Tags

No tags :(

Share it

KING 4304; AUGUST, 1949

 
 

 

Certain records in an artist’s catalog are the tipping points as to how they’re slotted historically. They aren’t necessarily the break-through hit, or the biggest seller, nor even the most forward-thinking and influential in the big scheme of things, but they’re the most important to how they’re wound up being perceived.

These records are in essence the documented confirmation as to their artistic merit. The evidence that shows definitively who they were, what they stood for artistically and what they represented culturally to those who embraced them.

Not all artists have them, most don’t in fact, even the biggest names are often lacking these markers. But those who DO have them usually needed them, if only to affirm their place in the music universe that previously was in doubt.
 

 
 
That last part is what we oftentimes fail to remember when looking back after the dust has settled. The uncertainty that existed in their careers up to that point. Careers which might’ve been very successful prior to that and in no danger of disappearing altogether had they not come up with these specific records at that specific time, but which were still far from having their legacies set in stone.

In mid-1949 Wynonie Harris was at that moment in his career. A popular hit-maker who managed to traverse two eras and in the latter establish himself as a rock star. In spite of that success though he’d yet to fully shake the impression that he was little more than the right man in the right place at the right time with the right song taken directly from rock’s own originator.

Nobody could dispute the fact that he’d assimilated well into the style and certainly there was no question that he had already released a handful of solid records along the way that helped to keep his name among the leaders in the field. But you didn’t have to be a cynic to admit there was still a nagging suspicion that he was merely resting on reputation. That in the long run he might be destined to be viewed as a transitory artist, a vital one in bridging eras for sure, but one who’d fall short when it came to truly defining the new style after his greatest moment had faded into memory.

This then was his response to those calling into question his ongoing legitimacy.
 

 

Rock ‘n’ Roll All Night Long
Let’s face it, when discussing early rock ‘n’ roll, the period we’re in the midst of now which covers mid-1947 through 1953 or so, there’s been a widespread failure to properly assess this era leaving all of its artists at a cultural and historical disadvantage when it comes to having proper credit bestowed on those who gave birth to the movement and were crucial components in its popularization. A few names may get mentioned in passing, a record or two gets brought up from time to time, but most of it will get brushed aside altogether unless there’s something notable to draw attention to it.

…Something like the title of the record and the lyrics in the chorus explicitly using the term “rock” itself.

It’d be hard to dismiss such evidence without looking like a total fool, though of course Wynonie Harris could not have known the importance of this to his legacy when recording it, but he undoubtedly benefits from it in hindsight.

But he also benefits from the fact that All She Wants To Do Is Rock is his most potent argument in his favor for positioning him as the de facto first generation Rock God, as the song embodies all of the stylistic qualities which were defining rock ‘n’ roll in these days with particular relish and allows Harris the platform to bolster his personal image as the music’s most notorious and irrepressible figure.

As we’ve stated many times, Wynonie Harris was a bandstand legend. An inexhaustable performer who could keep you riveted to his antics on a stage, where his timber rattling voice, his lusty swagger, his rakish charm, good looks and sly off-color suggestiveness were his stock in trade. Females flocked to see him, men longed to be like him, or at least partake in the rewards he sampled each night as a result of his image.

But image is a hard thing to live up to, especially when it was such an outsized one to begin with. Hell-raisers and rabble rousers generally have short lifespans artistically because the shock value wears off in time. The very thing that gets them noticed to start with gets them ignored when they regurgitate it at every opportunity looking for the same response.

This was especially the case for Harris whose early years took place in the hazy pre-rock world of 1944-46 when he gained attention for being such a startling sight in an era of much stricter rules of decorum. He’d risen quickly to the top, scoring a #1 hit early on with Lucky Millinder, then two smaller hits on his own in the ensuing months before his commercial stature diminished and he was reduced to bouncing ignominiously from one small label to another in the hopes of finding the key to jump start his stagnating career.

That key came in the form of an entirely new style of music called rock ‘n’ roll. Harris himself had dismissed Roy Brown who attempted to give him the very song which launched the rock era, Good Rocking Tonight, and only later when his first sessions at King Records had proven to be lacking did Harris consent to cover the recent noisemaker by Brown and in the process Wynonie scored his first hit in quite some time as well as the first rock song to top the national Billboard charts when his version of Good Rockin’ Tonight turned the trick in the spring of 1948.

That’s what gave Harris a much needed second act to his career. Had rock ‘n’ roll not come along at that specific point and had Harris not recorded that specific song in that specific manner – aided immeasurably by the most compatible musicians he’d been paired with in quite awhile – then his heyday was likely winding down rather than starting up again.

But since then Harris has been taking one step forward and two steps back with alarming regularity. Even his subsequent chart hits were a curious mix of covers of other rockers songs alongside originals which vacillated between shallow stereotype and inspired efforts. He may have been reasonably keeping pace with the best of the field but he wasn’t taking the lead and worse yet, he didn’t seem particularly determined to even try and put some distance between himself and his most talented competitors.

So while his stature in rock ‘n’ roll was clearly still high in mid-1949 and he could be reasonably assured of drawing interest to whatever he churned out for the foreseeable future, the fact remained that in the non-foreseeable future, the one history records, he was STILL anything but a sure bet to be remembered as more than a man with one moment of serendipity to his credit unless he really started wracking up a more substantial list of credits.
 


