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KING 4276; FEBRUARY 1949

 
 

 

At last the long intermission in the career arc of Wynonie Harris is over. Let the celebration begin!

Twelve months had passed since he’d done a clutch of sessions for King Records upon signing with them in December, 1947, right before the confounded recording ban went into effect January 1st 1948. They’d frantically cut sides right to the end, four sessions in a three week span, squeezed in between the sessions they were holding for all of their other artists no less. It’s a safe bet that the lights weren’t shut off a single time in the studio that entire month.

For Harris the time spent in the those confines would be all the more important because he was at a career crossroads and it was no sure bet that he’d wind up on the right path, headed back to civilization (and the Billboard charts). In fact based on his recent output for a handful of other labels the odds were decidedly against it.

Go back to our review for Big City Blues to see just what his best efforts were getting him at the time. If that had kept up much longer he’d have been lucky to get a job delivering singing telegrams for Western Union out in the sticks somewhere.

But rock ‘n’ roll had offered potential salvation for wayward souls such as Harris. A brand new style of music featuring the type of no-holds barred vocal delivery on mostly uptempo songs that often were of a risqué nature and a style which most importantly was still waiting for their first potential superstar to emerge after Roy Brown launched this whole thing to begin with back in September 1947. Not for nothing it was Brown as we all know who had in fact not only been inspired by Harris when starting out as a singer, but also had offered Wynonie the first rock song which numbskull Harris haughtily turned down.

So much for answering the door when opportunity comes knocking.
 

Look At All The Price Tags
When King Records, an already successful independent label in both country and more mainstream pre-rock black styles, wanted to expand their roster they grabbed the readily available Harris based in large part to his past hit-making run which by this point was a few years old. They were promptly rewarded for their faith by having the big lummox get drunk at his first TWO recording sessions and fighting with the bands assigned to back him (the first group refused to come back for a second round with the obnoxious lout, while a member of the second pulled a gun on him to keep him at bay… needless to say nothing of much value musically came from these two sessions).

But then the last two dates of the year Harris pulled himself together and backed with the best studio pros in the vicinity – Hal Singer and Tom Archia on saxes leading the charge – the results of these efforts included only the most monumental single to date in rock’s brief lifespan, the very song Harris had turned down when offered by Roy Brown which became rock’s chart topper and stylistic template for much of what followed.

Talk about hitting the lottery!

Yet because it was cut at his final session before the ban started there was little else in that same vein. The closest record was in fact a cover of the flip-side of Brown’s original record that kicked off this whole thing and that too charted for Harris who became the hottest vocalist in rock ‘n’ roll during much of 1948… yet while he was sitting on his newfound throne the crown was in the process of being knocked from his head… by HIS OWN RECORD COMPANY!

King Records were the one (and perhaps only) indie label in the business who strictly adhered to the infernal musician’s strike, not having their artists break the ban despite the fact they were now falling behind the curve with their leftover material from the waning days of 1947 that was being released well into the fall while their competitors were churning out records recently cut under darkness of night that were improving upon the formula and being amply rewarded for it with hits of their own.

During all of this Wynonie Harris was sitting on the sidelines, his momentum atrophying.
 

 

We Found Out
I know, I know, if you’ve been with us from the start here on Spontaneous Lunacy and faithfully reading each and every review in order (there’s still time if you haven’t, we’ll wait for you to catch up) you know all this already. But that’s one of the unfortunate features of lengthy intermissions, when you return from it the producers feel the need to catch you up on everything again. Consider that task accomplished now.

So we can finally start looking forward rather than backwards with Harris at long last.

Needless to say there was a LOT riding on their first release of new material now that the ban was over. Harris’s breakthrough was already a year old by the time this release would hit the streets and show if Harris and company were poised to lead rock music into the future or if they’d be left to follow the lead of others after their long layoff.

Though the following information would’ve been largely unavailable for rock fans in 1949 we have the ability to look at the session logs and see that King was at least taking this problem seriously, having booked Hal Singer, who’d played such a crucial role on Harris’s hits, to once again handle the tenor sax chores. This was all the more notable for the fact that in the time since he’d last entered the studio with Wynonie, he himself had cut one transformative illegal session as a featured performer for Savoy Records and came away with one of the biggest rock hits of 1948 with the instrumental scorcher Cornbread.

His presence on this December 1948 session therefore either spoke well of his relationship with Harris or it indicated King’s Syd Nathan was opening up his notoriously tight checkbook to make it worth Singer’s while to make a re-appearance.

The other sax belter from the year before however, Tom Archia, is not in attendance but he’s been replaced by Frank “Floorshow” Culley, whom we met for the first time back in October 1948 and who would soon make waves himself as a featured act for Atlantic.

All of this at least shows they were banking on some heavy hitters to supplement Harris in the lineup and considering in the past, specifically some leftover sides for Aladdin, we remember him being done in by subpar support, so this definitely bodes well for his chances at reclaiming his throne.

The material though is the all-important other side of the equation. We’ve seen Harris working with quality musicians at King, the aforementioned Singer and Archia in fact, and coming up with results that were merely adequate due to a few haphazard songs they were offering. Here, on the surface anyway, that would look to be taken care of as well, having learned their lesson on the type of content his audience expected and which Harris himself excelled at delivering – crude and suggestive yet delivered with a bemused smirk.

True to form it doesn’t take much time to guess that Grandma Plays The Numbers is cut from that same cloth, giving Harris the platform to be the ringmaster for some bawdy jokes or some titillating revelations.

