No tags :(

Share it

KING 4252; OCTOBER, 1948



The ruler of the rock roost for much of 1948 was Wynonie Harris. The swaggering, leather-lunged hell-raiser was in the process of firmly establishing the prototype for rock frontmen to follow for eternity. Equal parts sex, charisma and attitude combined with a voice that rumbled all the way to the back row of any theater he might find himself playing in, it was the blueprint that virtually every guy – and a good many women – found themselves emulating ever since. Elvis Presley we know was a worshipper at the alter of Harris, but everyone from Mick Jagger and Wilson Pickett to Robert Plant and Tina Turner was spawned from Harris’s DNA.

So considering this was his breakout year, the twelve months where he created his legend by laying the ground rules for rock’s most high profile gig – that of the cocksure singer – and propelling rock music itself into the black mainstream with the success of Good Rockin’ Tonight, it’s a bit disconcerting to see that ever since that immortal record came out last winter Harris has been treading water more or less, stylistically if not commercially.

Would You Believe What I’m Gonna Tell You?
By this point in our blog regular readers must be sick to death of hearing about the infernal recording ban of 1948 that threw everything into disarray when it comes to what was able to be released. As sick as you are of reading about it, I’m even more tired of having to refer to it in seemingly every review. It’s like I’ve become Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, as the same story needs to be told and retold to put the particulars of so many of these songs in the proper context and it’s driving me crazy. Writers want to offer new and interesting insight, not rehash the same plotline over and over.

But as much as I complain about the unwelcome task of delving into it yet again here, there’s just no way around it. Like it or not the recording ban was THE dominant story of 1948 along with rock’s rise to prominence itself. The two go hand in hand, you can’t mention one without bringing up the other.

Now we know that in some cases the ban on cutting new recordings after December 31st 1947 meant that rock had more time to catch its breath and allow the already recorded sides in that vein a bit more time in the spotlight than they otherwise might’ve had.

It also meant that the BEST of those sides, the ones that seemed to grasp the concept of rock ‘n’ roll most authentically – like say for instance, I dunno… Harris’s Good Rockin’ Tonight – made an even bigger impact than they would’ve otherwise, simply because they were surrounded by a backlog of more timid records saddled with staid and outdated arrangements. A short time later when the hottest vocal sides from the vaults were emptied by the spring, it gave the honkin’ tenor sax instrumentals the stage to itself which further established the wild, anarchic style they specialized in as a cornerstone of the genre that was taking shape.

But then even those sides recorded at the tail end of 1947 started running thin and so more and more independent record labels began sneaking in their artists under darkness of night to record new material in violation of the ban. Those that did so were amply rewarded for it, as evidenced by the smash success of The Orioles, who were able to introduce a new element to the mix (the youthful, yearning emotion in a vocal group), something that was desperately needed by the summer of ’48 to keep the forward momentum for rock ‘n’ roll moving along.

But now it’s fall and Wynonie Harris’s immortal record which foretold of this revolution was nearly a year old. What’s more troubling is that his new release – the one you’re reading about right now – was even older than that… by six days.

I Wanna Tell You Just What To Do
It’s somewhat hard to believe that Syd Nathan, the nearsighted, tightfisted visionary who ran King Records, let it come to this. He’d been scratching and clawing his way up the independent record label ladder since 1943 until he was among those on its highest rung for well over a decade, a man who had the foresight to target two thoroughly neglected markets (rural whites with country music and urban blacks with an uptown blues-jazz hybrid and now had moved “all-in” on rock ‘n’ roll) well before most anyone else in the business, and who was downright progressive in his hiring of the best qualified people, regardless of race, for key roles in shaping the music, which included Henry Glover as one of the first black A&R men in the field.

Nathan was also the one who ingeniously streamlined every aspect of the record business to cut out as many of the middle men as possible (by running his own record pressing plant, along with a printing press for the labels and album covers, and hiring his own distributors) that had chipped away at profits and efficiency.

Yet somehow THIS man, this total maverick who was like a bull in a china shop when it came to following the usual standards of professionalism, would mindbogglingly adhere to the recording ban when it was now starting to cost him the market share he’d already carved out!

What the hell was he thinking?!?!

Harris’s last sessions had come during the final weeks of 1947 when labels were stockpiling tracks to have enough to get them through another lengthy ban. Wynonie Harris convened with a crack crew of talent, Sammy Price on piano, Tom Archia and Hal Singer on sax, and cut a boatload of songs on December 23rd, then again a week later. Sifting through the material that winter Nathan and company rightly chose his blistering cover of Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight as the best bet for a hit and gave it an early release and were promptly rewarded for it when it went to #1, fully establishing rock music as a commercial powerhouse.

They followed it with another cut that originated from Roy Brown, Lollipop Mama, and it too did well, though it was a step or two behind “Rockin” in terms of cutting edge qualities. But now they were out of anything that resembled what had worked so well for them, not surprising since of course when those revolutionary tracks were cut nobody involved KNEW they’d be revolutionary, nor popular, nor even moderately commercial. They’d been casting as wide a net as possible at the time, hoping that just ONE of the styles they tried might connect with someone but clearly they were unsure of which it would be, as evidenced by the song they chose as the flip side to this cut today, Blowin’ To California, which is rooted in more of a swinging jazz milieu.

