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KING 4509; FEBRUARY 1952

 
 

 

The last few weeks… really the last couple of months… Todd Rhodes has been a somewhat ubiquitous presence on the release rolls even though he hasn’t had a single come out in awhile.

That’s because King Records has been using his band to back everyone from Wynonie Harris to Dave Bartholomew, taking advantage of his complimentary skills to get more out of him now that his own commercial returns have faded ever so much.

Since much of the record today is being sung by his band, maybe that makes this title an oblique commentary on their boss’s side activities of late.
 

 

Just What Everyone Heard
The battle over the contract of Todd Rhodes between Sensation Records, a local Detroit label who revived his recording career in the late 1940’s, and King Records, a growing independent label who they contracted to distribute his releases nationally in 1948, seemed from the outside to be like two dogs fighting over a bone that the meat had already been stripped bare.

It’s not that dogs – or record labels – can’t get some enjoyment out of chewing on a dry bone, but chances are it’s not providing much sustinence.

Rhodes was nearing fifty years old at the time, he’d first sold big way back in the late 1920’s as the pianist in McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and twenty years later had unexpectedly stumbled into a commercial renaissance when he proved ideal for early rock ‘n’ roll thanks to a tight band who knew how to lay down atmospheric grooves.

But once the music had found its commercial footing and younger artists began filling studios from coast to coast determined to chart their own musical course, Rhodes was a prime candidate to be cast aside by the equally young growing fan base and the fact that he essentially had to sit out for an entire year until his Sensation contract ran its course further hampered his chances for continued relevance.

By the time he finally landed at his new label the initial rock era had passed and those like him, veteran artists steeped in jazz, were no longer viable hitmakers and so while he still issued his own singles which were highly competent and tightly arranged, they were also commercially stillborn and so King began having him back other artists to get more mileage of his contract.

He carried this out with the utmost professionalism as you’d expect, but as his own latest single, Your Daddy’s Doggin’ Around, proves, he wasn’t quite ready to settle into semi-retirement and cast aside his own ambitions just yet.

But to reconnect with the rock audience and boost his chances for another commercial breakthrough Rhodes knew he’d need to expand beyond instrumentals he made his name on and since he was seeing more opportunities to be heard backing others, it only made sense to do the same when he would be the one getting the primary artist credit.
 


 
 

The Easy Installment Plan
To be fair this was hardly something “new” for Todd Rhodes. His days as the best bandleader in Detroit throughout the 1940’s meant that he was used to letting vocalists take the stage in Club Sensation and he would later make Kitty Stevenson a featured part of his show and his records.

The phenomonally talented singer couldn’t get him a belated hit, sometimes thanks to his own underwhelming arrangements to be honest, but at their best it revealed that Rhodes’s band could still deliver the goods and after cancer ended her run with Rhodes last year (and would end her life later in 1952), he brought in Connie Allen as a replacement.

This was not her first attempt to bolster the waning commercial fortunes of an early rock instrumental star from Detroit, as she’d turned in a good performance on Paul Williams’s 1950 release What’s Happening, though somehow that didn’t get her a follow-up single, nor any other opportunities to go into the studio until now.

But while her time with Rhodes would be every bit as short, just two songs cut in one session last July, both of the releases were memorable starting with Your Daddy’s Doggin’ Around, a song that sort of eases her into the lead role by having her share the vocals with the horn section in a back and forth exchange that deals in gossip in an unvarnished manner.

The horn section – Howard Thompson, Halley Dismukes, Lefty Edwards and Teddy Buckner – may actually do a better job singing than playing early on, as their opening refrain on the instruments is a little underpowered, while their vocals are surprisingly confident in their technique.

My guess is Dismukes isn’t singing, as his alto is heard while the vocals are still ringing in your ear, but it’s not his horn that provides the biggest bang for your buck here (though he does get a later solo), as it’s Edwards’ tenor solo which provides the best feature of the record when they shut their yaps for the instrumental break and he starts to tear it up, although the others are throwing in their two cents with their playing as well.

Unfortunately, while the song has a good theme, a nice driving rhythm thanks to future Motown anchor Benny Benjamin on drums, and the vocal arrangement works well with their chiding questions to Allen, the problem is there’s really not enough room for Allen to run with the ball. Her lines are short, the humor (such as it is), is left to the fellas to supply and there no opportunity for her to show off her pipes.

In the story itself she’s given little more than a reactionary role, as it’s her man who’s cheating on her, but rather than let Connie display a fiery attitude, caustic wit and stinging tongue and cut him down to size, they’re content with letting her play a rather one-dimensional spurned woman. She’s still holding her head up high thankfully and is leaving him without a second thought, but by giving her no way of delivering any scathing criticisms in the lyrics she’s almost a supplementary feature on the record… an important one for sure, but still not the aspect you’re going to focus on when all is said and done.
 


 

Takin’ It Back To The Man
Being a headlining artist when you don’t sing provides rather obvious problems when the style of music you play more often than not demands vocals on their records.

We’ve seen other, far more flashy, bandleaders like Big Jay McNeely, resort to hiring singers with mixed results and you wonder if it’s an ego-thing or an actual conceptual rift that prevents many of them from pursuing it in earnest for long.

Rhodes wouldn’t give up on the idea of letting a woman front his band, as he’d hire LaVern Baker later this year before her breakthrough on Atlantic as a solo act, but he never scored a hit this way despite three talented ladies at the peak of their abilities.

Your Daddy’s Doggin’ Around might fall a little bit short of the qualities needed to be a legitimate hit, but it’s still a pretty good record all things considered. Allen does what she can in a limited opportunity and the band proves to be just as capable as they were behind Stevenson, or behind male first stringers like Harris for that matter.

The difference though is those guys were the headliners meaning it was Rhodes’ job to stay in the background and lend more discreet support. Here though it’s his record with his name on the marquee and so maybe they shortchange their singer just enough to justify the billing and in the process shortchange the record enough to keep it from hitting the jackpot.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist pages of Todd Rhodes as well as Connie Allen for the complete archives of their respective records reviewed to date)