Unfortunately the title is about the extent of the creativity in terms of songwriting.
 

 
 

Three-Six-Nine?
The song uses the audience’s first-hand awareness of the numbers game, which was prominent in any and every community who’d be listening to rock music in the 1940’s and which we covered in a bit more detail last month on Jimmy Preston’s Numbers Blues, and hoped their own experiences with this fact of urban life would be enough to draw interest, which it most assuredly did. Grandma Plays The Numbers spent a month and a half on the charts, hitting #7, so King Records were rewarded for rather shallowly pandering to their constituency.

But whether the song itself was worthy of that attention was another matter.

For starters its storyline is virtually non-existent. There’s an awkward set-up in which others, presumably band members, offer the supposedly juicy gossip about this old lady who bets her milk money or laundry funds in an attempt to hit it big each week. The revelation itself, the idea that someone old and feeble is imbibing in this vice is apparently meant to be something of a shocker, except in REAL life it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow of anybody familiar with the type of clientele who were attracted to this game of chance.

In fact grandmothers were just as complicit in the popularity of the numbers game as anybody else, maybe even more so, because the way the game was designed it had the appearance of a harmless little wager, like a penny a point in gin rummy or playing bingo at the church in the hopes of winning five dollars.

So the “joke” isn’t actually funny, because for it to be funny it’d have to be something completely unexpected and outlandish. Maybe if Grandma also was having a kinky affair with the pastor of a church while selling tickets to underage boys to watch and learn the facts of life in the process, THAT might be shocking enough to pull this song off (and I’m sure Harris would be more than happy to crow about that one if given the chance!), but THIS plot has not a single twist to it worth mentioning. In fact, there’s no lyrics to speak of beyond the news of her placing her bets, as after the disclosure itself Harris mainly just repeats the same information ad nauseum for the next two minutes for anyone who wasn’t paying attention.

For a topic so rich with possibilities this has to be one of the single biggest let-downs we’ve come across to date in rock.
 

Thinks About ‘Em Every Day, Dreams About ‘Em Every Night
So chart success aside you’re probably thinking this was an utter failure in every way and surely would mark the start of Harris’s downfall as a viable recording artist. That’s a scenario that’s not hard to envision after all, as you could easily dismiss his scoring with Good Rockin’ Tonight as merely a case of perfect timing. Then chalk up his follow-up hit as being nothing more than the inevitable coattail riding and now, with those unique circumstances over and done with, Harris would return to the same kind of underwhelming records that marked his long draught of 1946 and ’47.

Think again, for while the topic of Grandma Plays The Numbers is decidedly shallow and the lyrics range from simplistic to non-existent the performance is another matter altogether. Harris sounds positively liberated to be back in front of a microphone in a studio again, aching to get back in the spotlight at last and does all he can to salvage this and make you think on first listen that, yes, this is possibly a great record.

Of course Harris was well-known for giving his all each time he stepped to the mic even if sometimes, when drunk and disorderly, the results were less than stellar his effort itself could rarely be called into question. But here he seems to take it to another level, the sheer gusto in his voice is intoxicating, making WHAT he’s singing about far less important than merely HOW he’s singing it, or shouting it as it were.

He unleashes the song in an energetic full-throated roar from start to finish, yet still is able to drop down to sell the casual asides the song was calling on him for (not that those work on paper at all) without missing a beat. As has been mentioned before when discussing Wynonie Harris he was never the best singer all things considered, in fact he was decidedly limited with his particular skill set. But when he was locked in fully on a song that was constructed to take advantage of precisely what he did so well the results were always invigorating to say the least.

True to form Harris wins you over here with nothing more than his infectious enthusiasm for it all, the back and forth exchange with the other voices acting as the Greek chorus being particularly winning in that regard. It just SOUNDS like a hit record and in fact as much as I focus on lyrics and am always talking about their importance here’s a case where you almost wish you didn’t understand English because then this record would be flirting with perfection by the performance alone.

The backing that Singer, Culley and company provide is up to the task for the most part as well, with Singer delivering a sultry into before being joined by Culley (on alto, not his usual tenor) on a grinding riff under the first verses. The piano propels the song with a solid left hand while the one thing that clearly shows they paid attention to the events of the past year is the way the drums are emphasized locking down the backbeat.

All good stuff and all signs that one and all were not content to rest on their laurels from last year but were eager to jump back to the front of the parade as we march forward.
 

 

Now We Know
But as we know it’s never ONLY the good, or only the bad for that matter, that determines a record’s true value but rather how they balance out and here, despite the fact that we love hearing Wynonie’s loud and lusty voice spitting fire again, the song itself is far too flimsy to have that be completely overlooked. Though the band is generally solid they too have some weaker moments, relying too much on the trumpet during a massed horn solo, while the hokey nature of the other voices makes this sound more like a novelty song than the record that would re-establish Harris as rock’s leading practitioner.

I’m sure there will be many, most even, who are avowed fans of Harris who will focus on the many positives and following a string of subpar outings from him will simply be elated to have him back cutting contemporary sounding material with a stellar band. So am I. But that’s not enough – it never is – for once the excitement of the circumstances wear off we’re left with a song that has nothing BUT Harris’s grit and determination going for it and he has to dig deep just to make it more enjoyable than frustrating.

It is that for sure, enjoyable that is, but it’s not great as much as it is merely serviceable.

We’re all glad he’s back, delighted that they’ve got him steered in the right direction and put a solid band behind him, but once you listen closer it’s not hard to tell that – with this record anyway – his numbers still haven’t come in.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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