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KING 4252; OCTOBER, 1948



Of all of the states in America – fifty to date if you’re keeping track, though one or two more hopefully are on the docket to be added in the next few years… we’ll keep you posted – it’s always been California that has held the most allure.

Part of this stems from the earliest days of settlers arriving on eastern shores and not knowing exactly what lay beyond their view of the sun setting in the west. Curious by nature some headed out in that direction on foot, horseback or covered wagon, and a few decades later a couple of them may have actually wound up in California and found beautiful landscapes, idyllic weather and shining seas waiting for them.

Since then the Golden State has been an appealing destination for almost every generation, whether it was prospectors seeking gold in 1849 or landlocked teenagers in the Midwest in the early 1960’s dreaming of surfing after listening to Brian Wilson spin tales while building a California myth in his music with The Beach Boys.

In the early 1940’s another Midwestern kid named Wynonie Harris packed up his bags and followed a similar path to the westernmost state, dreaming the same dreams – not of surfing maybe, though probably of gold – that led so many others there over the years.

He dreamt of opportunity and once there he found it in abundance.


I Hear The Train Whistle Blowin’
My apologies for rehashing some of the Wynonie Harris life story that we’ve already examined in previous reviews but in this case it loosely pertains to the topic at hand as evidenced by this song’s general theme of westward expansion.

Harris grew up in Nebraska which might be the single most unlikely point of origin you can think of for someone like that outside of an Amish village. Obviously the slow peaceful existence of life in the midst of endless cornfields held no interest for Wynonie and so he fled to more bustling environs the first chance he got (okay, to be fair he was from Omaha, which is an actual city, although in the early 1940’s it wasn’t a very big city).

When Harris landed in Los Angeles his career began to take off, first singing at the famed Club Alabam and then heading on tour and being spotted by Lucky Millinder who signed him to front his band. The two clashed, as Harris’s ego was prone to do with anyone, and he was soon gone but not before cutting what would wind up being his first #1 hit, Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well.

I know, I know, we went over that too in the review to The Orioles rendition of Deacon Jones, but just think, these handy links mean you can go back to refresh your memories at no extra charge!

So to keep the story in shortened form, Harris on his own was able to ride the success of his Millinder-associated hit, plus a few more smaller hits that followed quickly in its wake, for a little while but over time his momentum had stalled, his records were struggling to find a consistent audience and he clearly was in need of a career reset button… which he promptly got with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll in 1947.

When his version of Good Rockin’ Tonight (which of course was a cover of the first rock ‘n’ roll song, courtesy of Roy Brown) exploded for him after its February release Harris was seemingly in the driver’s seat – the most experienced hand taking the wheel, a recognizable name with an indelible image tailor made for rock’s wild style. But as 1948 rolls along Harris is left to compete with newer songs by fresher faces while he’s stuck releasing a string of records he’d cut almost a year earlier now, just after signing with King Records right before the recording ban struck, which has kept him out of the studio for the past ten months.

So once again on the self-penned Blowin’ To California, Wynonie Harris is left more or less to showcase the highly skilled (though makeshift) band that had been assembled for his last sessions back in December 1947 and he has to hope that his name on the label – and his enthusiasm on the mic – will be enough to keep him within hailing distance of the new leaders in the field who’ve already overtaken him over the past few months.


Headed For The Railroad Track
As we’ve said before, and will surely say again when it comes to Harris, he was a notorious improviser when coming up with songs. This talent had done him well at Club Alabam and on whatever bandstand he found himself logging long hours with a loose set-list that was prone to being changed on the fly as required by the particulars of that night’s audience and the setting itself.

Maybe whomever he shared the gig with – and remember, this was the day of multi-act shows – weren’t quite up to snuff and so Harris would have to extend his own set to compensate, or maybe on other nights he was reveling in the applause and not wanting to get out of the spotlight he’d tell the band to follow his lead and off he’d go, ad-libbing as he went along, knowing full well that the drunken crowd whooping it up would forgive any lyrical stumbles as he went along.

But in the studio it was a different matter altogether because listening to the finished record without benefit of a roomful of fellow carousers the purchaser of that record would be scrutinizing the results much more closely and then Harris’s penchant for making things up as he went along had far worse returns.

There can be little doubt that Blowin’ To California was just such a case. King Records needed as many cuts as possible before the end of the year and there just wasn’t time to sit down and craft stories and attach them to unique melodies. So since most of this band had recently toured with Harris and were solid veteran musicians to boot they came up with a few basic structures he could handle and then let him freestyle, while Harris for his part left plenty of openings for them to take elongated solos.

But since there IS a rough story to this song we’d be remiss if we didn’t start by focusing on it to set the scene.

