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KING 4210; FEBRUARY, 1948

 
 

 

And so begins Chapter Two in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Scriptures.

The six months from September, 1947 to February, 1948 that comprised Chapter One was like a quite a few first chapters of expansive novels where the purpose was merely to set the scene, establish some of the characters and offer a couple plot threads to pull later on when the action begins to pick up, the direction gets underway and the atmosphere becomes clearer. However many a good book has been put down after Chapter One only to never be picked up again as the reader wasn’t quite hooked yet and subsequently moved on to other – seemingly more interesting – pursuits.

But if you can get the reader to start the second chapter and the story suddenly shifts the momentum into a higher gear, introduces a compelling new element to the proceedings and creates some conflict while you’re at it, chances are you’ll have them riveted, at least enough to keep picking it up to find out what happens next.

Rock ‘n’ roll was about to do just that and the book they were writing was about to leap onto the best seller list, literally as well as figuratively.
 

Have You Heard Yesterday’s News?
We’ve already met the primary characters in this subplot of rock’s early days, but for those who skipped ahead, or who haven’t bothered taking notes along the way, the basics are as follows: Wynonie Harris was a fairly well-established singer with a leather lunged style, an irascible bawdy charm and a notorious reputation as a hell raiser and roustabout.

He’d scored big out of the gate with a hit fronting Lucky Millinder’s band back in 1945 and went out on his own, attempting to establish himself further under his own name and did so early on with two additional smaller hits. Things seemed to be shaping up well, his grand ambitions starting to come true it would seem but it didn’t quite last. Oh, he was successful enough to always have a recording contract and to fill clubs with his appearances, all while selling a few records by trying out a variety of approaches over the next two years, but though widely known he wasn’t quite a star and for Wynonie Harris, who had the ego of a supernova that would dwarf any mere star, that lack of universal acclaim had to be galling.

Roy Brown had been one of Harris’s most ardent admirers, a versatile young nightclub singer in his own right who had written a song that had changed his fortunes dramatically. After offering it to Harris who haughtily turned it down, Brown got the chance to cut it himself and became a budding star in his own right, soon even surpassing the commercially slumping Harris in the process.

The song in question of course was Good Rocking Tonight, a rousing call to arms that created an entirely new genre of music when released in September 1947, one celebrating the emerging freedoms of the post-war black community, perfectly reflecting its restless urgency and diverse individualism, all striving for a common goal – to be heard, to be respected, and to be accepted on their own terms.

The cultural and musical ground had thus shifted fairly suddenly and for all involved, Brown, Harris and the generation coming of age at the time alike, the dominant creative and commercial force musically going forward would now be rock ‘n’ roll. How each responded to that new frontier would be the question they’d all have to answer soon enough or risk being left behind if this musical style succeeded without their further notable input.

So now that we’re all up to date, at least on the background to this particular plot thread, we can start pulling those threads together and get fully into Chapter Two which is where rock’s story really takes off.
 

Dateline: December 1947, Cincinnati, Ohio
With the musician’s union recording ban set to begin as 1948 was ushered in, record companies furtively brought in their artists to record as much material as possible in an attempt to outlast the strike and keep releasing “new” records for the foreseeable future.

For Harris this was even more crucial because he had just signed with King Records that same month, already his fifth company since breaking away from Millinder. The first of those stops, Apollo Records, had resulted in two moderate hits and Harris had seemed on his way to glory, but each move since had seen him taking a step backwards in terms of commercial success and recognition and by this point maybe even the megalomaniacal Harris might’ve been getting worried about his chances at ever truly breaking through. How many chances does one get after all?

He wasn’t quite at that point yet, obviously.

King Records was a growing power in the independent field, so their faith in signing Harris certainly would hold him in good stead for awhile at least. But with the recording ban looming they’d have just a month upon bringing him into the fold to get a solid array of songs in the can for before all of their sessions had to shut down for who knows how long.

So for all involved trying to discern what might sell, not just for Harris but in ALL styles going forward, was pretty much a crap-shoot. To hedge their bets they needed to try everything, then back up each of those experiments with more of the same in case one broke out, and hope for the best.

What Wynonie Harris himself was thinking during all of this when he was told to cut the song he’d self-assuredly turned down the previous summer, only to hear it connect with audiences like none of his own sides had in quite awhile, isn’t known. Like most rock artists from that era they weren’t asked for their insights on such matters, at the time or in the future, but even if he had been I’m sure Wynonie would’ve lied anyway just to keep up the bravado.

But if he was human there had to be at least some tinge of ironic regret over his fateful decision months earlier running through his mind as he stepped to the microphone December 28, 1947 to lay down a song he’d already rejected just before it had tilted the music world on its axis.

If so, you’d never know by the sounds of it.
 

 

Have You Heard The LATEST News?
It’s impossible NOT to compare Harris’s Good Rockin’ Tonight to Brown’s, so inextricably are they tied to one another and to the history they were in the process of irrevocably shifting.

Right away there’s two striking differences between his and Roy’s from a few months earlier (three if you count the dropped “g” in Rockin’ on the title of Wynonie’s version) and the changes made in this rendition are crucial in solidifying the musical direction all of rock would soon take.

The first is how they’ve already pinpointed the horns as the weak spot of Roy’s effort and have taken steps to remedy that here. Whereas Brown relied on a more sedate big-band rooted horn section featuring the trumpet as the most notable instrument (the band he was assigned in the studio it needs to be pointed out, was not his own), Harris has brought in two heavy hitters on tenor sax to significantly bolster the sound. Tom Archia and Hal Singer provide the muscle in this arrangement and the trumpet is reduced to a squawking, though effective, responsive voice in the intro.

The effect of this change is considerable, as Singer’s gutsy solo after the first chorus takes the song even further into the alley, where fast men and loose women make their connections over a dice game, a shared bottle or a passed around joint.

