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ALADDIN 208; FEBRUARY, 1948

 
 

 

One step forward and two steps back.

That term usually describes a stylistic advance and subsequent retreat, but this in this case it’s describing the circumstances of releases that Harris had issued under his name.

Last month saw his first release on King Records – Wynonie’s Boogie backed with Rose, Get Your Clothes – fail to connect with audiences. That would lead most to assume, upon seeing this title so soon after, that they quickly rushed out something else as often happened in those days when new records by artists were frequently released on the heels of one another when the first didn’t arouse immediate interest.

But that’s not the case here.

No, this one comes from Aladdin Records, the previous stop on the Wynonie Harris tour of American Recording Companies. Yet while this was actually cut prior to his first side for King that was spotlighted here last month, Hard Ridin’ Mama sounds a step or two ahead of that record and serves as a much better bridge to what would be his next King release that would take him into what passes for immortality in the music biz.

Go figure.
 

Don’t Ride Too Fast, Don’t Ride Too Slow
As stated before when discussing Harris, he was a shaping up to be a very serviceable journeyman singer, someone who could inject some life into most any song and who brought a very palpable sense of excitement (some might say danger, menace or mayhem and who am I to argue?), to any stage he walked out on, regardless of what band he was employed that evening to front.

But Harris was in many ways limited in what he offered beyond that. He wasn’t a crooner, so love songs were out. He couldn’t pull off “forlorn”, so any type of lament had to be cast from his repertoire too. He’d be billed under the Mr. Blues moniker but he was far too spry and restless for blues songs that were, well… BLUE. Though he had a voice that could cut through the thickest fog he needed sympathetic backing to wield that power properly. If they played it too straight he’d be hamstrung, but if they cut loose and got too undisciplined themselves his penchant for losing the melody would lead to disaster.

Now add into the mix his legendary combative persona, both on and off stage, where unlike most successful singers in his realm who allowed themselves to be subjugated to the bandleader’s arrangements and artistic vision for the good of the outfit, Harris always yearned to dominate the spotlight and had the charisma and vocal power to do so… if only the right material could be found.

That’s always the million dollar quest for any artist. But if ever a singer needed rock ‘n’ roll itself to be invented – if only to give himself the platform he craved – it was undoubtedly Wynonie Harris.
 


 

Ain’t Nobody Nowhere In This Land
There are not enough adjectives in the English language to convey the scope of Harris’s ego but needless to say he would not be content to ever take a back seat to other artists, or to the song he injected his persona into for that matter. He had always been at his best when allowed to let his freewheeling nature to assert itself on record and boast about some aspect of himself in anything but modest terms. Though everything about his career was timed perfectly for the advent of rock ‘n’ roll Harris was actually a half century before his time in a way, as hip-hop was absolutely made for him, his cadence heavy delivery and his overall swagger, but I digress.

The songs he’d done dating back to 1945 had been inching their way towards what would emerge as rock but had yet to fully leap into it, if only because rock itself was still busy gestating in the test tubes of many mad musical anarchists. Cut in the summer of 1947 Hard Ridin’ Mama might have been the story of its conception, because it’s sure not a story for the kiddies matinee.

So it’s sad to report that (once again!) the horns that kick it off and provide the most prominent backing throughout ultimately wind up betraying its message and undermining its effectiveness. It bears repeating (I know, I know, we KEEP repeating!) that the shift in the approach of the dominant horn section is where, musically speaking, rock fully broke free of its moorings and set sail on its own to the new world over the horizon.

This particular ship, as much as its captain Harris would like to steer it in that direction, is still fastened to the dock as a result. But he bears down hard on the rudder anyway, hoping to tear loose somehow all the same. He won’t, at least not here, but before the boat sinks make sure to check out the show up on the deck they’re playing for the passengers.

If you’re over eighteen that is.
 

 
 

Ride! Ride! Ride, Baby!
I’m going to assume that you all are, and if not we won’t be be checking ID’s here, but suffice it to say what this mama is riding doesn’t come with wheels nor is it found in a stable. You shouldn’t need any further explanation but what the hell, the lines are too good to let go to waste.

She don’t use no saddle and she don’t need no guiding lines
She’s a rough riding mama and she treats my pony fine

You get the idea I’m sure and if not, well, before your mommy comes to tuck you in bed for the night you can go right on believing that this quaint little scene you see here is exactly what he’s so enthusiastically describing. Nighty-night, kiddies.

Ok, now that the children are out of the room we can get down to the real story that had those at Aladdin Records optimistic that this might be the song to break Harris’s recent – and now quite prolonged – sales slump, for if anyone was equipped to sing about such a lewd subject crammed with as many off-color euphemisms that could fit in two and a half minutes it was surely Wynonie Harris.
 

Just Don’t Seem To Care
Its racy lyrics aside, what really sets this apart is the gleeful abandon that Harris sings with, as if his err, um… “pony” really is going for a ride, not sometime in the near future mind you, but actually AS he’s singing (and from the many ribald stories on Wynonie, while that may have been theoretically unlikely, it’s a pretty safe bet that the microphone was barely switched off before he was going at it with the secretary in a broom closet or getting it on with some saucy passer by who caught his eye strolling by the studio window). Certainly at the very least he was at least looking forward to just such an assignation with one – and probably several more – young ladies as he was singing and that enthusiasm is evident throughout the song and heightens the record’s excitement considerably.

Because of this fact, he – and Aladdin Records for that matter – surely knew this wouldn’t get any airplay, not that there was much in the way of radio outlets for any type of early rock anyway, but what they were hoping for was to catch some action in juke joints which is where most hits of the day originated.

Yet although it’s racy it wasn’t really dirty enough to generate that kind of “must-hear” word of mouth buzz that could propel it into the best sellers list, and while Harris’s vocals do their best to convey a sense of exhilaration at the act itself it’s still hampered by the uninspired sessionists going through the motions, who by the sounds of it haven’t even seen a stag show or gotten past first base with a lady themselves, let alone enjoyed the type of bedspring Olympics Harris is crowing about.

Worse still is a chanted chorus delivered by uninterested backing vocalists that wears out its welcome mid way through its first appearance, only to be brought back for more of the same another three dozen or so times by the end of the two and a half minute opus. Were their mothers in the room as they sang this forcing them to hold back on showing any genuine enthusiasm of their own?!?!?

Talk about being overwhelmed by mediocrity, Harris could’ve filed suit for non-support.

As a result the record’s a curiosity rather than a revelation. A touchstone to a future landmark but not a cornerstone of said building. The right idea, but the wrong setting.

He couldn’t have known it of course but what he’d need was right around the next bend if only he kept going in this direction. Oftentimes, particularly when the commercial interests override the artistic impulses, music people see dead ends and turn back too soon. Yet as noted rock ‘n’ roll fan Thomas Edison once said, “Many of life’s failures were people who didn’t realize how close they were to success when they gave up”.

Thankfully Wynonie didn’t give up and as we’ll see with his next release that was a decision for which we can all be eternally grateful.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page on 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:
 
Manhattan Paul December, 1948)