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KING 4276; FEBRUARY 1949

 
 

 

As those who read yesterday’s review of Wynonie Harris’s “comeback” (???), or let’s just say his return to active duty, the audience was as eager to hear from him again as he was to perform for them and despite the rather flimsy song that marked the occasion it would wind up getting him a Top Ten hit and ensuring that he remained in the running for the pole position in the rock race that was heating up.

But unlike last spring when Good Rockin’ Tonight, and to a lesser degree Lollipop Mama, had him well out in front of the pack, he’s since been joined by a number of heavy hitters just coming into their own and now the competition was heating up. For someone as notoriously inconsistent as Harris could be at times it was imperative that he not take too many wrong steps if he wanted to keep up with the Joneses… not to mention the Browns and the Milburns.
 

 
I’ve Been Around Too Many Years
The first challenge to his tenuous spot on rock’s throne was the originator of both of those songs Harris scored with, namely Roy Brown, who’d notched his own #1 hit recently and was currently riding two Top Ten hits himself with his latest release. Considering that Roy was far more stylistically diverse and had been the originator of rock ‘n’ roll itself, at least as a musical and cultural movement, then he had to be considered the artist with perhaps the best odds to wind up the King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll, especially since now Harris would no longer be able to cover Roy’s songs to get himself hits.

But they weren’t alone for this race to the top of the heap, as Amos Milburn, perhaps the most all-around talented figure among solo rock artists, was making his own belated move on the front-runners. Though he took longer to make a connection with the broader audience than either Brown or Harris, unlike them he had yet to release anything that could be called even slightly below average, whereas the other two had – for lack of a better phrase – crapped the bed on occasion.

Once he found the key that fit the rock fans heart Milburn’s rise had come seemingly overnight, scoring back to back #1 hits after the leaves turned colors in the fall. As of the winter of 1949 he, not Roy Brown and not Wynonie Harris for that matter, was positioned as the leader of the pack.

Thanks to these constantly shifting standings it was definitely still a three man race and there were a few other dark horses stalking them from the outside, guys like Ivory Joe Hunter, Andrew Tibbs and if you wanted to open the race to ALL competitors then The Ravens, The Orioles and a bunch of boorish saxophonists (Paul Williams, Hal Singer, Wild Bill Moore to name three, with Big Jay McNeely poised to join them) and one or two pianists in Sonny Thompson and Todd Rhodes to also consider as viable challengers.

In other words, despite there being a few early line favorites it was still a deep field with a lot of race left to run now that the track was open for business again following the recording ban’s thankful cessation. The standings to date had all been determined based on records that were either slightly more than a year old, or in a few cases, songs cut on the cuff during the ban, which unless the racing commission was going to come down hard on the offenders, wasn’t going to effect their positions going forward.

Thus it was imperative for an experienced thoroughbred such as Wynonie Harris, who was probably already commanding a hefty fee to be put out to stud (not to mention enjoying that role immensely), to get back into shape and shake off the rust rather quickly if he wanted to add to his career winnings.

Though he would finish in the money with the B-side of this single, Grandma Plays The Numbers, it wasn’t his best performance by a long shot and there was a good chance that the results were due as much to the audience being anxious to hear what he was up to as it was the rather modest appeal of the record itself.

In the past Harris’s releases had clearly placed their bets solidly on one side with little (and sometimes NO) money being laid on the flips, but at this stage of the game with the competition heating up he’d need to back each side with an equally strong effort so as not to risk falling too far behind should someone else start opening up a lead in the next turn.
 

 

I Can Tell By The Look
Harris, more than any other artist of the 1940’s, was someone whose reputation as a larger than life character fueled his record’s appeal. He was someone who lived life to the fullest and those citizens at any stop he made on tour wouldn’t have to be told he was in town, they’d know it simply by the hoopla that surrounded him… often of his own making.

That was a good part of his draw. He acted like a star, even when he’d been at his lowest before rock ‘n’ roll revived his fortunes he never was allowed himself to be seen as less than a big wheel when he rolled into town. Drink, dancing, dames… you name it, he nailed it (and her sister) before the first night was half over.

As such the songs he sung oftentimes acted as either advance notice as to his reputation or they served as a confirmation of his notorious deeds after the fact. Thus the business of selling songs with titles such as Hard Ridin’ Mama and Blow Your Brains Out was largely already accomplished by simply having HIS name appear on the labels. Surely those with even passing awareness of Wynonie Harris would be curious enough to hear what hell-raising antics he’d been up to and would lay out the cash to find out for themselves firsthand.

That’s why a song with a title that suggests this same tireless alley cat with his whiskers in each of the neighborhood pussies (…cats! C’mon people, you’d think I was as bad as Wynonie the way you jump to the most salacious conclusion!) was somehow slowing down, nearing the end of the line, ready for the retirement home for over-the-hill rockers destined for a rocking chair rather than gearing up for another romp around the town would be something that would be uninteresting at best, counterproductive at worst.

But no, I Feel That Old Age Coming On winds up serving notice that Harris the SINGER was anything but over the hill, because this might just be his best vocal performance to date… yeah, including THAT one!
 

