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KING 4330; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

We kicked off yesterday’s review of the top side of this single by talking about how sometimes it’s in an artist’s best interest to play to the crowd, giving them what they want even if it means that you occasionally shortchange the usual requirements of creativity in your attempts to ensure they get what they’ve come for.

Here’s the flip side of that, literally as in the flip-side of the record and figuratively in that when you’re not careful you aren’t exactly playing to the crowd so much as merely going through the motions.
 

 

I Just Got The News
To those in our generation coming of age in the Twenty-First Century it might seem like the singles era allowed for artists to be much less diverse in their output when you don’t need to come out with twelve to eighteen songs at a time that typically makes up an album these days. But there was an equal, if not greater, potential pitfall to becoming formulaic back in the day of singles-only releases because you simply had fewer opportunities to exhibit another approach when there were two sides to a single and only three or four singles a year. If you miscalculated the audience’s tolerance for repetitious material it meant you had no chance to make amends anytime soon.

Making this even more of an issue was the fact that record labels, not artists, were usually the ones choosing what got put out and what songs would be paired with each other and while you, the artist, certainly had control over what you recorded in the first place, chances are the record company was going to go with what type of song had the best track record, then double up on it with a similar B-side for overkill …just to be safe.

This posed a problem however because there were fewer original ways of putting across the same old ideas and perspectives and by the time this became apparent to the record companies after two or three flops the artist was now seen as a has-been without even getting the chance to prove they could do something different.

Who knows whether Wynonie Harris would’ve chosen to do something different even if all of the decisions had been left up to him. Few artists were as headstrong as he was and fewer still had an ego to match, and for Harris who’d first found success before rock even existed, though his style certainly presaged it, I’m sure there was a sense that rock needed him more than he needed it.

He was wrong of course. Nobody on earth in the late 1940’s needed rock ‘n’ roll to be born more than Wynonie Harris, if only to give him the platform with which to be heard and accepted without having to tone down his out-sized personality in the process. But now that he’d scaled the commercial mountain again and was proudly standing astride the summit he sure as hell was going to let the world know he was up there.

The way to do that, he surmised, was not by singing something unexpected, maybe a ballad or a more introspective piece, but rather he was going to be his usual cocky raffish self.

He’d earned it after all. As if scoring the first #1 hit in all of rock two years ago with Good Rockin’ Tonight wasn’t enough, he’d gotten a second chart topper this past summer with another brazenly anthemic song, All She Wants To Do Is Rock, which cemented his status as the top draw on the scene. The money was rolling in, the acclaim was coming from all corners, the drinks were flowing and the women were swarming around him like flies on a barbecued steer in the Texas sun. As the Nineteen Forties drew to a close Wynonie Harris was The King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Or so he believed.

Others of course might want to differ. Amos Milburn for one was even more consistently successful as well as more diverse in his output. Even when he too fell prey to stylistic redundancy, recycling the sound of his own biggest hit for sequels, they were off-set by songs that were completely opposite that approach giving him a versatility that was enviable.

The same was true of Roy Brown, the first rock artist, and the author of Harris’s biggest hit no less, and perhaps the one singer who had the stage presence to match Wynonie and who possessed a voice that Harris, for all of his leather-lunged power, couldn’t touch. Brown, like Milburn, was also a great songwriter who mixed up his approach from song to song, alternating the crowd pleasing roof-raising party tunes with forlorn ballads that revealed vulnerability and pathos.

Harris on the other hand never seemed to want the party to end.
 


 

That Big Time Talk
To be fair nobody in all of rock ‘n’ roll was more fun to have at these parties than Wynonie Harris, so naturally the off-color songs and rip-roaring deliveries he specialized in were right at home there and it’d be foolish for him to try and completely overhaul his style each time out and start to croon like Ivory Joe Hunter or something. But these odes to gleeful debauchery he kept churning out had a tough standard to live up to, for once all of the booze had been swilled, all of the girls had been defiled and all of the bribes paid to keep him out of the hoosegow Wynonie Harris was then expected to go out and top those wild antics the next time out!

No wonder he never reached old age!

This is where a more diverse, well-rounded musical persona would’ve been an asset to his health, both his physical health perhaps if we’re to believe most of his ribald antics in song were being lived out in his own life, and may have helped with his long term commercial health as well. It’s not that he was at any risk to be put in the infirmary quite yet with the hits still rolling off the line like canned peaches, but if he’d have had any foresight he’d have realized it just becomes harder to alter your approach down the line when trends inevitably start to change than if you’d already proven you can tackle other subjects all along.

The biggest issue though wasn’t that eventuality, for no matter how carefully you plot your course sooner or later all artists fall off the best seller lists even if they’re the most versatile act in the business, but rather the fact that by sticking with one theme you were running the risk of wringing that particular sponge dry before its time.

It doesn’t help that musically Baby, Shame On You is a few years behind the times. While Harris’s cocksure attitude hasn’t changed much since he first burst onto the scene in 1945, and certainly the environment for being able to talk about his off-color extracurricular activities is more welcoming as the days wind down in 1949 than they were as World War Two was winding down four and a half years earlier, the fact is musically this has more in common with that era than the one we find ourselves in today.

