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MODERN 20-666; MAY, 1949

 
 

 

This will be our one and only exclusive look at an artist this decade whose contributions to rock ‘n’ roll far surpasses his name recognition, a statement which would seem to confirm his rather low historical credit if he in fact only had scant few releases of his own to mark his legacy.

When that record is not a hit and has pretty much gone unrecognized in the seven decades since its release and is not even particularly noteworthy other than it being one of the few chances to examine the artist in question outside of his side work as a session guitarist and group member, you may wonder what the big deal is. Why even bother?

Fair question.

But rock ‘n’ roll’s story is one of evolution. Discovering how Point A connects to Point B and how that in turn effects Points C through Z further down the road.

While the story of a little known name and his less known record might appear on the surface to be rather insignificant in the big scheme of things and thus not worthy of taking up too much of our time, the same probably wouldn’t be said of rock’s decades long infatuation with the electric guitar, or about the role of session musicians who were responsible for so much of what we heard over the years without ever receiving credit for their contributions.

Those stories will make up a good deal of the focus from here on in and this is where it really starts to gel in many ways.

So far from being just a minor blip on the radar, the man known as Tiny Webb becomes a rather large force to be reckoned with when it comes to rock history.
 

 

Play For That Money, Boys!
When fans of rock ‘n’ roll have gotten bored listening to the same three dozen artists they pledge their allegiance to they often take to seeking out other rock fans to talk glowingly about those three dozen artists only to discover much to their chagrin that not all fans share the same favorites.

This naturally leads to arguments and frequently to fights which in rare instances can result in death… or if not death per say then at least results in cursing humanity for having to put up with other people’s idiocy.

The other thing it leads to however is the challenge of ranking artists – usually without any objective criteria whatsoever mind you – and then arguing incessantly over those results.

Thanks to this fruitless pastime there are a plethora of Greatest Rock Guitarists lists that get made and bandied about. Usually those lists cover only the most familiar names with a few more obscure critical favorites thrown in to show off your hipness. When contrasting these guitarists one of the things that becomes a stumbling block for ever reaching a consensus beyond a handful of the most elite figures, is how to compare those who excelled in one style of rock against somebody who was revered for another style of rock entirely. Apples meet oranges.

Ironically the ones who actually meet that elusive benchmark of stylistic versatility best are those who are never mentioned in these raging debates at all because they plied their trades as sessionists. Unlike members of self-contained groups who focus on just their own band’s specialty, the session guitarist’s primary job requirement is to be able to play ANY type of music that the artist they’re backing on that day calls for. Then take into consideration that the next day, if not later that same day, they might be playing a totally different style of music behind a different artist altogether. Now multiply that by anywhere from a dozen sessions to a couple hundred each year.

But because their names rarely are highlighted by the record company or even by the artist whose work they appear on, their contributions are minimized and their legacies all but eradicated even though, in many cases, the session musician may have played on ten times the number of major hits than the so-called greatest ever on those instruments.

Such is the life of a session musician and that is why a guy like say Mickey “Guitar” Baker who by any measure has to rank as one of the ten or twenty greatest rock guitarists ever is lucky to even get a mention in just one discussion of the subject.

While Baker’s place in rock history is not completely forgotten thanks to his own work as a featured artist as half of the 1950’s duo Mickey & Sylvia in addition to the hundreds of sessions he cut which produced some of the biggest hits of that decade, the same can’t be said for Mitchell “Tiny” Webb, a figure who is so obscure that there’s not even reliable sources found for the dates of his birth and death, nor many pictures to give him a sense of personality.

As for his musical contributions they’re found mostly in the shadows as well, playing behind a wide array of artists in a wide variety of styles, both in and out of rock, all for no real lasting credit…

Then there’s this, Billboard Special, a record that came out under his own name which also came and went with little notice.
 

Side Work
Tiny Webb was a large individual by most accounts and his nickname was therefore a humorously ironic one. He’d played briefly in Jay McShann’s jazz-blues group that was also the breeding ground for a number of other artists in the rock orbit. In time Webb became one of the more prolific West Coast session guitarists, called on the provide the backing on everything from Paula Watson’s massive hit A Little Bird Told Me to augmenting Ray Charles’s first group because their guitarist wasn’t considered up to snuff.

He provided the support on some of blues star Jimmy Witherspoon’s sides in 1948 and sat in with Crown Prince Waterford on his lone session for Capitol Records the previous fall, getting a featured spot on Weeping Willow Blues, a good performance trapped in a rather inappropriate song for an otherwise storming rock singer, which is where we first mentioned him.