 
 

Gotta Find Out What The Doctor Can Do
One of the downfalls to being someone whose reputation precedes him was that Harris might’ve felt compelled to try and live up to those headlines in everything he sung. The fact he was so boastful in real life certainly meant this was no mere publicist’s image that was dreamed up to sell his wares to the public, but the fact remains that when scanning his back catalog the type of material he was most often called upon to perform placed him squarely in the realm of the cocksure braggadocio.

He played this role to the hilt but when the song itself wasn’t up to his standards then his over the top take no prisoners attitude would only make that failure all the more noticeable. Yet on the rare occasion he got a song that allowed him to ease off the self-aggrandizement the results were often among his most sublime performances.

You Better Get Yourself A Job Girl from the previous winter was a good example of this, for while his own persona remained intact it was turned on its head by a female protagonist who was certainly getting the better of him in the story, much to his frustration.

But on I Feel That Old Age Coming On they do that one better by purposefully deflating Harris’s ego to play a role he was unaccustomed to, that of a guy whose once mighty sex drive was running on fumes. Of somebody who’d been atop the world at one point and was starting to be passed by.

Harris himself wrote this and it shows a startling amount of self-realization as to his ultimate fate, an eerie portend of his future when the ravages of time have eroded his strength and robbed him of his swagger. Hearing about how those final years of Harris in the 1960’s, his voice shot, his money spent, his fame gone brings to mind the words of Marlene Dietrich’s fortune teller in Touch Of Evil when asked by a similarly spent Orson Wells to tell him his future – “You haven’t got any. Your future is all used up”.

Although that real life outcome was still years away for Harris, it makes this almost bittersweet as you know when he was singing this Wynonie never for a minute thought it’d ever really play out this way. But then again who among us does?
 

I Would If I Could
As for the song itself, it’s an amazing transformation to witness as he does wonders with the rueful sentiments, not so much altering his leather-lunged approach but instead imbuing it with a sense of resignation at the end of each line, his bluster snatched from him until all he has left is the reality staring back at him from the mirror as he admits his diminished prowess in ways we never thought possible in the past.

Really the song is less an autobiographical lament (remember, this outcome was nowhere close to being reality for him yet) as it is merely a series of vignettes all loosely related to the theme of aging and slowing down after a life in the fast lane. His girl is running around with other men and even though none of them satisfy her she’s not going to quit looking because Harris’s is no longer fitting the bill in that regard either – something unthinkable from the man with the perpetual hard-on in all of his songs.

At each turn here his attempts to reclaim her for his own gets met with signs of his mortality. Harris is the one reduced here to the worried partner “pacing the floor” while his woman attempts to replace him. He winds up in the doctor’s office (surely cursing that Viagra will only be on the market three decades after his death) and then offers up a last ditch attempt to marry this girl only to have her scoff at him with a put-down that questions his very manhood.

Throughout all of this Harris never steps wrong. While each line starts off full of vigor, like the character he is called on to embody, he runs out of steam before the action reaches its climax by design, leaving his character humbled, frustrated and embarrassed.

Wynonie Harris, once the mightiest rooster in the barnyard, is now offered up as a henpecked bird plucked of his feathers. Who’d have thunk it?
 

 

I suppose I could criticize the trumpet-centric arrangement at times here, especially considering the powerhouses on saxophone (Hal Singer and Frank Culley) that were on the session and delivered a squealing torrid performance during the first break only to have the trumpet barge in on the second which DOES drag it down a bit, ending this with its weakest moments, but even this decision seems to fit with the overall theme. The trumpet style of the 1940’s that seemed so hard to shake when they attempted to use the instrument in rock ‘n’ roll, is appropriate for what they’re trying to convey – someone whose heyday is well behind them. I doubt they intended it that way but it works all the same, the squawking in the break towards the end a fitting conclusion for the overall theme.
 

I’ll Make You Happy
It’s certainly not what you’d expect – as a record its theme isn’t the most likely fit in rock, a style who was growing progressively STRONGER each time out and thus not inclined to show even a hint of weakness, and these are never the sentiments you’d think to hear expressed by Wynonie Harris, a man for whom the word confidence was invented, but maybe because of these unexpected wrinkles it winds up with a bigger impact.

As we listen to the changed inflections of Harris we look deeper into the mindset he’s asked to occupy and we contemplate the nature of mortality in someone who, even when he’d been riddled full of holes with stale material, outdated arrangements and lethargic musicians, had always seemed cartoonishly invulnerable.

Discovering he’s human after all may not make him more endearing for those who like their superheroes to be larger than life in every way but it makes him far more interesting if nothing else.

I suppose it’s easy to see why Grandma Plays The Numbers, the B-side of this record, became the bigger hit as it gives us the Harris we’ve come to know and rely on, but I Feel That Old Age Coming On was unquestionably the better song and performance.

Maybe it was too atypical for a Wynonie Harris A-side I’ll admit and thus even while hitting the Top Ten itself it remains more of a curiosity than anything, but it gives notice that the cocksure hit-maker (though he may have been loath to admit it) was also a genuine artist after all.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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