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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
Though rock ‘n’ roll of the late 1940’s put far more of the musical choices in the hands of its artists than pop music ever did, the ultimate decision as to what to release and even what types of songs to focus on commercially, was still left to record companies. Naturally, with sales not artistic quality their primary aim, they tended to retreat to reliable formula.

With Wynonie Harris that meant exploiting his notorious image through a succession of songs about the wild side of life.

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 at risk for being 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. 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… again, which is where the trouble starts for right away we get the sense that Baby, Shame On You is less a new idea and more a recap of all of his past glories.


That Big Time Talk
It doesn’t help that musically this record 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 Baby, Shame On You 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.


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