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KING 4378; JUNE 1950

 
 

 

All rise, court is now in session.

There’s a lot on today’s docket as we look at the latest salacious charges brought against rock’s most unrepentant hell-raiser, Wynonie Harris.

We’ll first have to consider the brazen hijacking of the source material and hauling it across state lines… err… stylistic lines?… making this a federal offense which carries with it harsher fines and longer sentences.

There there are the litany of morals charges the defendant must answer to and as a recidivist offender in this area the prosecution is recommending that no leniency be shown.

You shouldn’t expect any plea bargains in this case either, for the state wants the headlines from prevailing in a sensationalistic trial that goes to the jury, while the defense’s client is no stranger to the inside of a courtroom and is not the type who’ll be scared of a little jail time.

The good news for the defendant however is when it comes to passing judgement on the endless parade of rock ‘n’ roll heathens on trial, this jurisdiction has a long track record of rendering favorable decisions.
 

 

The Other Night I Took A Ride…
The first unavoidable question that has to be asked in this case is just how in the name of all that’s holy did the crew at King Records land on this song as one to cut with Wynonie Harris.

Not that the topic isn’t perfectly appropriate for his widely known image as a scurrilous troublemaker, but rather just who among them was searching the country music release rolls of Mercury Records of all companies, an aspiring major label without of a reputation for anything suggestive or off-color?

Well, it turns out that the originator of this song was Louie Innis, a singer/guitar player they once had under contract (sort of) when Syd Nathan stoleahh… took control of DeLuxe Records a year earlier.

Though King Records had first been established as a country label and maintained a strong roster in that field for decades, Nathan hadn’t wrested control of DeLuxe for any warbling hillbilly but rather to get his mitts on Roy Brown and so when Innis’s contract lapsed without any hits he was free to go and signed with Mercury.

His first two releases for that label straddling the new year didn’t catch anyone’s ear but when he followed them up in the spring with Good Morning Judge, a colorful, genuinely funny and somewhat scandalous story of a ne’er do well, his old employers took note because it was really a tremendous composition with lots of potential… for anyone BUT Louie Innis that is.

This is a song that sounds as if it were tailor made for somebody else, somebody like Wynonie Harris for instance. But in the hands of Innis it loses everything about it – save the lyrics – that make it so effective. The music is stilted and awkward, the vocal is flat and Innis himself seems to have absolutely no idea how to deliver it effectively. It’s almost incomprehensible to think he actually wrote it without bothering to grasp its appeal.

Luckily Wynonie Harris has no such problem understanding the nature of such lawless activities, for while he didn’t put pen to paper to jot down these lines he did Innis one better… Harris lived them all in real life and so each of the scenarios presented were subjects he knew intimately.
 


 
 

Brother, You Will Pay!
After interlocking horns and drums set a dramatic anticipatory scene to the song Harris comes swaggering into the picture with all the rakish charm he’s famous for and promptly delivers what is arguably the finest first stanza of any rock record to date – nearly a thousand tunes if you’re keeping track of such things.

The lyrics of course are identical to Innis’s rendition but while the words don’t change the underlying meaning certainly seems to as he confides that he took a cute girl out one night and wound up with quite a surprise…

The other night I took a ride with little ol’ Lucy Brown
We went to all the honky tonks, we really got around
She’s five foot two with eyes of blue
And pretty as a queen
I didn’t know her pop was a city cop
And she was just fifteen…

THUMP-THUMP, go the drums…

Good morning, judge… why do you look so mean, sir?
And Mr. Judge, what can the charges be?
If there’s been trouble, I will plead not guilty
It must be someone else, you know it can’t be me!

Harris is not acting the part, he’s merely recounting it, because a week before cutting this he probably did the exact same thing with the exact same results. Names may have been changed to protect the innocent but despite his ensuing protests we all know he’s guilty.

And therein lies the genius of Good Morning Judge. Whereas Innis was telling this story in a dry detached manner, merely reeling off the details, seemingly without any stake in its outcome, Harris is living it out in real time and every inflection of his voice defines this shady character perfectly.

Each line is so exquisitely delivered that the entire scene comes to life, allowing you to envision everything about it right down to his facial expressions as he pleads his case. Moreover – though it was hardly evident when Innis cut it – there’s an effortless rhythmic swing to the vocals that Harris emphasizes which makes it so catchy that you’ll sing along to it no matter how troubling the moral implications may be.
 


 

They’ll Have To Catch Me
Of course this being Wynonie Harris we’re talking about he’s far from out of the woods yet, even if he somehow evades a long sentence for those initial crimes.

Here’s where we have to circle back and credit Innis for doing something that so many of Wynonie Harris’s earlier songs were in desperate need of – provide an equally strong follow through.

Because of Harris’s scandalous reputation they often started with a really good idea on his original material, usually some off-color premise worth a laugh on its own, but then stopped there, delivering just that initial solid set-up and one punchline via the chorus before running out of steam for the next two minutes, confident that his image alone would sell the underwhelming aftermath of those wild scenarios.

But Innis, because he had no such reputation of his own to fall back on, had to keep piling up more outlandish situations to delve into in order to keep the song rolling. None of what follows might be quite as juicy as that first explosive situation but both of the remaining scenes are potent enough to keep you riveted as Harris has to answer for income tax evasion and refusing to pay spousal support and here’s where Wynonie showed how they could be expounded upon just by virtue of his colorful performance.

Not only are the lines themselves humorous while maintaining that melodic flow, but Harris’s shifting attitude as he delivers them – ranging from indignation to incredulity – are spot on. He’s somehow providing all of the comedic punch as the butt of the joke without losing his dignity in the process, a con-man who’s used to being picked-up by the law but who is equally adept at getting off the hook no matter how dire the circumstances may appear.

With such a great centerpiece in Good Morning Judge the band just needs to stay upright to carry this home and they more than do their part, adding hand-claps to bolster the drummer’s rhythm and augment the subtle piano behind it. The riffing horns skillfully rise and fall in between the stanzas, bursting into the foreground with an alarming in your face blast that conveys the seriousness of his situation before winding back down as he tap dances his way out of trouble yet again.

Thirty years before music videos took over the rock world Wynonie Harris shows you don’t need them to create a vibrant scene, all you need to do here is close your eyes and envision him – smirking, shifty-eyed and snarky, yet somehow still ebullient in the face of impending doom – and your imagination will do the rest.
 

I’ll Die Right Here In Jail
Truth be told the legend of Wynonie Harris in early rock circles might actually be a bit out-sized compared to the sum total of the records themselves.

It’s not that he wasn’t a tremendously influential artist whose bravado (both on stage and on record) helped to define rock’s eternal image, but upon closer inspection his output was slightly more hit or miss than his reputation would suggest.

But that reputation had to be built on something strong enough to hold the weight of that image and while this isn’t his most important record by a long shot, Good Morning Judge might very well be the most enjoyable of his big hits and certainly the one which is most emblematic of his unique real-life charms.

This is the Wynonie Harris we all picture in our heads, the guy who crosses every line of decorum laid out before him, yet who does so not with any maliciousness but rather with an unquenchable zest for life, lust and laughs.

No doubt there will be some in the jury box who look down on this type of behavior and feel there’s no room in a civilized society for people like him and think the judge should throw the book at Harris so we can be rid of his kind once and for all.

But if you caught yourself smiling at his antics during the trial and chuckling at his bravado as he pleaded his case then you have no choice but to vote not to convict him of these charges.

Case dismissed.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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