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KING 4226; MAY, 1948



At the risk of turning this blog into a one-man act we nonetheless bring to you once again the artist who is poised to sit a top the rock ‘n’ roll throne, his official coronation about to take place next month when Good Rockin’ Tonight will top the Billboard Race Charts, the first rock release to do so, validating the entire genre in a way and setting into motion rock’s gradual commercial takeover of black music, then in a few more years its dominance in ALL music.

That’s right, it’s yet another appearance of Wynonie Harris, rock ‘n’ roll’s most colorful character, potentially its biggest star, and thankfully one of its most unpredictable artists at this point which at least makes these reviews anything but boring rehashes of the same old stories.

It’s not that Harris – or any big name star with lots of releases – is not deserving of having each record delved into. That’s the whole point of Spontaneous Lunacy after all, to take Mr. Peabody’s Way Back Machine and revisit all of the records that came along, large and small, in effect recreating the era as it happened in an attempt to discern how rock’s evolution took place. It’s just that in years to come there’ll be a lot more releases by a lot more artists under the rock ‘n’ roll banner than we’re seeing to date thus far. By then if an artist is especially prolific over a period of nine months like Harris has been since we started this in September, 1947 (aided by having releases come out on TWO labels, not just one) it won’t be quite so noticeable because there’ll be hundreds of other artists releasing records during that same time-frame rather than just the couple dozen who’ve done so in rock’s earliest days.

So until that influx of new acts throwing their hat into the rock arena starts to unfold we’re left with a few familiar faces hogging the spotlight with yet another entry into the record pool. For Harris, never one to shy away from the spotlight, this marks his 9th review overall and his 8th in the first five months of 1948.

But enjoy it while it lasts because we’ll meet him just once more in the fall before we have to wait until 1949 to encounter the likes of Harris again.


Time Marches On
As we’ll see over the course of seven decades (or more, probably much more by the time we’re done) of rock history there will be certain years that are defined by a specific sound. Not necessarily the dominance of a single artist, but rather a stylistic approach shared by multiple artists which collectively comes to represent the year in question. Not all years have them. Most don’t in fact. But the ones which do are very notable, the first of which unquestionably came in its first full calendar year, 1948, which was the Year Of The Tenor Sax Instrumental.

We know the reasons why. The musician’s union recording ban that began as 1948 rang in, preventing any musician from taking part in a contracted session, irrevocably altered the ensuing musical landscape which followed.

With rock still in its formative stages as 1947 came to a close just four months after being birthed the problem was even more acute. What had already been established in the rock field was tentative in nature, divergent sounds loosely tied together with somewhat imprecise boundaries. Shouted rhythmic boasts on one hand and tight harmonies on the other. Freewheeling musicians breaking away from the strict discipline of written charts being embraced by a new generation of more independent and optimistic young black audiences craving, and now expecting in many cases, more cultural freedom, of which the music came to embody.

Yet just as it was marking its ascent into the mainstream, slogging its way through the thick jungle of competition that encompassed everything from mannered pop vocals and dippy novelties to the rigid professionalism of the fading big bands, all while trying to find room alongside of, yet elbow out of the way at the same time, the growing appeal of rural and electric blues and the impressive avant garde forays of bop that was coming into vogue among hipper factions of the postwar black audience, suddenly the world stopped. Or at least the musical world. Recording sessions ground to a halt and the next few months would remain, in many ways, stuck at 11:59 PM, December 31st, 1947.

No new sounds. No new ideas. No new artists. No new – I mean really new – records would be heard. Only that which had been put in the can before the clock struck twelve and 1948 rang in.

So as stated – repeatedly already on Spontaneous Lunacy – the forward progression of sounds ceased just as more new sounds were needed to keep the momentum of rock’s earliest days moving ahead. Records released over the first half of the year especially were a hodge podge mix of already dated-concepts being aired out for reappraisal, combined with a handful of sides that seemed to have captured the lightning of inspiration in a bottle as 1947 wound down and came away with something that was ahead of its time. Wynonie Harris’s Good Rockin’ Tonight was just such a song, but because no one else could go right in the studio after hearing it come out in February and use it as a template for the next phase of the rock revolution, it stood alone, a gleaming skyscraper suddenly appearing in a shanty town of tarpaper shacks, towering above them all, magnificent to look at and admire, but utterly out of place when more tired old outdated shacks were put up around it as time went on.

The one exception to this rule however – in a convoluted roundabout way – proved to be the instrumental.

Ooh Bop She-Bam, The Boys Are Really Knockin’ Me Out
In the waning days of 1947 a handful of sax-led sides were released by Paul Williams and Earl Bostic which set the tone for much of what followed. It may very well have just been a case of circumstantial necessity, but instrumentals had several advantages over vocal records when it came to rock ‘n’ roll the longer this infernal recording ban lasted.

The unifying feature of the best sax-based instrumentals in rock was the frantic unhinged excitement they specialized in. Since sax players were backing most of the vocalists in the studios during the mad rush of recording dates taking place in November and December anyway, AND since it was much easier to “create” an instrumental song on the spot in the studio, particularly those which didn’t follow much of a written arrangement to begin with but rather specialized in improvisational ability of one or two sax men itching to show off, well, why not cut a bunch of those too? After all you’re gonna need a helluva lot of sides to put on the market for the foreseeable future, it won’t hurt to throw a bunch of these wild jams out there while you’re at it, even just to take up room on a B-side (such as here), for you never know what might catch on.

