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SENSATION 15; MARCH, 1949

 

RE-ISSUED AS KING 4287

 
 

 

It had been more than a year since Todd Rhodes had stepped foot in a studio to record new material but during that time his career, which many presumed had reached a dead end as merely a reliable Detroit club attraction, suddenly took off.

Having signed to the local Sensation label, named after the Sensation Lounge where he and his band was ensconced, their initial recordings stirred some action locally thanks to their reputation as a well-respected group around town. But the record company only had distribution in two states and thus their chances to move beyond the confines of the Motor City and really hit the big time seemed dim.

But King Records was a much larger company that resided in the second of those states in which Sensation was released, that of Ohio, and it was inevitable that they’d hear the buzz Rhodes was making and so they quickly negotiated to distribute his records nationally on their own label. Once they did Rhodes immediately connected with the rock audience that was growing by leaps and bounds across the nation.

After Blues For The Red Boy, the moody instrumental he’d cut back in the fall of 1947, became a Top Five national hit in the fall of 1948 he re-entered the studio under the auspices of King Records in January 1949 trying to ensure the interest he stirred didn’t fade away.
 

 
The likelihood of Todd Rhodes, now nearing fifty years old, finding a lasting second wind in a career that stretched back to the 1920’s was something hard to imagine. One song finding a receptive audience at the dawn of rock, even taking into account that new releases were in short supply due to the recording ban, had been unlikely enough, but now that the ban was off and companies were scooping up young ambitious artists who were the same age and with the same generational viewpoints as the rock fan, the odds were surely against Todd Rhodes being able to keep up.

Surely the connection he’d recently forged with that audience was circumstantial at best, their interest in his work being a fluke more than the result of him choosing them as an intended target. Within a few months it’s likely that his hit from last year, along with his name, would be all but forgotten.

But Todd Rhodes was nothing if not a survivor and if he’d learned anything over the years it was how to give the ears turned suddenly in his direction something that would keep them listening. With Pot Likker he left absolutely no doubt as to what sensationalistic tribal audience it was aiming at.

It didn’t miss.
 

 
What’s On The Menu?
Let’s get it out of the way first, Pot Likker actually became an even bigger hit for Rhodes than Blues For The Red Boy, going all the way to #3 and firmly establishing him as a national artist, something that led King to wrest control of his career from the overmatched, underfunded Sensation Records.

This very song in fact was the result of Rhodes hunkering down with King’s rising star producer Henry Glover, who in this, his first session as A&R man, cut a classic. Interestingly Glover is credited as co-writer – which he undoubtedly was, as Rhodes was more of an arranger than a writer to begin with – on the King release while Sensation (perhaps having Rhodes under contract with a publisher) credited only the artist.

Whoever is responsible for the concept of the song the effectiveness of it all centers on the attitude they inject it with. If Amos Milburn’s Chicken Shack Boogie perfectly described both the locale and the clientele for the typical rock gathering on the outskirts of town, then Pot Likker details precisely what that rowdy mob was chanting when the doors closed.

The group vocals that kick it off might seem a little mannered, a little too clear for the circumstances, but think of it as if they haven’t had a drop to drink yet and their parched throats are contributing to the mannered vocals. Besides they aren’t singers. Once they start playing there’s no doubt as to their skills.

The song swings in a muscular sort of way. It’s not the sound of a lone swaggering horn, bigger and badder than anyone on the block and ready to take on all comers, but rather it’s a street gang mentality, an example of strength in numbers where the presence of those to the left and right of you winds up making you feel bolder and more self-assured.

Though certainly not threatening in what they play they are nothing if not boisterous. It’s a party scene and so the mood is rambunctious as the horns churn along, saxes handling the grinding riff while the trumpet takes the curly-cue endings to each line. The sax is the one getting the solos, as is appropriate for the time this was cut (even though Henry Glover himself was a trumpeter, he knew where the money was) and best of all the drums are providing more than incidental support here, they may be just keeping a steady beat – nothing elaborate by any means – but they’re assertively audible which never hurts.

The vocals jump in from time to time, shouting the title as sort of a rhythmic accent as much as a way to return it to some semblance of order. The song just sounds like a good time, even if you had no idea what they were singing about.

To that end I suppose I should explain the meaning of the words themselves so there’s no confusion.
 

Cornbread And Beans
For the uninitiated the words “pot likker”, especially delivered so exuberantly in this type of setting, probably infer something more nefarious than their actual meaning. Though the sound of it is the same as “pot liquor”, meaning booze – bathtub gin or moonshine in effect – that’s not what they’re talking about. Although let it also be said that I’m sure there WAS plenty of drinking going on during all this, if not at the recording session itself then certainly in the party atmosphere they’re describing.

No, Pot Likker refers to the liquid remains gotten from cooking greens (collards, mustard, spinach, kale, you name it). Though absolutely nasty to look at – greenish broth that has residue from those greens visibly floating in it – the taste is another thing entirely. For many it is the best part of the entire meal.

