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KING 4461; JUNE 1951

 
 

 

Just when you’re starting to think that rock’s resident dirty old manerr… “venerated elder statesman” might be reaching the end of the line after a succession of subpar, or at least artistically inconsequential, releases dating back a half year, he comes roaring back yet again.

How many times does this make now where he came out of a career lull as strong as ever? A half dozen or more by now is it?

But as with most of those other occurrences, the means for his creative revival wasn’t a renewed focus after an honest assessment of his recent shortcomings, but rather a return to the tried and true topics he does best…

Debauchery.
 

 

I Wanted To Be Proud Of You
If you were unaware of this record’s specific contents and just glanced at the title you might think to yourself that when it came to Wynonie Harris some things never change.

An ode to getting drunk, how typical.

But in this case a lot has changed, at least on the surface, for it’s not Harris bending his elbow and drunkenly bragging about it after the fact, as he probably did every Friday and Saturday since he was 12, but rather it’s the girl he’s with who is the guilty party and he’s scolding her publicly for getting wasted.

In reality this is about as far-fetched a scenario as he could possibly sing, for Harris has been known to wring out the bartender’s rag onto his own outstretched tongue at last call just to make sure no booze was wasted, but it might help to explain that the song wasn’t written with Wynonie in mind, even though it did originally come out on King Records.

A year earlier Hank Penny wrote and recorded Bloodshot Eyes for King’s red country label and got a #4 hit out of it on those charts despite the fact Penny, like most country acts of the day, doesn’t seem to actually “get” the jokes he himself wrote.

Just like Harris’s last brilliant cover where he turned Good Morning Judge from a tale of wry but severely underplayed humor into a ribald romp that took no prisoners, he does the same thing here, mercifully dispensing with the flat vocals of Penny who had laid into the role of a teetotaler a little too hard.

Instead Wynonie uses all of the sarcastic wit he was known for to make you wonder which one was the bigger troublemaker here, the booze-hound girlfriend or the strutting loudmouth who is happily telling the world about her over-imbibing and relishing every minute of it.
 

 
 

Out On A Spree
Because the Penny version was delivered with such dry understatement it’d be almost impossible for Harris not to improve upon it greatly, even if the position of criticizing someone else for guzzling booze was so against his nature.

Sure enough Wynonie’s having fun with this, draining every ounce of humor from the very well written stanzas wherein the scenes painted are cartoonishly humorous and the snide put-downs are devestatingly brutal.

“When I saw you last week
Your eyes were turning black
Go find the guy who beat you up
Ask him to take you back!”

You picture this girl, not as the all-out wino she’s depicted as, but rather someone who had a little too much fun one night when she went out with the girls and came home in rough shape after a few too many drinks, hoping to just throw up and then sleep it off. Instead Harris has to lord over her and mock the poor girl for her Bloodshot Eyes… or more likely for not inviting him along.

The way he sinks his teeth into each cutting remark shows that he’s enjoying his role a little too much, but then again that’s in stark contrast to Penny who clearly wasn’t enjoying his duties in this department enough.

But Hank gave him some great lines to recite and the entire song is quotable, notably the way in which Harris first seeks credit for selflessly buying her things to look good, then turns it on its head by saying “Don’t ask me to dress you up in satins or in silk/Your eyes look like two cherries in a glass of buttermilk” with a devilish smirk that reveals all you need to know about his moral character.

Of course this being Wynonie Harris there’s still some fumbling of the lines, not thankfully the words themselves, which would be a shame for him to trip over, but rather the melodic gait of the chorus which he repeatedly tries to alter without success, making it a lot clunkier than it needed to be.

Still when he lays into her by saying “Your eyes look like a road-map, I’m scared to smell your breath/You better shut your peepers before you bleed to death” you more or less forgive him for his indiscretion just because it’s too enjoyable to make an issue out of mere trivial details like sticking to the melodic line.
 

Finally Simmered Down
The same can’t be said about the band however, for their job isn’t to make us laugh, as Wynonie’s is, but rather theirs is to get us to move and it’s here that the record is failing its sobriety test.

The obvious way to approach this is to pile on the rhythmic nature of it with stomping drums and an undertow of a bassline with thick lusty horns adding rude retorts capped by a wildly drunken solo.

It’s a standard issue arrangement that anybody could come up with… anybody but Henry Glover that is who is far too skilled to not be called out for going easy with this.

For starters the horns are too light in the opening. The notes they’re playing are okay, offering a catchy little hook, but they need to honk more than squeal to set the stage for what follows.

Unfortunately what follows is hands clapping the back beat rather than the drummer battering his kit. This is a huge mistake because the drums have both the sonic depth that clapping does not, but they also have a rattling percussive effect which would drive home the humor better.

We do get a piano handling the bass part and Big John Greer contributes a few interesting rejoinders in between the vocal lines, almost commenting whimsically on the last words he heard, but the rest of the horns are completely abstaining from the required hooch here and Greer’s solo is similarly watered down, meaning Bloodshot Eyes has a little too much Visine in its eyes for our more decedent tastes.

Okay, so all that is true enough and keeps this from perfection, but let’s remember that they’re starting at such a – pardon the pun – high point with the composition itself and Harris’s sneering delivery on the verses, that anything short of an accordion and fiddle… wait, that was Penny’s version… will be still assured of passing out with dignity around here where such behavior is not only approved of, but recommended of all listeners from time to time.
 

It’s Plain You’ve Been Lyin’
While it’s always a concern that eventually Wynonie Harris will run short of crimes and misdemeanors to sing about, we clearly haven’t quite reached that stage yet, even if his last two great records both had to come from atypical sources.

Yet it’s also clear that while country music may have conceived them they were completely unable to deliver those songs with any authenticity in that straitlaced field and so, hits or not, Harris was the one who brought them to life… and in the case of Bloodshot Eyes put it to bed.

Not surprisingly this was a sizable hit for him, spending nearly three months in the national charts and reminding listeners why having someone like Harris around was so important for rock ‘n’ roll… for how else could you know where the lines of decorum you shouldn’t cross were situated without him leaping over them all the time?

This one may not break any new ground for him in terms of audacious behavior, but it certainly helps to cement his case as rock’s ne’er do well… whichever side of the bottle he’s on at the time.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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