I suppose the basic premise is semi-autobiographical as he starts off telling us he’s getting on a train to track a girl down in California who happens to “long and tall, fine and she’s brown… tall and shapely”… you get the idea. I’ll wait a few seconds for the shock to settle in that Wynonie Harris had a thing for good looking girls and wasn’t above chasing them across the country in hopes of being with them.

But once that’s established there’s not much else to continue this theme. After he introduces a horn solo he sits out for an extended stretch and when he returns he’s talking about the musicians, seemingly forgetting about his foray to the coast. Only after yet another solo does he wrap the trip aspect of the song up in rather surprising form, telling us that he’s “headed back to California to mend my no good ways”.


Well, they say admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, so I guess we’ll soon be seeing a chaste, teetotaling Wynonie Harris next time out. I gotta say, I kinda liked the hell-raising version of him and since throughout Blowin’ To California he sounds as if he’s raising hell with his indestructible voice – and for that matter sounds as eager as ever to keep on raising it when he gets to California no matter what he’s claiming – I suppose it’s best that we take a wait and see attitude before we start expecting to hear him crooning mushy songs of devotion when we run into him down the road.

I’ll Blow My Top One Of These Days
Now about those solos – the ones which take up a full minute of the two and a half minute run time – here’s where the record will be won or lost. Harris did just enough to keep us interested, not so much by what he told us but rather how exuberantly he delivered it. We should also add that the rhythm section definitely is doing their part, storming along full-speed ahead, not letting up for an instant, providing the perfect bed for the horns to tattoo this with plenty of vim and vigor.

They do just that too… but just not in quite the manner you were expecting.

The first solo is taken by one of the two top flight saxophonists, Hal Singer or Tom Archia, playing in a rather subdued manner. It’s not quite mellow but it’s also not nearly as explosive as you’d expect to hear, especially since Harris seemed to grease the skids for them to act as unruly as possible with his own vocal lead-in to this.

But the decision to lay back was clearly planned because it makes the appearance of trumpeter Hot Lips Page all that much more startling as he squawks up a storm following the modest sax solo.

Now Page was an incredibly good musician with an open mind to this calamitous rock ‘n’ roll, making him a bit of an anomaly when it came to those who became stars in the music that pre-dated rock and tended to look down their noses at all of this noise. Unlike most from that more prestigious musical background Page wasn’t averse to slumming in rock with a smile on his face, giving it his all and not being ashamed to be seen with a lampshade on his head partying with these cretinous goons.

But the trumpet’s appropriateness as a rock instrument is still highly suspect and though his solo here is the definition of energetic, it’s also a little disconcerting because of the tone. He pulls out all of the stops and what he plays is certainly good – and I’m sure in the studio he was knocking them out with his fervor, as he would on any stage – but it can’t help but seem just a little ill-fitting for what we’ve come to expect in a rock song.

The next sax picks it up from there and delivers more of a raunchy tone, my guess is this is Singer but don’t take my word for it, yet this doesn’t last long enough for our tastes as rockers. Had he gotten the full instrumental break for himself it’d have elevated this considerably.

Harris returns briefly to egg on the FOURTH soloing horn, the trombone of all things, as Joe Britton adds shades to Blowin’ To California that were hardly typical coming from rock records, but by now we have to admit we’re at least caught up in the vitality they’re all exhibiting.

Their enthusiasm is genuine and in these kinds of records – especially at this stage of the game – that’s not always the case with musicians for hire and so when we encounter it we just have to give ourselves over to the freewheeling attitude and ride it to the end… something they help us to do thanks to all of the horns ripping it up together in fine fashion in the close.

It’s not the most polished record that’s for sure but it’ll get your blood pumping if nothing else and we have no choice but to commend them for the effort alone.

I’ll Get Back To California One Of These Days
Though I assume that all involved, from Harris and the band to King Records’ head Syd Nathan, would be grateful that we’d focus on the infectious joy of the record while overlooking its somewhat chaotic construction, that type of modest approval would only go so far. After all, something this rough and tumble with no sense of direction was unlikely to set the world on fire commercially and Harris needed to consolidate his gains from earlier in the year before it was too late.

Blowin’ To California won’t do that, but at least it doesn’t set him back too much either. At best it can be called a placeholder, but that place at the head table was becoming ever more tenuous the longer he went without more purposeful well-crafted material that was cut far more recently than this.

A hundred years after other restless souls such as he ventured west to find gold in the California hills, Wynonie Harris comes out of the mountains and the streams on this day with a little more than a handful of tiny nuggets to show for his efforts. He’ll collect his money for them and promptly head into the nearest saloon and blow all of it on drinks and women before picking up his shovel and pan and heading back out tomorrow to try again.

Hopefully by then Syd Nathan will have unlocked the studio doors to let him and the band back in to try and tap into the far richer vein that lays with striking distance for those prospectors who have the indomitable spirit that they all show here.

But if they don’t act fast the lode they seek may soon be tapped out.


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