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SAVOY 666; JUNE, 1948

 
 

 

As we head into the summer of 1948 the weather wasn’t the only thing heating up. So too was the sax-led rock ‘n’ roll instrumental which dominated the next few months on the charts and firmly branded rock music with an image of freewheeling excitement that it’d ride forever.

It’s interesting to contemplate just what effect this infernal musicians strike which wiped out any new recordings for much of 1948 had on the musical direction of rock and what it might’ve morphed into instead had the entire industry been able to keep cutting new sides. On one hand there would’ve been a much clearer progression of ideas coming out. When something new and inventive hit there’d have been a typical mad rush to follow that – some consciously aping it no doubt, but others striving to surpass it. Normally this is what happens and is always a good thing. Innovation leads to change and that’s what keeps music fresh.

But in this case we might have the exception that proves the rule.

Coming when it did, just a few months after rock’s first appearance, the sudden halting of any new recordings in a way gave what HAD been done up to that point, in a very limited time, a chance to get just a little better established. Because most of what came out for the bulk of 1948 was recorded in late 1947, those initial ideas – and the slight variations of them – got to be absorbed over a longer period of time. As we’ve seen already many of the songs released in late 1947 didn’t become hits until mid to late 1948, but with little alternatives as the months wore on a lot of these records got a second chance to connect with audiences and capitalized on that opportunity. Rock’s opening chapter, in other words, got read and re-read a few times so that one and all were familiar with the plot going forward.

Another key aspect of this delay in cutting new records was that it greatly benefitted the instrumental.

With the most promising vocal cuts released early in the year, the rest of their supplies in that area were stretched thin. Furthermore, as the ban showed no sign of letting up the difference in what was cutting edge for December 1947 and July of 1948 was more apt to be apparent in vocals. After all, it just took one listen to Wynonie Harris bellowing Good Rockin’ Tonight to render almost anything else passé, it was all yesterday’s news by comparison. But instrumentals thrived thanks in part to having two less features (lyrics and vocal delivery) at risk of sounding quickly outdated. True, those which relied on older horn charts were going to fall by the wayside, but there were still enough tenor saxes, boogie pianos and increasingly prominent backbeats to stir the masses and in the absence of anything newer that was enough to fill the void. What’s more, the visceral emotions these instrumentals collectively conjured up by their manic approaches reinforced the growing perception of the music as something more dangerous, exciting and communal.

So it’s in that realm that a record came along as summer kicked off which seemed to crystalize everything rock was up to that point and to point it in the right direction going forward.
 


 

We’re Gonna Rock…
The first thing you see is the title of a song. It’s on the record label in large clear print. It’s affixed to the jukebox strip next to the number you need to press to hear the song. It’s spoken by the radio dee-jay before playing it on the air. It’s advertised in Billboard and Cash Box, or in storefront displays to lure potential customers into checking it out. And yes, if you just scrolled up to the top of the page, it’s the first thing written here to announce what song it is you’re reading about. The title is always the entryway to the music.

Instrumental titles are perhaps even more important, for while a lyrical song may become known as much for a line other than the title, maybe the opening stanza or a vocal hook, an instrumental’s title is basically the only frame of reference you’ll have for requesting it or looking it up at any point in the future and thus it needs to make a connection.

In 1948 that connection was even more important when it came to rock ‘n’ roll, a style that wasn’t widely being referred to as such, or as anything for that matter. So something definitive to tie it all together, something catchy and a little bit “cool” was imperative. A title that would stand out and make the listener take notice – of the record, of the style of music itself – and want to hear what this music had to offer.

If nothing else Will Bill Moore and his band of miscreants did the world a great service by simply reaffirming the name that was attaching itself to the music in such a declarative way. Subsequent issues of the song that exist today even add the appendage to read: “We’re Gonna Rock (We’re Gonna Roll)”, so there’s absolutely no mistaking what this is.

The term “rock ‘n’ roll” itself has a long and winding history and many treatises have been written about its evolution from a common nautical reference to a sailing ship’s “to and fro” motion on the high seas to its appropriation by the black community as a euphemism for sexual intercourse and then its subsequent hijacking by others in music as a vague term of excitement, be it social, dancing, romantic or otherwise.

Trixie Smith, a blues artist who’d sadly be all but forgotten otherwise, is widely credited with the first recorded use of it in 1922’s “My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)”, that sends many a curious sort scurrying off to YouTube to hear for themselves. Once begun that path soon leads to such other stalwarts as Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Rock Me” and even such unlikely participants as the Boswell Sisters “Rock & Roll”, leading some armchair historians to make a simplistic connection and insist those must be the true origins of rock ‘n’ roll.

They aren’t.

The other alternative may be worse however. Because the term itself has such a murky history it tends to throw into disarray the creative birth of the specific style of music called rock ‘n’ roll, as it now becomes easier to pass off any usage of those words in music as merely coincidental.

