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SENSATION 15; MARCH, 1949

 

RE-ISSUED AS KING 4287

 
 

 

What’s going on here? What is this? Why does this title jump out at you?

These are questions rock fans have been asking themselves ever since somebody long ago made an ill-advised decision to not trust an artist’s continued creativity and instead rely on an audience’s gullibility to seduce them with the idea that a sequel to something wonderfully original might be equally wonderful, if not original, itself.

It saves time in coming up with new ideas but more importantly to record companies it saves the effort of having to promote one of those new ideas… all they do instead is let the older hit record on which it was based act as the advertisement for the retread.

And so those questions posed at the beginning when asked upon seeing such a familiar sounding title generally have unsettling answers awaiting the listener when they cue the record up.
 

 
But might this one be different? After all the record on which the title is derived was an instrumental and thus there are no storylines to revisit or artificially drag out for non-sensical plot twists just to keep the action moving forward.

It’s just a title, not a second chapter of an actual character named Red Boy, complete with backstory and motivations to address. Besides, Red Boy At The Mardi Gras is an instrumental too and so if you didn’t LOOK at the titles it wouldn’t make any difference what they’d called it, would it?

I mean… unless they slavishly tried to recreate the entire beautiful ambiance Blues For The Red Boy had created.

They didn’t do THAT… did they?

No, they didn’t do that. Not quite.
 

Blue?… Red?… Green!
It’s pretty obvious all the same what everybody involved were thinking with this one from the start, be it Sensation Records, King Records (for whom he was now under the direction of, releasing his records nationally while Sensation, his original label, handled their own small Michigan and northeast Ohio region) and their gifted writer/producer Henry Glover, or Todd Rhodes himself.

Blues For The Red Boy had been a national hit. Rhodes’ only one to date in a handful of recordings and the title, while essentially meaningless, was intriguing enough to be memorable. Once it became a hit the title became even more memorable.

So since Rhodes was recording more instrumentals and they needed titles, why not try and suggest some connection between the two and increase sales that way?

Shameless though it may be, the fact is Red Boy At The Mardi Gras is kind of intriguing in its own right, certainly not a lame unimaginative title like Roy Brown’s Miss. Fanny Brown Returns, which should’ve tipped off any interested listeners who’d thoroughly enjoyed the original Miss Fanny Brown that the sequel was a contrived rip-off with no creativity whatsoever.

So whether you approve of the revival of the Red Boy moniker for this record or find it crass and exploitative the real test was going to be the music itself and how closely it adhered to the song where it derived its name.
 

Down Nola Way
Rock ‘n’ roll, as we all know (or presumably all SHOULD know) started in New Orleans. The most fertile musical city the world has ever known hadn’t been content with inventing jazz years earlier which defined American music for the first half of the Twentieth Century so it also came up with something new to capture the interest of people in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond.

Todd Rhodes wasn’t from New Orleans. He may never have been there for all I know, but he certainly knew what components went into its music, as Red Boy At The Mardi Gras clearly shows.

The problem, if you want to call it that, is it’s caught between the two styles New Orleans produced and so it resides in a hazy no man’s land of modern appeal circa 1949. Too jazzy for rock’s bristling intensity, yet its subtle groove makes it far more welcome in the recent rock landscape than it’d first appear.

Starting off with Rhodes delicate piano this is hardly the rousing intro one would expect from an artist looking to capitalize on his recent success in the rock realm. Though his playing is as nimble as ever, the mood it creates is alien to the sounds that audiences have found the most captivating to date.

Yet it’s strangely intoxicating all the same, something that has you at least curious to hear what will follow. As anyone remembering Blues For The Red Boy, which had made his name not long ago, that too began in an unlikely way before settling into a seductive groove.

Sure enough that’s what they’re going for here as well, which I suppose explains their decision to name it in a way that conjures up that earlier record.

Whether it was intentional from the outset when writing it, or whether it merely revealed itself to be similar enough to draw comparisons, the formula is relatively the same even though it could hardly be called formulaic.

