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In the world of struggling independent record labels trying to survive with slim profit margins on their scant few hits while absorbing the cost of their far more common commercial failures there’s not much room for ethics or morality.

In the future of course after these labels have weathered those early storms and established themselves as bankable outlets that’s when they can afford to act self-righteous and decry the practice of cover records stealing their material in an effort to undercut their sales.

Their indignation over this shameless cultural appropriation will in fact form a cornerstone of their legacies, the noble “authentic” originators fending off the callous corporate greed of powerful major labels who don’t have the genuine interest in this renegade music, nor the ability to effectively create it on their own and therefore are reduced to shamelessly swiping it from those who do.

But at the start of 1950 those lauded honorable companies like Atlantic Records were guilty of doing the exact same thing to other scuffling indie labels, never so much as batting an eye at their blatant hypocrisy.


If You Ever Had That Habit You’ll Know Just How I Feel
It should come as no surprise that since New Orleans was the birthplace of rock there’d be plenty of record companies using the city as a source for much of their material.

DeLuxe Records was first to do so when they released the first rock record and for the next two years it was predominantly Louisiana artists who made up the bulk of the New Jersey company’s roster. When their owners subsequently lost the label in a hostile takeover in 1949 they wasted little time before returning to the region to stock their second label, Regal Records, with more artists from that fertile ground.

By the end of that year a Los Angeles company called Imperial began moving in on their territory and snatching up most of the next generation of artists from the area as well as picking up those whose contracts with DeLuxe dating back to the start of rock ‘n’ roll had expired. When The Fat Man hit big this past winter it formed a partnership between label and city that lasted for more than a dozen highly profitable years.

But while those labels became historically renowned for their deep New Orleans connections there was another high profile independent record company who took advantage of the city to further their own cause as well. Atlantic Records may have been located in New York but a closer look at their legacy shows that a lot of their early success could be attributed – at least in part – to New Orleans.

Their first major success came when company President Ahmet Ertegun was talking to a distributor in the Crescent City and was told that a two year old release on the defunct Harlem label by some guy named Stick McGhee was being played on radio in New Orleans and was commanding high rates for copies since it was so scarce.

That led Ertegun to track down McGhee through his brother Brownie, a blues singer/guitarist he knew, and have Stick re-record Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee on Atlantic, scoring the company their first huge hit in the process. All New Orleans got out of the deal was their city mentioned in the re-written first line to better ensure their residents would buy it.

While that chain of events proved that Ertegun was a shrewd operator there was nothing too underhanded about it. Stick McGhee was no longer recording for Harlem Records and was free to cut his own material again for any company wishing to do so. With its updated arrangement and the aforementioned lyrical change the record gave the public what they craved and so there was no losers in the bargain.

The same can’t be said for THIS record though, as Atlantic now makes their second – far more suspect – grab for New Orleans action with their cover of Tee Nah Nah, a record just issued a week or so earlier by Imperial Records for their newest signee Smiley Lewis, which means that unlike having McGhee duplicate his own song, this one had potentially very real and harmful repercussions on another artist and another label.


Boys, I Had A Ball
You can argue that all is fair in love, war and the music biz and legally speaking you may be right. Cover records of recent releases were not just commonplace in 1950 but was actually expected and in many cases actively sought by the song’s publishers who’d get more money with each new version of the record.

Yet it’s rock ‘n’ roll which would, in due time anyway, put an end to this practice once it became obvious that the major labels – always portrayed as greedy, heartless, monolithic machines – were “stealing” the songs of black rock acts and scrubbing them clean for their white artists, robbing the originators of the chance for bigger and more profitable hits.

All of which is true, which is why this effort today comes across as so egregious because to date rock artists and their labels for the most part haven’t followed the pop, jazz and country route of ubiquitous cover versions of each and every promising release.

Sure there have been SOME notable exceptions, both Wynonie Harris and Big John Greer both took a stab at the same Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee that had put Atlantic in the black after such a long struggle, so maybe Ertegun felt justified in his actions. But those cover records were still something of a rarity in the field overall as it was becoming increasingly obvious that artistic originality was far more highly valued in rock ‘n roll than in other styles of music.