So at almost every session the last few weeks of 1947 they made time for the studio band to cut loose on a few songs of their own. Nothing written down beforehand mind you, just basic head arrangements thought up on a break as the vocalists were off having lunch or flirting with the secretary. A quick run down so the rhythm section can come up with a basic progression, the sax takes two increasingly wild solos, you wrap it up in two and a half minutes and get paid.

Well… maybe not that last part. I mean let’s not get carried away or anything and starting compensating people for their efforts!


You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet
What nobody saw coming however was the overall reception to these records which stood out as beacons of an exhilarating future amidst a steady stream of releases clinging to the past. So what had begun in many cases as throwaway extras suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, became the dominant commercial sound of 1948 rock ‘n’ roll.

Unlike the vocal records, which needed to be more carefully crafted, written-out and arranged, these instrumentals could subsist on pure energy and enthusiasm to convey their message making them SEEM fresh and vibrant, even if they’d been cut months before. The frenzy of each new record would simply build upon the last. A strong mellow groove would even be seen a welcome change of pace, not a step backwards as might be the case with a vocal side that was too restrained and thus hearkened back to a more sedate approach. An instrumental on the other hand, whether fast or slow, simply needed to lock onto a riff, a groove, a feeling of urgency and invite the audience along for the ride.

For the next few years plenty did. Even when the recording ban ended and the rock vocals resumed along their evolutionary path the instrumental remained a vital part of the overall rock storyline. For 1948 it was the main plot.

In many ways, though harmful in the moment by curtailing the development of rock’s vocal approach, thereby limiting the diversity it was able to showcase for awhile, the ban was actually the best thing that could’ve happened to rock long term, as it had no choice but to turn increasingly towards instrumentals which emphasized the excitement inherent in this music above all else.

In essence it firmly established the driving force of ALL rock music to follow and rock has ridden that mindset for going on seven decades now with no sign of letting up.

You Know What It’s All About!
All of that to lead into the focus of THIS review, just a B-side at that and one that came out under the name of a vocalist meaning it’s not even an instrumental.

But technicalities aside this is actually one of the more creative ideas anyone had as they were frantically cutting anything they could think of the last days of December and while the idea itself ultimately proved stronger than the execution, the appearance of this tied in nicely with rock’s overall direction heading into the new year.


Blow Your Brains Out isn’t the best of 1948’s sax workouts by a long shot but it doesn’t have to be to serve its rather limited purpose, which was to ensure that King Records could get Lollipop Mama into the stores and onto jukeboxes to serve as a proper follow-up to “Rockin” without having to use up one of Wynonie’s few remaining vocal efforts for use on the B-side.

But to think Wynonie is an afterthought on his own record would be a mistake, as Harris is acting as the master of ceremonies, reeling off what surely were ad-libbed praise and encouragement and giving the entire thing a sense of cohesion that keeps it surging forward. In a larger sense his presence also is ensuring these sax-led romps remained firmly within the rock family, connecting the various divergent strains of rock ‘n’ roll together in a way that was crucial in establishing the breadth of its overall scope with the public.

But despite it featuring Harris’s name on the label, and his prominent role within, the focus of this record is the all-star horn section featuring two tenor men, Hal Singer and Tom Archia, who take center stage throughout, exhorted on by Harris’s seemingly drunken bellowing, name checking them both and adding to the anarchic atmosphere. [I say “seemingly” drunken bellowing, as if it’s only my impression that they were drinking. But the fact remains that if you were laying odds on how inebriated Harris, and the whole crew for that matter, were when they cut these sides you’re not even going to get even odds from me. I’d put it at 1 to 4 that they were all completely juiced by the time they cut this, and frankly that thought only adds to its enjoyment].

After a subdued start as the drummer rides the cymbals Harris comes in full of verve to set the scene for us. Essentially it’s a cutting contest, the type that was all the rage in clubs whenever two talented saxophone slingers were on the same stage.

Neither one seems to want to start off with their best efforts however as we get a jazzy intro by Singer leading into a more urgent, but still faintly jazz-rooted Archia passage. They’re both sizing the other up, careful not to tip their hand too early in the proceedings, taking the competitive edge off things a little too much.

Harris is having none of it though, urging them to cut loose and spurring Singer into storming back with a grittier riff trying to out-duel his partner as the energy finally begins to mount. Again it must be said that it’s all helped immeasurably by the lusty shouting of Harris, whose sheer enthusiasm carries this – and lights the fire under the two honkers in the spotlight – well beyond what it might’ve been otherwise. While decidedly limited in his vocal versatility, what nobody ever did better than Harris was to implore the saints to dance with the devil. Singer and Archia were no saints, but as of yet they weren’t totally corrupted by rock ‘n’ roll’s gaudy hedonism either.

What’s Your Bet?
This then – chronologically anyway in terms of it being cut – was their indoctrination to that sinful life and though they still play it a little TOO cool, guaranteeing that neither one comes out on top, by the time it winds down you get the sense that with a few more bottles of wine to pass around, and with Wynonie kicking them in the ass as they all got loaded the more the night went along, they might’ve really have torn things up.

But improvised throwaway though it may have been the mere presence of Blow Your Brains Out on the scene, particularly with Harris’s enthusiastic participation to connect what he’d already done with this type of gleeful manic romp, added another brick in the wall of rock music.

In the end it IS just a placeholder – for Harris, for King Records, for rock ‘n’ roll in general – but considering the unique circumstances of the day placeholders that could at least stir some modest excitement on their own were exactly what were needed. For the rest of 1948 the surest way to remaining relevant in rock, not to mention to grab some long stays on the charts for a few lucky sax desperadoes, was to follow this pattern closely. Whether blowing hot or cool, the tenor saxophone was what allowed rock to weather the recording ban storm and come out on the other side still a viable style.


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