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KING 4461; JUNE 1951



If you have one side of a single that has all the markings of a surefire hit what should you do with the B-side?

How about provide the early rock generation with a history lesson of the music from a decade earlier which with each passing year – and each ensuing rock hit – was bound to be lost to the ravages of time.

Maybe that wasn’t King Records’ intent with this effort, but if by chance it were they couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate teacher for the class even if Wynonie Harris was far more used to staying after school for the many infractions he committed while class was in session.


Think All About Your Future, Forget About Your Used To Be
The history of any music is always at risk for being gradually forgotten. Time moves on, the people who heard and loved it when fresh pass away and the ensuing generations tend to only refer back to a handful of immortal sides and artists while the others die from neglect.

This is especially true of the period just before rock came along with the most revolutionary music since the birth of jazz, as many of the most important artists from that era were caught between broader movements and thus don’t even have a genre category to call their own and act as a safe haven for their memory.

Jay McShann is one such key figure. Despite playing music into the Twenty-First Century and being hailed at his death as the last of the great Kansas City artists who shaped much of the 1930’s music world, he tends to get shunned when discussing either of the avenues he plied his trade.

Too jazzy for blues, too bluesy for jazz.

If he’s known at all now it’s probably for leading the band that the great Charlie Parker played with for his first few years… and for revealing why Parker was known as “Bird”.

Yet McShann was a key figure in the early stylistic shifts that would – eventually, with plenty of water under the bridge – lead to rock ‘n’ roll. Heck, he even scored a belated hit in the mid-50’s with a song that had rock elements woven in. But his heart was jazz even if by the time he began recording in earnest in the early 1940’s he was being steered more towards blues, such as this song he co-wrote and recorded with Walter Brown in 1941, Confessin’ The Blues.

It’s his most legendary recording and there’s a lot of musical innovation buried in the deceptively simple song. But just as he was poised to break through McShann got drafted into the Army and when he got out after World War Two was over the scene had changed and he wound up backing uptown blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon for a couple of years while ‘Spoon was one of the most popular acts in black America just as rock was in the process of overtaking that style as well.

So for Wynonie Harris to go back a decade in the past to revisit a period when he too was starting out in search of a style that didn’t quite exist yet, and haul this out for a new audience was almost magnanimous in a way… making sure what had come before him wasn’t laid to rest in an unmarked grave.


Filled By All Your Charms
Of course the idea of trying to transplant an outside genre composition into a rock setting isn’t always the easiest thing to do, even with a song as malleable as this one is.

They make a few important decisions with this when it comes to the arrangement. The piano which obviously was the key instrumental feature of the original has been shifted into a secondary role… still important and well played by Sonny Thompson but not the focal point as when McShann was playing it.

Instead we get a shared load here with tenor sax, guitar and drums all getting more or less equal time, all with the intent on modernizing it even as the same lazy pace is retained from the original.

The drums add muscle, the guitar a flash of edgy danger and the sax brings the heat of the performance while Harris does everything else on Confessin’ The Blues.

He naturally has to tone down his usual vocal approach but in his own inimitable way he’s still just as declaratory as ever, albeit in a somewhat subdued fashion which fits the song fine. I won’t say it’s better than Brown’s vocal on the original, since it’s clearly an apples to oranges comparison this far out, but it definitely is a more forceful reading of the sentiments which leads to a different reception.

Whereas Brown seemed to be imploring his woman with his words, hoping his earnestness would win the day, Harris is more insistent about his feelings for her. He sounds almost incredulous that she may be doubting him and with his much heavier tone and naturally rhythmic vocal style he’s dominating the record in a way that Brown never could.

You’ll recognize most of the lyrics even if you never heard a single version of this song, whether McShann’s, Harris, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, or B.B. King or a dozen other takes on it over the years. Whether they all originated here or were free floating lyrics Brown and McShann assembled they’ve become some of the most famous in history, used by countless others in various form or fashion.

Typically Harris sells them as if he came up with each one of them himself, one of the rare times he seems intent on getting lyrics right in fact, which helps to sell the song as a rock performance, his conviction going a long way in putting it over.


Will You Make Everything Alright?
He’s also helped in that regard by Ruben Phillips’s sax which is the most obvious rock touch found here, chipping so many quick tasteful retorts between the vocal lines that it’s almost like a second voice. He’s constantly changing up his tone, his patterns and his aggression to keep things interesting and unlike a lot of fills where it blends into the background, here he never does… every little refrain captures your attention without taking that attention too far away from Harris in the bargain.

The others may be more low key in their contributions but they’re still appreciated. Guitarist Jimmy Shirley is mostly adding accent notes, save for one burst of controlled fury mid-way through in a turnaround. Thompson, starting to be utilized as a sessionist again as well as a lead artist, is not being asked to replicate McShann’s work but rather give this a little more rhythmic weight and does so with his usual grace.

Meanwhile Herman Bradley’s drums are patiently thumping during the bulk of Confessin’ The Blues and then quickly hitting with a flurry of lefts and rights to ramp up the energy before settling back down again.

Yet in spite of this re-tooling of the song it keeps the same basic feel, a similar tempo and the message itself doesn’t get altered, which is always a risk with Harris. Instead he plays it straight, adding his own personality but maintaining the outlook the song had since the beginning.

If I Knew That You Were Mine
For what is a very tasteful, well-done performance it still stands to reason that even with their subtle updating of the song it can’t very well have the same impact in rock as it did in the hazy jazz-blues netherworld a decade earlier.

It’s an effective performance though, once that actually may have done a fair amount to keep the composition relevant for some of those later artists to tackle, but as a pure rock record in 1951 hoping to attract current audiences with little or no memory of the McShann original it’s merely a solid B-side, a good enough song where you’d occasionally flip the record over to listen as a change of pace but not anything that was going to mean much to Harris’s career one way or the other.

But that’s a credit to all of them really, for if there’s one thing we know it’s that music is one long continuum and any time you can have a star of the current scene bring some belated attention to an older song of some importance like Confessin’ The Blues, you have to consider it a success.

Considering how many B-sides were sloppy throwaways the fact that Wynonie Harris of all people was able to pay tribute to someone who deserves more attention in the telling of the Twentieth Century music story is a rather pleasant surprise.


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