So for Atlantic to swoop in and try and launch their session pianist Harry Van Walls’ career by covering Smiley Lewis… who was trying to launch his OWN career after two years without getting a single opportunity to record… was a bit disturbing.

With Atlantic making a hard push on their version of Tee Nah Nah in their strongholds along the East Coast it surely helped to prevent Lewis’s original Tee Nah Nah from making much headway outside of the Gulf Coast and points west, which means even if you view these matters as little more than survival of the fittest, the fact remains that rock still needed widely acknowledged national hits to further entrench itself and these competing releases all but ensured there’d be one less hit to mark rock’s ascent in the spring of 1950.

I Don’t Care What Happens
So with all of that behind the scenes intrigue laid out let’s add one more piece of grist to the review, namely the fact that while Van Walls gets the artist credit – and notice how Atlantic is trying to use his work in Frank Culley’s band on After Hours Session as a potential group name for the same musicians with Van Walls at the forefront – it’s actually Brownie McGhee who is singing this.

For someone who never was signed to the label, Atlantic sure got a lot of mileage out of Brownie.

The interesting thing is Brownie on his own never ventured into rock, but clearly he was more than capable of doing so successfully had he wanted, whether playing alongside his brother or, such as on this and the flip side, when billed as “Spider Sam”.

The two versions by Lewis and Van Walls aren’t all that different in structure. The arrangement on this Tee Nah Nah adheres pretty much to the one devised by Dave Bartholomew which is ideal for Van “Piano Man” Walls since it had opened with a piano, but while this might be played with a bit more flourish, it’s not appreciably better in any way. The horns are a virtual carbon copy of first version as well but the one difference comes in the instrumental break which strangely enough is not nearly as powerful as the original.

What makes this so odd is that Atlantic’s sonic dynamics early on had more emphasis than the somewhat muddied sound gotten in Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans with its comparatively primitive equipment, yet that trend is reversed in the solos as the Lewis record features a much stronger and more emphatic piano than Van Walls gives us here and one that sounds a lot clearer and in your face to boot.

As for Brownie’s contributions… or Spider Sam if we want to go along with this charade… he’s a good singer but let’s face it, he’s no Smiley Lewis. When weighing each element of both records what sticks in your memory most is Lewis’s vibrant baritone and anything else by comparison is merely white noise.

However, just to make sure we give a modicum of credit to the Atlantic brass they do make ONE significant change to the lyrics which shows they were astute enough to know who their audience would be. Though their ad in the trade papers billed this as “The most unusual blues record ever”, that was for the jukebox operators who were used to that being used as a catch-all term for all forms of black music that wasn’t high class jazz, yet the lyrical alteration McGhee gives us shows they had no doubt what this really was, as he says “I’m rockin’ and rollin’, doin’ one ‘til ninety nine”.

Brownie might’ve been a lifelong bluesman but I guess his alter ego Spider Sam was a rocker, unfortunately for him however he was up against someone in Smiley Lewis whose rock credentials never needed explanation.

Spinnin’ Like A Wheel
Usually you like to give credit for records that are fairly well done, highlighting the musicians who tend to be overshadowed at times, singling out the vocalist for embodying the right attitude and even spreading some love to the record company on occasion for choosing the right stylistic aims.

But on this release, while we’ll admit the end results are gratifying enough to be worth your while, the outside considerations we need to take into account can’t help but dim our enthusiasm for their rendition of Tee Nah Nah.

Although by the letter of the law Atlantic Records did nothing wrong here and even could be commended for giving Van Walls a chance he might not otherwise have received to step out on a record under his own name, minimal though his contributions may be, we can’t bring ourselves to say that they should walk away from this with their heads held high.

But if we’re to be consistent and take Atlantic’s side in the future when the likes of LaVern Baker and others are having their original material absconded with by companies too inept to cultivate their own rock artists then it stands to reason that we need to hold Atlantic to those same standards.

It’d be one thing if they had waited awhile and then tackled this in a different manner, changing up the arrangement and overall mood, but what they did here was blatant imitation and in rock music imitation is NOT the sincerest form of flattery.


(Visit the Artist page of Harry “Piano Man” Vann Walls for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Smiley Lewis (March, 1950)