The history of it (in short) is as follows. In the days of slavery through the indentured servitude of the Jim Crow-era south, African-Americans who weren’t deemed fit to sit at the table alongside whites were of course found to be perfectly suitable to cook and serve the meals these plantation owners families ate. Greens themselves were a southern staple but whites merely ate the greens, unaware that cooking them robbed them of much of their nutrients which wound up in the broth which was to be thrown away.

Black cooks however had families to feed and were existing largely on scraps and leftovers to begin with, the parts of the meals that were deemed unfit for white consumption (pigs feet being a particularly notable example of making due with what you got and turning it into a delicacy). Pot likker was no different, as the residue from the greens not only tasted good but provided plenty of health benefits as well and so it became another black originated contribution to southern cuisine. By the 1900’s whites had inevitably discovered its appeal and became converts to the dish. The notorious Louisiana Senator Huey Long was an ardent fan of it (as well as preferring the traditional spelling of it as “pot likker”).

The great thing about pot likker is its versatility. Many people have it with just cornpone crumbled in it, a feast unto itself. But you can make soups with ham and vegetables added, use it over fish or pork chops or just drink it straight from a glass. Like many regional favorites the idea of it to outsiders probably seems questionable if not downright nasty, but don’t knock anything until you try it. Musically however there was absolutely no problems getting everyone to have a taste.
 

Up From The Delta
Rhodes wasn’t a southerner (born in Kentucky yes, but raised in Ohio and worked in Detroit for most of his adult life), but Henry Glover was. Born in Arkansas he knew first hand the devotion of the region to Pot Likker and so it carried an authenticity that was undeniable.

Though Rhodes strongest appeal lay in his Michigan/Ohio base there were a lot of transplanted southerners up there to feel a kinship towards a song on something many of them knew firsthand. But where the idea to create a song around the unique food really paid off was in spreading Rhodes nationally as this song connected in a unique way with the potential audience even more than simply a really strong hit like Blues For The Red Boy had done.

Pot Likker spoke to many of them directly.

In that era when so little of popular culture was geared towards black Americans, their experiences not deemed worthy of celebrating or even being recognized by the mainstream, in essence dismissing their lives from the social fabric of America as reflected in popular music, those artists who DID acknowledge it ways such as this had a definite leg up commercially.

While pop music often sought to be universal in its themes, reaching as broad a constituency as possible and assiduously avoiding niche topics, or at least watering them down so as to be relatable to those outside that realm, rock did no such thing. Ever since its birth in 1947 rock artists from all backgrounds and in all eras have targeted specific listeners with insider information that initially seems alien to anyone else in the broader audience.

Pop music historically shunned narrow topical appeal because they envisioned all of those who wouldn’t intuitively grasp its meaning losing interest. Rock understood that targeting specific interests formed a much stronger bond with that segment of the audience, but also found (maybe without any forethought that this might happen) that OTHER listeners became intrigued by those otherworldly topics, on one hand because the artists typically wrote best when writing about something THEY knew well, so the songs were more vivid than the generic sides it was competing with, but also because EVERYBODY wants to feel like an insider to something that is getting attention.

Think of some prominent examples through the years such as surf rock around 1963 and its chronicling of endless summer days, sun drenched beaches and girls in bikinis everywhere you looked which became huge in New York and Arizona, places without any waves to ride. Or the arrival of gangsta rap in 1988 detailing inner city realities brought about by a lack of equal educational opportunities combined with vindictive police policies and punitive courts, and how the music – to the chagrin of society at large – became the rage in white bread suburbs. Rock music brought you INTO those worlds, giving you a vivid look at something you otherwise would likely never see and probably wouldn’t even hear much about.

In 1949 there were already signs of that starting to happen in rock with songs like Pot Likker. Maybe its initial popularity was gotten through those who were familiar with the food firsthand, but surely others attracted to the rousing horns and the exuberant cries were pulled into its orbit and with that grew an appreciation for different experiences.
 

 

Second Helpings
It can be a stretch at times to claim rock as a great unifying force, a music that exists as a way to bridge the gaps between people of different backgrounds and leads to a greater understanding that breaks down barriers built of ignorance which exist to prevent acceptance of outside cultures, yet throughout its history oftentimes that’s just what it’s done.

Not every time out for sure, it wouldn’t be much fun if that was its main goal or even a primary goal along the way, but one of the things that made rock so unique over the years was its role as an outlet for those in society who found no other mainstream acknowledgement of their own existence. Rock ‘n’ roll changed that.

By reflecting the lives of its audiences, or segments of its audiences, it allowed those who were showcased in those songs to have a sense of communal pride – particularly when its wrapped in music as invigorating as this – and when that in turn draws notice from those outside those communities suddenly they’re not so insular anymore, no longer mysterious or even frightening at times, but rather they became familiar… comfortable.

Relatable.

That music itself has the power to get you to share experiences even when listening thousands of miles away – or seventy years apart – from one another is something that may not be intended but its significance can’t be understated. If you want to have a more fully realized understanding of past generations maybe the first place you should look, if not the food they ate, is to the music they listened to. Or in this case both the food and the music.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Todd Rhodes for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)