ambitious artist like Grimes.

Secondly, while he DID cut sides behind other acts from time to time, mostly he was doing his own thing which meant he wasn’t being instructed to play what somebody else (artist or label) wanted and thus was free to blaze his own trail rather than follow what others had done with some success thus far, and so without that already established blueprint in place it wouldn’t JUST be his playing ability, but his creative instincts themselves, a separate skill altogether, which he’d have to tap into in order to score.

The third reason he would always struggle to find a consistent audience of course is that Tiny Grimes was the ultimate non-conformist and consequently his muse remained hard to pin down. All of which makes him much more interesting at times, if less commercially predictable.
 


 

That Elevator Starts Its Ride
This is one of his more straightforward attempts and certainly one that Atlantic probably saw as marketable for that very reason regardless of what field they threw it into. True to form they actually got a decent return on it, enough for it to slip into the regional Harlem Cash Box charts (at #10) for a lone week in August. Maybe not a major achievement in the big scheme of things but certainly notable for a company still struggling to make ends meet and as such it was a welcome sign that they might be able to make a go of this after all.

That Old Black Magic was first conjured up by Glenn Miller, the legendary clarinetist, back in 1942, just two years before he died in World War Two, and it was his final #1 hit. It quickly became a song that artists from all fields tackled, from Judy Garland and Margaret Whiting at the time to Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald down the road. Probably the definitive version historically is a romping swinging take by Louis Prima and Keely Smith done in 1958 that brings to mind all sorts of inappropriate Vegas-styled technicolor shenanigans.

Regardless of who does it though it’s a great song with bewitching lyrics that are easily adaptable for a multitude of personas making it ripe for reinterpretation.

Grimes tackles it instrumentally of course and positions it mid-way between jazz and rock, in sort of a hazy netherworld that shows just how the two genres were tied, yet also how they were inexorably never going to fully come together and allow jazz to claim rock as its own and welcome it into the fold.
 


 

The intro is intoxicating, with piano sketching out the melodic foundation while the percussion lurks ominously in the shadows, waiting to strike. Though it’s not loud, nor even playing anything abruptly startling, it nonetheless carries a certain understated menace to it that has you on the edge of your seat. Grimes arrival breaks that mood, lifting the veil and letting in some light with his choppy chording, seeming buoyant by comparison to what preceded it.

The tenor sax struts down the block to join them, tough sounding, but not flaunting it. More as if he’s so sure of himself he doesn’t have to act hard to get respect along the avenue. In fact Grimes seems to almost be shadowing him, mincing behind him out of his field of vision for laughs. The two do an odd musical tango of sorts, trading lines while the drums answer with some heavy syncopation.

All of this works quite well, but more as a visual mood piece in your mind than a rousing performance for simply your ears. It helps though that the melody (and unused lyrics) are so familiar to most, as you’ll probably be reciting the words in your mind as it goes along just to keep your place in the proceedings.

It’s when the sax breaks off for its solo that the song veers away from the alley that rock lurks about in and heads towards the night clubs where the jazz cats hang out and that’s its first mistake.

This is John “Badman” Hardee’s final appearance with Grimes on sax and while a solid musician who was more than capable of serving up the type of romping wildness rock was increasingly calling for, he was at heart still a jazz man and would soon be replaced by someone not quite as reluctant to rip off his tailored suit and jump into the mosh pit.

Letting Hardee lead the way That Old Black Magic wanders into another part of town, as Grimes lays back at this point playing nothing but a barely audible supporting part while the piano picks up the slack, but all of the atmosphere they’d been busy creating changes to an entirely different mood that doesn’t mesh well with what we’ve just heard.

The rock/jazz dichotomy in a nutshell. One is uncouth, the other swanky. Oil and water if you will.

We’re not the only ones who notice how out of place it is by the sounds of it, for all of a sudden it seems as if they’ve been tossed out of that club and are back onto the street as now the song staggers along like that drunk we met at the start of the review, looking back over its shoulder at the hipper joints they just exited while keeping one eye out for the seedier locales they pass on their way home, uncertain of which door will welcome them and which will slam it in their face and so they keep walking with no destination in mind.

Pick one. Pick the other. But whatever you pick, stick with it, otherwise you’re wandering around aimlessly and that’s what happens here. It’s a song with no firm footing in either realm and so as a listener whichever you prefer you’re sure to be let down by the attributes belonging to the other faction.
 

Like A Leaf Caught In The Tide
That’s rock’s dilemma before it really took hold. Sure, the guys who had no track record to go on, who were younger and more restlessly ambitious to make a name for themselves, were going all-in on rock, they had nothing to lose and it was those sounds which were stirring loudest among those from their generation. They were at home in the alley from the start.

But the ones like Grimes and Hardee, guys that came of age in the previous generation who’d already MADE their name elsewhere, had more choices and sometimes, to their detriment, weren’t quite sure which direction to head. If they put their ties back on and acted with the proper decorum they’d be allowed into the classier joints, no questions asked, but Grimes was itching to see what was going on behind those places in the alleys too.

Here he flirts with both but chooses neither, leaving us in limbo along with the record. The first half works well, the second half doesn’t. I’m sure a jazz fan would say the opposite and when taking into account the tastes of each point of view you really couldn’t dispute either assessment. They’re simply two different performances awkwardly grafted together.
 


 

Ultimately, and ironically I think, the record is not ambitious enough for either jazz OR rock, albeit in different – and conflicting – ways. Grimes’ jazz instincts seem apparent with the layers of sound intertwining at the beginning, which is really well done, but the music itself at that point is more in line with rock with the sonic textures they’re highlighting. But then they don’t take it anywhere from that point, they simplify it, which on the surface is more appropriate for rock arrangements yet it’s then that they start playing in more of a jazz motif.

They may have had the map with right directions laid out in front of them but they read them upside down and as a result, though played well from a technical standpoint, it doesn’t get us where we need to go, especially not for our sensibilities in the rock world here on Spontaneous Lunacy.

In the end for all of its charm it’s rather schizophrenic, six of one, half dozen of the other, adding up to a rather interesting confusion but not much more.

As sure as you’re reading this when they get home that night and stumble in the door the lights at the top of the stairs will snap on, the drunk’s better half will be wide awake and peering down into the darkness with scorn while he just tries to mercifully pass out before she comes down and lays into him for waking her up with his nomadic drifting.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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