Sit down, this may come as a shock, but trumpets are to blame.

In fact it sounds like a flock of trumpets, or a flock of geese… maybe even geese who were playing trumpets… but the introduction, if it wasn’t so unintentionally comical, would be reason enough to turn this off, flip the record back over, or head straight to the next review.

Squawking is a term we use a lot around here to describe the trumpet’s grating tonal qualities when played harshly, but on this it sounds more like squawking brought about by someone squeezing the life out of the trumpeters with their hands. Admittedly that’s a thought that may have occurred to us at times when we’re forced to listen to the trumpet intrude on an otherwise fine rock record, but even in our wildest fantasies we don’t record the murder for the world to hear when the song is released. These things are better done in a backroom somewhere, or maybe the alley where you can more easily blame the death on a traveling gypsy who took offense to the horn drowning out their mandolin or lute.

The trumpeter may soon be losing consciousness by the sounds of it but he sure isn’t going down without a fight because he keeps this noise up for far too long. The pianist thinks it’s kinda funny, romping alongside him the way he does, but even when Harris decides enough is enough and barges in with his first line the trumpeter keeps at it in the background intermittently, drawing out his death scene to the point of farce.

Rarely does anyone have the chance to upstage Wynonie Harris and so apparently the man with the horn going to play it for all he’s worth before Wynonie is the one who starts throttling him in a rage, but the real shame of it isn’t the morbid fate of soon to be expired trumpet player, but rather the fact that Harris actually is getting off some good lines… that is, if anyone cared to notice amidst the carnage going on behind him.
 

By The Time You Leave The Bar You Can Hardly Walk
As we said already this song is another page out of the general thematic handbook that Harris carried with him everywhere he went. Of course that handbook had about two pages in it at best, so maybe a thematic pamphlet is more like it, but you can’t say he doesn’t know his subject inside and out by this point and so if he’s inspired there’s still may be some value to be found.

Unfortunately what little there is gets obliterated by the fact that they all treat Baby, Shame On You as if it were a skit, complete with other actors chiming in with unintelligible retorts amidst Harris’s accusations regarding the drinking activities of his woman.

Now this is where we’re forced to remind you that Wynonie Harris was hardly a teetotaler himself by any means. He reportedly consumed more alcohol in a single morning than William Powell did in all of The Thin Man films combined. So it sounds like Wynonie and this girl are a perfect match. Pot meet Kettle… many happy returns.

But beyond that the story has the appearance of a routine done on the bandstand, which Harris as a former emcee of stage shows at Club Alabam was quite familiar with. In that instance, with a real female playing the part of a girl, or even a male band member in drag wearing a dress and a wig, the results might be worth some laughs, but on record with someone “playing” the girl to deliver her drunken replies which aren’t funny even if you could make them out better, it loses a lot in the translation.

Wynonie storms ahead as is his wont to do and he’s got a few lines that draw a smile, if only for the sheer audaciousness of telling her “You used to live on Sugar Hill, now you live in the valley, if you don’t come back home they’ll find you in the alley”. Admittedly not that funny but his mixture of incredulity and scorn in his delivery makes it fairly enjoyable all the same.

But that’s the problem. The song is SO reliant on Harris to carry it that even if you appreciate his effort – and we do – it’s too weak a song to be able to have anything else holding it back. Like say outdated trumpets intruding every few seconds. Or a halfhearted barrel-house piano solo in the midst of this rant.

By the end you’re looking to join the girl for a drink if only to forget most of what you heard.
 


 

Fell Out On The Floor
There’s a thin line between catering to an audience’s expectations and pandering to them and this falls uncomfortably close to the latter.

Maybe the intent was a little more pure than we’re making it out to be, maybe Harris had road tested this after all and it worked pretty well on stage so he decided he’d transfer it to wax and see if it got the same response, but it clearly doesn’t hold up to closer inspection.

You certainly can’t fault Harris’s efforts as a singer, as this is one of his lustier sounding vocals and he never wavers in what he’s trying to do and for that we’ll always plunk down the nickel for the jukebox to hear him cut loose on a new song – at least once. But all records have more than just one component to them, even one as dominant as Wynonie Harris, and it’s those areas – an overbearing trumpet that is actually painful to listen to, a piano that sounds more bemused than focused on bettering the track, and a song whose story needed to be fleshed out – which drag Baby, Shame On You into the gutter along with the girl who is the focus of all this mess.

We might not wind up up puking our guts out on our hands and knees as she surely will be when all of this is over, but our memories of the night out on the town with Harris, his drunk girl and the miscreants in the band aren’t likely to be much more enjoyable to look back on when morning comes.

Next time around Wynonie, how about staying in for the night, at least on a B-side, and sing about something that won’t have us making a mad dash for the aspirin to quell an onrushing headache that downing too many of these type songs always brings.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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