 
 

Stay At Home
To that end this is precisely what we’ve been waiting for out of Wynonie Harris. A clear sign that he was taking all of this seriously at last, evidence that Harris, who co-wrote the song along with Teddy McRae, wasn’t going to remain content to let others give him suitable material to keep his name in the mix, but rather he was taking upon himself to ensure he wasn’t going to be left behind.

All She Wants To Do Is Rock is a mission statement for maintaining his position in the rock pantheon if ever there was one. Its theme is direct and unmistakable, the boisterous spirit of the track reinforces this in no uncertain terms and its lyrics play into Harris’s reputation as a lady-killer that obviously will further boost his image where it counts at the box office and in record stores.

Every aspect of it is self-advertisement at its best, marrying the euphemistic term of rock which equates it to sex to the musical movement that increasingly wears the moniker in public circles. The lusty shouting Harris employs may be his primary means of communication in all songs, yet it also establishes the drive of this song in particular, something emphasized further by the clapped backbeat which had been utilized so effectively in his breakthrough hit a year and a half earlier.

As clear concise game plans go it’d be hard to find anything more calculating than this and that’s hardly a criticism. When seeking to confirm your allegiance to a style of music and to an audience who embraces that style you can hardly afford to be ambiguous. This doesn’t do so in a cheap exploitative way at all, though the subject itself might be seen as celebrating cheap women, but rather does so with a clear-eyed view on what it takes to stir the interest – and the loins – of the target audience and giving it to them in the ways that count.

Pity then he’s let down by a crew of musicians who not only should be ideally suited for emphasizing these attributes, but who should by all rights be seeking to do so for their OWN benefit as well.

The band in question is none other than Joe Morris’s crack ensemble, moonlighting from Atlantic Records as they did with Harris’s last venture, cut in April as was this one as well. We know that Morris and company have what it takes to deliver rousing support, a hard driving sound with expert players who are disciplined enough not to overstep their bounds, yet astute enough to know just how far to push their playing for maximum impact.

Here they have the right song on which to strut their stuff and the right singer to push them harder than they might’ve been accustomed to doing on their own. Yet throughout this they ease back on the pressure rather than turning it up. Worse still the main fault lies with their leaders, Morris himself on trumpet and Johnny Griffin on sax, two of the best in their profession who certainly weren’t averse to cutting loose.

Yet here they do just that and play it safe. The massed horns are more blaring than honking, tepid when they should be and a result it’s a sound that largely doesn’t match the song’s content. The drummer does his best to help give this more kick, as does Wilmus Reeves on piano, but they’re too far in the background to make much difference, placing the responsibility of conveying the proper mood almost entirely to the singer himself.

Luckily for us Wynonie Harris is more than up for the task.
 

 

Hold Back The Dawn
I don’t suppose it’s necessary to once again go into the Harris backstory involving tales of his reputed prowess with the opposite sex. Needless to say any ribald tale involving him along with eight women and three bottles of whiskey are not only accurate but probably understating the number of girls AND booze by half.

Or at least that’s what he’d have you believe.

Though a fair share of these racy fables have basis in reality, it’s likely that a lot of the associated legend when it comes to his reputation was built on playing the part right, both on stage and on record. If he was crooning lovesick mush instead of overheated rockers it’s doubtful he’d have had anywhere near the notoriety as he did, even if his off-stage antics were exactly the same.

So more than most Wynonie Harris required songs to add to his repertoire that would advance this out-sized myth he’d created and All She Wants To Do Is Rock serves that purpose and then some.

For a composition that is all set-up and no resolution it’s incredibly evocative. Harris is in fine form vocally, launching headlong into things with a sustained roar before kicking into the rhythmic chant that forms the simple but catchy chorus.

The details he provides are colorful and timely, telling us his girl wants to “Hucklebuck all night long“, as the Paul Williams hit of that name sat atop the charts when this was cut and is still in the Top Ten of the regional charts across the nation when this was released eight months later. Of course that the basis of the hucklebuck dance was a sexual position probably should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway since Wynonie himself certainly wants you to know full well that the gal that he’s singing about is NOT looking forward to keeping her feet moving on a dance floor, but rather up in the air while laying on her back.

Once you’re aware of that pertinent fact the rest of the song makes a lot more sense, as the usage of the word “rock” that dominates this record is becoming ever more interchangeable between a) dancing and having an uninhibited good time in a social setting, b) sex, particularly of the wild variety, and c) the musical celebration itself.

The first often leads to the second which is accompanied by the third. The environments this music thrives in encompasses all of the above descriptions and always has and always will.
 

 

Harris understood that and exploited that to the fullest. All of the questions regarding his position in the ongoing movement were answered here as All She Wants To Do Is Rock became his second #1 hit in the rock era and fully confirmed his standing in the hierarchy of the music’s royal court. His dragon-like vocal fire, his cocky attitude and his unrepentant immersion in lust, sin and depravity only added to his growing legend.

That it’s still not all it COULD be might even be appropriate considering a lingering sense his success here had been somewhat opportunistic in the first place.

Or maybe it was just that he was too busy rocking with a bevy of available females to bother going back and kick the band’s ass to keep up with him while going for the jugular on another take. Either way though the record cemented his legacy and gave him the momentum to lead the parade into the rock’s second decade and that’s good enough for us.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Wynonie Harris for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)