It’s a dirty sound, rough and ready for action, emboldening the listener by its mere presence. Even Wynonie’s ad-libbed exclamation “Rock, Oklahoma, rock!”, which was Harris’s nickname for the Oklahoman Singer, adds to this boisterous spirit and the solo which follows gives this version a more ominous veil of danger that makes it seem as though you’ve crossed to the other side of the tracks at last and are risking something merely by listening.

But as welcome as that change is, as much sizzle it adds to the steak, it’s the other change that has an even more galvanizing effect, as the insistent backbeat they’ve added thrusts this firmly into the future and as such provides rock with another of its cornerstones heading forward.

Though emphasized by hand-claps rather than the drums, they’re forceful and omnipresent giving the song a constant propulsion, a relentless energy that was slightly lacking in Brown’s version, as well as imparting the record with an even greater communal spirit that the music would forever thrive on. That, combined with the drums and the doubling of the bass line by the piano and upright bass, give this a heavy bottom it rides throughout. It feels as if it’s headed someplace dangerous, but most crucially it feels as if you’re compelled to come along – destination unknown – for fear of being left out of the festivities if you don’t.

It’s easy to underestimate that last part of the equation but it was vital in establishing the spirit of the music with the public. Rock music is nothing if not a shared journey into undiscovered lands by those willing to cast aside their apprehensions and leave the safety of the familiar surroundings behind while in search of something even more exciting over the horizon. The music here does just that, giving you the courage and the enthusiasm to leap BEFORE you look and to do so with utter confidence that you’ll land safely on the other side.
 

 

Everybody’s Gonna Rock Tonight
Harris does his part to establish the swaggering attitude that would become rock’s calling card as well, though truthfully he’d probably take the same approach singing a gentle lullaby to an infant.

He’s got a much more limited voice than Brown, but whereas Roy sounded excessively mannered at times on his record, either unsure of how to project himself, or perhaps feeling constrained by the band or just simply nervous stepping to the mic in a studio for the first time to cut a record, the experienced Wynonie is never anything but relaxed and confident in his delivery, a little laid back even rather than urgent, but confident as can be now that he’s firmly in the driver’s seat.

The whole thing sounds loose and off-the-cuff, and considering the circumstances of the recording it probably was. After all he was cutting a ton of songs as the clock wound down on 1947, surely with hastily organized arrangements and maybe just a quick scan of the lyrics.

He clearly stumbles in that regard, whether simply losing his place on the lead sheet or having “memorized” them too quickly, but just as quickly as he forgets the written lyrics he hastily injects his own roll call of attendees at this drunken soirée, ad-libbing some recent big names of song – “Sioux City Sue” for one, which was a huge pop hit for Dick Thomas in 1946 and she sure wasn’t invited to Roy Brown’s version of this shindig – but Harris manages to even pull this off with aplomb, picking up his own obvious fumble and running the ball into the end zone, and in music, as in life, oftentimes it’s the broken plays that are the most successful and memorable.

Harris’s cock-sureness throughout makes the end result all the more rewarding. Whereas Brown gave the impression that he was in the process of inviting guests to the party he was describing, then making sure everyone arriving was ushered in with complimentary drinks as he played the good host, Harris by contrast sounds like he’s hip-deep in the ongoing festivities from the beginning, half in the bag already, the booze or weed having already entered his bloodstream, not to mention worn down from whatever X-rated activities he was enjoying behind the barn.

The difference I suppose is merely experience. Brown, the novice, was more worried about the party coming off without a hitch and making sure his guests were having fun, whereas Harris, who’s been around the block a few times, knows full-well that once everyone is there the party will take care of itself and so his only concern is how much fun HE’S having. By the sounds of it he enjoyed every last second and by the end Harris is lustily shouting along with the music as it fades out, one of the first examples of a record employing such a trick rather than the ending abruptly cutting off, and because of that you can actually envision the party going on for hours more until everyone is either passed out or locked in jail.
 

 

Everything about this record is vibrant, alive in a way that is far more authentic than the staged artifice that most music of the day was wrapped in. The horns here are raucous, the breaks are exquisitely well-timed, from the drum kicks to the sax solos each one punctuating the mood brilliantly, all while the hand-claps and piano pulls everybody along willingly on the road to perdition.

With Good Rockin’ Tonight the doors to the blast furnace are ripped from their hinges and in one fell swoop the tentative rock narrative suddenly becomes set. That it happens with the exact same song that began this whole story makes it seem more premeditated than serendipitous, almost as if rock ‘n’ roll had some guardian angel looking out for it from the start.

Maybe it was a little risky to give the keys to a carousing reprobate like Wynonie Harris but one thing was certain, with him at the wheel the party’s in full swing, everybody’s juiced and having a good time and Harris always makes you feel welcome to join them in their wayward pursuits.

Plenty did.
 

We Got The News!
This was rock’s formal invitation to the masses. Within a few months Good Rockin’ Tonight would be sitting a top of the charts, not simply the most popular record of the current ever shifting landscape at the time, but the clarion call for more of the same.

From the moment that Roy Brown cut the original version of this song rock ‘n’ roll existed in the ether, but was still something like a bit of gossip floating on the wind – tangible, but elusive.

A rumor if you will.

Other artists knew of it, were intrigued by it, were clearly inclined to follow it and see where it might lead, but the general public, that often mysterious mass audience whose collective tastes would ultimately have the final say as to whether the style became firmly established or not, were cautiously waiting to be fully convinced of its veracity before throwing their fates in with the music.

With this record Harris sprung that music from its confines on the margins once and for all. Freed from bondage, there was no turning back anymore.

Rock ‘n’ roll had broken loose. We were all accomplices now.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Roy Brown (September, 1947)