So while their actions were entirely understandable last December, by the next fall they were being crippled by those same decisions. Yet they had a way out of it if they so chose, for in their employ were the very people who could rectify this situation by writing and arranging new material suited for the marketplace which by now was far different than the one that they’d seen last December. Rock had arrived, in large part thanks to Harris himself, and now, when everyone else was moving forward, whether illegally or not (Hal Singer, who’d played on that Harris session had cut one on the sly himself back in June and was now topping the charts for another record label with the result of thatCornbreadas we speak), Nathan was effectively instructing Harris to stand still.



Here’s What You’ll Sing And Shout
So because of that we now have take you back to December 23rd, 1947, when Bite Again, Bite Again was cut a week before Good Rockin’ Tonight. That much could likely be discerned even without looking at the session dates, as simply by listening to it you can hear that everyone involved was still grasping for something in their sight but just out of reach.

The record sounds like something that came out of a jam session as they threw some loose ideas together just to get another side in the can while they still had time, which in all likelihood is exactly what happened.

The concept itself though is pretty good, rush job or not, as the “bite” that Harris talks about refers to being bit by the love bug, something he’s quite fond of by the sound of it, urging the bug to “Bite Again!” with appropriate gusto. If they’d had time to flesh it out a bit, come up with a more coherent storyline, a proper build-up, chorus and coda, work out the instrumental breaks a little more assiduously, they might’ve had something here. But of course that’s a lot of “what ifs”.

Instead the raggedness of the circumstances they cut this in becomes all too evident as he runs out of lyrics pretty quickly and resorts to “quoting” from another song verbatim, (W.C Handy’s blues standard “Careless Love” – perhaps the first ever example of “sampling” in rock come to think of it, so I guess there’s THAT we can credit him with here!). As a result though the record sounds like a patchwork job, almost like Harris jumped up on stage and told the band to follow him and just riffed off the top of his head for awhile. All involved are skilled enough to make that work as well as can be expected, but they can’t turn water into wine.

At its best moments Harris sings with typical full-throated conviction, even dropping down into giving sly asides at times when talking about the notorious girl “from Kalamazoo” which will surely keep your attention to find out what makes her so salacious, as knowing Wynonie it’s probably something appropriately kinky. You never do find out however which sort of lets the air out of the bag and is representative of the whole song… talented artists who are just winging it.

In the end you realize that none of them probably took this all that seriously. It’s likely they never expected to actually USE this when they recorded it, that they all figured the ban wouldn’t last too long and they’d be back in the studio within six months to cut new sides and so this would stay on the shelf, or at best be a serviceable B-side down the line to something newer, fresher and… well… better.

But here it is ten months later being hauled out of mothballs in the hopes it’ll be enough to keep Harris’s name in the spotlight. Meanwhile other artists for other labels were doing no such thing, knowing they had to strike while the iron was hot and to hell with Petrillo’s idiotic union edict that was in effect ruining some of the careers he was ostensibly trying to help (James Petrillo’s power, which was iron clad before this, soon withered as this fact became increasingly obvious to his constituents).


I Don’t Like To Boast
The record’s not a total waste by any means, despite its rather haphazard nature and lack of focus. In fact had it been released at the beginning of the year it would’ve been slightly above average for that time when less advances on rock’s behalf had been introduced into the popular lexicon. After all the playing is fine, Singer and Archia on sax are in strong form as usual, and Harris’s much vaunted persona is always captivating even without too much to work with. Back when 1948 dawned it’d still be beset with the same shortcomings of course but in context they’d seem a little less glaring, simply because most of its competition would be struggling with the same issues.

But time moves fast in rock music and a few months later, especially after his own breakthrough that Februrary which utterly transformed the landscape, Bite Again, Bite Again would start to look a little stale by comparison. The formula, such as it was, had begun to gel and those shortcomings would stand out a bit more. By early summer this same record that might’ve earned a 6 in January would drop to a 5 because what was going on around it, and what Harris himself had done to raise the expected standards, as those advances would show it to be behind the curve.

By now, in October(!), it’s no longer even “average”.

Time had moved on and Harris – through no fault of his own – hadn’t moved on with it. How could he have? It’s not that he wasn’t capable of it, but rather that he simply hadn’t been allowed to.

Harris had made the biggest impact of ANY rock artist in 1948, he totally changed the game almost overnight, stylistically, as well as in terms of cementing rock’s image AND proving its commercial potential, but at this point those accomplishments came from a recording session ten months old, the results of which were first heard eight whole months ago, another lifetime in music terms.

What’s worse though is that Syd Nathan, surely fully aware that the game HAS changed as a result of that record, steadfastly refuses to put his star back on the field to advance the ball even further, to score again and clinch the victory. In fact, he’s running dangerously close to throwing the game by holding Harris out until this insipid ban is officially called off.

So for the time being this record is the sound of Harris merely keeping warm on the sidelines – seemingly healthy and ready to jump back into action – yet the game goes on without him. You watch with the rest of the crowd from the bleachers, muttering to yourself and wondering why he’s not out there as the seconds perilously tick away.


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