In due time he’ll be heard from much more in the context of Eddie Williams And His Brown Buddies, a short-lived group which also includes another solo performer in pianist Floyd Dixon who just had a release on Modern Records this same month with That’ll Get It which not surprisingly also featured Webb on guitar. The two of them will join with Williams, the erstwhile bassist for Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, and drummer Ellis Walsh, to cut some good rock sides which touch upon their work in other genres as well.

Again, versatility is thy name when it comes to Tiny Webb.

If you wanted him to play with a jazzy bent, that was no problem. Old school blues, ditto, as one listen to the flip of this record, Tiny’s Down Home will attest. And though the dominant sound of rock ‘n’ roll was still mostly centered around the tenor saxophone and piano, Tiny Webb was doing his best to inject a new sound into the mix when given the opportunity behind others.

But here on Billboard Special, an instrumental surely named to garner some publicity from the musical trade paper, Webb is on his own, making his own best case for its increased usage when it came to defining rock’s image.
 

Back To The Future
The sound – for those of us from the future anyway – is oddly reassuring as his fleet fingered picking and mellow tone sound eminently familiar to anyone who’s sampled a broad range of rock songs that came out in the years following 1949.

As for those IN 1949 who heard this, I’d imagine the overall reaction was somewhat similar. Not in being accustomed to the sound of it, but rather feeling as though it was appropriate for the style of music still taking shape.

Billboard Special is a smooth record, one in which his playing comes across as surprisingly effortless as Webb goes through his bag of tricks – a bag that such future stars as Chuck Berry clearly plundered (his tone early on here sounds uncannily like Berry on such tracks as Almost Grown and Let It Rock and Chuck freely confessed to basing his first hit Maybellene on Bumble Bee Slim’s Ida Red which featured lead guitar by none other than Tiny Webb).

Because of this however Billboard Special isn’t so much a fully formed song as it is a very proficient guitar exercise. Webb takes us through a few different approaches, each one fitting in nicely with the ones surrounding it, but also each standing apart as merely different techniques he can use when called upon. His boogie progressions to kick it off are graceful as can be while his succession of runs mid-way through are impressive for the dexterity but also for their seamless quality as each note flows into the next like quicksilver. He ramps up the intensity by the end without resorting to cranking the volume or distortion leaving you with a different impression than you had at the start, yet the transition seems organic in nature because of the route he chose to get you there.

It’s almost like an audition record if you want to be honest, sort of a ”let’s see what you can do” request from someone looking for a guy to work a gig at a nightclub or a producer hastily interviewing guitarists when the cat who was originally hired for the job won four hundred bucks in a craps game the night before and left for a long weekend in Mexico with a girl he picked up at 2 AM, thereby leaving the record company scrambling to find a last minute replacement.

Tiny Webb no doubt would’ve gotten that job simply on the basis of this impressive display which shows him to be as fluid as any on the instrument we’ve yet heard.

Now admittedly that’s not a very long list, but it’s also not a shabby one either when those names include such figures as Tiny Grimes, Jimmy “Babyface” Lewis, George Freeman, Gene Phillips, Teddy Bunn, Billy Butler and most recently – and explosively – Goree Carter. Now Webb may not show anything aggressive enough here to compete with Pete “Guitar” Lewis, who blew many a mind with his otherworldly fret work on Midnight In The Barrelhouse, but than again this song wouldn’t have a spot for such theatrics and if anyone could come close to replicating that sound surely it’d be Tiny Webb… he could do everything else it seemed.
 

A Holding Pattern
If you had a vested interest in seeing the guitar achieve a more rapid takeover of rock ‘n’ roll than maybe this wasn’t quite declarative enough for you. But the fact Webb cut it at all was proof that the sound of tomorrow in rock was already working its way into the sounds of today in 1949 and as a result it stands out – proudly at that – amidst the torrent of sax instrumentals over the past year.

The ironic part of all this is that Modern Records had most of its success to this point with the blues – John Lee Hooker, Pee Wee Crayton, the aforementioned Witherspoon, all in a down-home vein, along with the also referenced cocktail blues sounds of Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers – and clearly with the other side of this falling in a pure blues category that was their thinking with how they planned on promoting their frequent session guitarist, Tiny Webb.

But Webb doesn’t follow that edict with Billboard Special at all. He may just want to announce to the world – and to any record company seeking a guitarist for studio assignments – his versatility, but he chose to do so in a style that hadn’t yet had much in the way of prominent guitar work. That suggests he intuitively understood its potential in a rock setting and perhaps could even see into the future where such sounds wouldn’t be an outlier, but rather would form the heart and soul of the music in many ways.

Regardless of this record’s impact at the time, or lack thereof, Webb’s real impact was in providing much of early rock ‘n’ roll with not only the template it’d eventually follow more and more as time went on, but also the fact it’d be him who’d get called on to supply it on the records of others until his own time, far too short that it was, finally came to an end.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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