When the horns come in the New Orleans connection of the title is made apparent. They play in unison, bright and ever so slightly shrill, gently swaying in a way that brings to mind magnolia trees rustling in the warm southern breezes. The effect, though far from invigorating, is nevertheless pleasantly hypnotic, a lazy stroll through the French Quarter in late afternoon, the twilight fast approaching after which the buzz on the streets will pick up along with the action and leave this tranquil feeling behind.

That’s really an appropriate image for the music, a last respite before the changes already underway begin to take over.

Let’s not forget that Rhodes began his career in jazz as a member of the successful McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s and while they weren’t playing in a Dixieland motif like this brings to mind, the sensibilities of jazz are written all over the DNA of Red Boy At Mardi Gras, even if the era in which this might conceivably connect with a broad audience was well in the rearview mirror by now.
 

 

Where The Past And The Future Collide
What makes rock ‘n’ roll so vibrant is its need to keep looking forward, to never rest on its laurels and stick to the same approach for very long. Part of this may be creative restlessness, an urge to prove yourself artistically by going beyond what’s already been done, a more competitive nature that takes hold in that field for some reason, but it also has a generational motive as well. Because rock has its strongest appeal to younger listeners there’s more of a turnover in its audience over time and each new generation feels the need to celebrate something new, not merely reaffirm what’s already been accepted.

Pop music, and more mainstream commercial jazz for that matter, at times are far more content to stay the course that’s already been laid out. It’s almost as if they seemed to feel as if the audience would never change, or if so they’d change gradually, and so there was a much more conservative outlook those styles adhered to, riding trends into the ground and oftentimes viewing anything that went too far astray from the accepted sounds as risky and unwise. That’s a simplification obviously but as a general rule of thumb it’s pretty accurate. There’s safety in conformity and when you’re on top the last thing you want is to upset the natural order of things by trying something unproven.

Perhaps the most damning proof of this mindset is the fact that the more experimental jazz got, with bop and other innovative ideas that took hold as the forties progressed, the less mainstream it became. The establishment, whether political or musical, rarely embraces change because it runs the risk of threatening their control.

Rhodes therefore occupies a very unusual position in the larger musical spectrum at this point. An ex-jazz musician who ventured out into a new style and found his biggest success he’d had his eyes opened to the new horizons possible for those who embraced change but his past experiences conspired to temper that adventurish attitude slightly and urged him to not fully abandon the more reliably safe approaches that have kept him from having to sell apples on the street to earn a living.

As such, for all of its charm and class, Red Boy At The Mardi Gras won’t have what it takes to keep his momentum surging forward in rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s a dated sound, a moderately enjoyable one for sure, well played and well thought out, but something which is looking backwards. Rhodes piano is just a bit too florid in its solo to really stir the passions of the rock listener. The saxophones are sleepier than anyone heading out for a night on the town needs to keep their energy up and while it does contain a certain lurching groove it’s one more appropriate for heading home at five in the morning, pockets empty, head pounding after drinking too many Hurricanes, and only a vague sense of where you’ve been and what you’ve done that will surely disappear from your memory completely once you wake up sometime after noon the next day with a nasty hangover.
 

Fat Tuesday
Despite its stuck-in-time approach, like a bug captured in amber, I can’t begrudge Rhodes for exploring this direction too much. The song has enough of a connection to his big hit in its slowly unfolding pace to stir a little interest in even the most ardent rock fan, even if nobody listening was about to mistake it for a song best suited for the present environment.

As B-sides go it’s a song that you won’t ever really mind hearing when you turn the record over, but like most B-sides it’s not one you’ll often cue up on its own simply because you’re rarely seeking a fix that only something like this can provide.

Evocative though it may be, Red Boy At The Mardi Gras can’t help but suffer in the rock setting Rhodes finds himself in now.

When the bars close and the crowd empties out onto the street there’s always a jumble of bodies impatiently shoving one another in an effort to get further along the avenue of music and life. With this Rhodes is merely slowing the traffic flow by glancing back over his shoulder at the music world he’s leaving behind before picking up his pace again as he joins them in the neverending rush to meet the next dawn.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 

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