But because rock ‘n’ roll – the musical definition – is intrinsically tied to the sudden growth in the term as a reference for that music which occurred in the late 1940’s with mssrs. Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, Amos Milburn, The Ravens and… yes, Wild Bill Moore… leading the way, the empirical evidence is clear. These artists, this music – fueled by the audience that embraced them both – is rock ‘n’ roll. Not “pre-rock”, not “roots of rock”, not “early influences ON rock”, but full-fledged rock ‘n’ fuckin’ roll.

Starting with Roy Brown’s Good Rocking Tonight in the fall of 1947 and now again with Wild Bill Moore, artists continually merged the term with the music and forged a singular identifying meaning to encompass it all. The road taking us to each subsequent step along the way which follows is a straight and unbroken line. It’s all part of the same continuum that will lead in turn to Fats Domino, Ruth Brown, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, but also all the way through The Beach Boys, The Supremes, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Chic, U2, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Metallica, Janet Jackson, Pearl Jam, 2Pac, Radiohead and Beyoncé. They’re all connected and they’re all rock ‘n’ roll. The names and faces and even the stylistic wrinkles they all bring to the table over the years may change slightly, but the attitude, the intent and what the audience seeks from them all remain the same.
 

We’re Gonna Roll…
Which brings us to the song itself and not a moment too soon.

The horn riff opens like a clarion call for wickedness before giving way to T.J. Fowler’s barrelhouse piano which strings out the tension. He’s being encouraged by a gravelly voice to “play it all night”, giving the impression of a jam session in a moonlit graveyard replete with dancing skeletons that was somehow captured on wax until the brief vocal refrain chanting the title line in unison gives the song its structure.

The horns then take off. Moore on tenor and Paul Williams on baritone, a steady thudding backbeat provided by the rock solid rhythm section of Herman Hopkins and Reetham Mallett on bass and drums respectively, urging them on as the two climb higher and higher.

If the names sound familiar to you I’m glad, because that means you’ve been reading all of these reviews in order and therefore already know this is the same crew that were featured on the aforementioned Paul Williams cuts which launched the instrumental boat in rock. Since he plays on this as well it’s hard to say that the song belongs to Moore rather than Williams, in all likelihood it was just a way to break two artists into the best-seller lists rather than rely on just one pulling in sales for Savoy Records. Williams had already had scored hits so theoretically his subsequent records would draw immediate interest, why not try and get Moore’s name out there too and should this also hit then they could release twice as many records (by assigning them different artist names) without flooding the market on either one.

As we’ve seen, whoever is the credited leader of the session these guys know how to work together well. They maintain the tricky balance of appearing to be improvising while the overall arrangement in fact is tightly arranged. As a result We’re Gonna Rock never loses its direction, as many off-the-cuff efforts would, lost in personal indulgence, yet it also never loses its momentum if the participants tended to wander, as would be the case if it weren’t all planned out.

Its best moments may come early as the horns explode out of the lone chorus but it keeps surging on ahead, not getting wilder, but rather getting more focused. All of them are fully locked in and relentlessly pursuing some otherworldly ideal known only to them, and now, because you’re listening, known to you as well.

If you’d been holding out on joining in on this rock ‘n’ roll bandwagon up until now, welcome aboard, for chances are after hearing this you won’t be sitting on the sidelines much longer unless rigor mortis has already set in.
 


 

Hotter ‘N Hell
Other instrumentals we’ve come across have had more flamboyance, something that will continue to be emphasized with some favoring high voltage intensity and others locked in a tight groove with a focused discipline, but few, if any, have managed to combine the best aspects of both – the manic highs and the rigid bottom – and pulled it off quite as effectively as Moore and company do here. What they hit upon, intentionally or not, was the basic formula of the best rock to follow – something tightly structured but sounding improvised, wild enough to appear as if it was ready to jump off the rails at any time, but keeping on track all the same.

This was a vital achievement coming at the perfect time for a number of reasons. For Savoy Records it gave them two bankable stars rather than just one, and from this point forward both Moore and Williams would be name attractions. The record’s success (cracking the scant Top 15 which were all that was available to officially denote a hit) confirmed the appeal of the rousing hell-bent style these sax workouts offered, leading to more of the same as labels sought artists who could match and ultimately surpass this which firmly established rock as the most exciting brand of music out there.

But of equal importance was its branding of the image of this music in the public’s mind. We’re Gonna Rock gave notice that the two entities (the music and the moniker) were intrinsically tied to one another and soon – and forever after – would be interchangeable.

Rock ‘n’ Roll: The devil’s music was hereby christened.

Anyone doubting it just look at the number the Savoy label affixed to the record.
 
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Wild Bill Moore for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)