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KING 4217; APRIL, 1948



There have been plenty of records we’ve come across thus far in rock’s earliest months that leave us scratching our collective heads as we wonder how someone could’ve had honestly thought they had something that might connect with an audience but here’s a release that just has us sputtering, “What the hell were they thinking?…”

Hey, nobody ever said the record business was sane and predictable and this errant release proves it.

Of the handful of independent record labels of the 40’s and 50’s (let’s say pre-Motown, though some thrived until well past Berry Gordy kicked off his empire in 1959) who made their fortune on rock ‘n’ roll and secured their legend in music circles for eternity there are a few that stand out above the rest historically – you know the names… Atlantic, Chess, Sun and King – and yet looking back today when studying their day to day operations you sometimes wonder… HOW!?!?

I know, I know, hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but seriously, all of those labels made more bad decisions along the way than you’d ever think possible. Somehow they overcame these self-inflicted stumbling blocks and not only endured but survived and eventually thrived in spite of it all. Yet at times the moves they made seemed inexplicable, almost as if they were intentionally committing commercial hari-kari, completely oblivious to what it was that was actually working in the marketplace let alone working aesthetically to build rock’s appeal, and yet in the long run it did them little harm.

I guess it just shows that the other labels were somehow making worse decisions and more OF them, either that or payola was worth more than brains after all.


Just Can’t Live Without It
In 1948 King Records was pulling ahead of most of the competition. Heck, of the labels we just listed two (Chess and Sun) didn’t exist yet (well, Chess didn’t, though its predecessor Aristocrat did) and the other (Atlantic) was only releasing its very first, and largely underwhelming, sides.

Other labels such as Modern, Savoy, Aladdin, National and Specialty were up and running and doing okay, but King was shaping up to be the most aggressive, signing up more established stars to beef up their roster, and seemed much more far-sighted in their organizational skills by hiring top notch people, such as Henry Glover, to write and produce, all while covering two separate and distinct markets, one catering to black audiences and the other to whites, and taking increased control over the production and distribution of its own records.

In terms of vision if nothing else, Syd Nathan was already at the forefront of the independent record industry.

Which is why it’s so bewildering to see him take so many glaring missteps with his rock ‘n’ roll entries. What makes it all the more confusing is that this gaffe comes on the heels of their one undisputed moment of serendipity, the record which not only re-launched Harris into the stratosphere, but in the process placed King Records at the vanguard of this new music.

We’re talking of course about the signature record thus far in rock’s journey. In late February King Records had released Good Rockin’ Tonight, the record which would establish Harris as the prototypical rock frontman, the swaggering symbol of a music born for the spotlight with Harris embodying a cocky brand of musical lust and mayhem that defines it to this day. The record was light years ahead of everything else that had been released to date AND not only was it perfectly executed musically it was also selling like crazy. As we speak the record was about to make Cash Box’s territorial charts (Harlem first, then LA) and before long it was storming up Billboard’s national charts where it’d soon land at #1, officially certifying rock’s place in the larger music world in the process.

They were on their way to doing what seemed so unlikely just a few weeks before: scaling the mountain of commercial success, establishing rock’s validity in the process, while reviving the floundering career of Harris and vaulting the King label to the top of the independent record biz all in one fell swoop.

Now they seemed hell-bent on knocking themselves back down, because barely a month after that record hit the streets, before it even had time to make its debut on those charts, here comes Syd Nathan releasing Love Is Like Rain on its heels, one which was nothing like the record that was causing all this commotion and if anything showed the world that the brilliance of that last single may have in fact been nothing more than a fluke.

What the hell were they thinking?


The Devil Sat Down And Cried
This record shows just what a crapshoot the final month of 1947 had been like for labels right before the recording ban hit.

On one hand they had an artist in Harris who seemed ideally suited for the growing interest in this rock ‘n’ roll stuff and represented their best chance to capitalize on it should the style continue to grow. But on the other hand it was still at the time far from a sure thing commercially (no rock song had yet hit the national charts when 1947 came to a close) and for all anybody knew the whole raucous style may still have wound up being nothing more than a passing fad, a transitory style soon forgotten.

So they frantically covered all their bases, cutting sides that fit into that approach and then turning around and tackling songs for the more demure marketplace that had preceded it, which in Harris’s case had proven to be one he should’ve been anxious to leave behind, as for the last three years he’d been getting diminishing returns in each time out, that is if he was getting any returns (other than returned records) at all.

Not surprisingly, since this was aiming at the waning interest of those stuck in the recent past, this record sounds much closer to the dreck that he was putting out at the end of his brief stint with Aladdin just a few months earlier, though thankfully it’s nowhere near as uninspired.

What makes Love Is Like Rain so desultory is its sense of going through the motions. The extended intro – saxophone, piano, then the entire horn section while the drums ride the cymbals without much enthusiasm – is monotonous and dull. Is it played badly? No, but it’s kind of like oatmeal, something that while it may fill your belly it’s doubtful you’ll ever crave eating.

So the song, like the oatmeal, sort of just sits there, lumpy, bland and colorless. It takes nearly a full minute for Harris to make his appearance and unless he was boinking the secretary in the hallway forcing the musicians to cover for his absence for an inordinate amount of time, there’s no good reason to hold back the name artist unless the sessionists are going to be featured in an attempt to steal the spotlight. Here they steal nothing except 53 seconds of your life you’ll never get back and which, when your time is up here on earth, you’ll be cursing them for absconding with the first time you heard this.

Once Harris does grace us with his presence it’s the Harris of old, the wandering journeyman who landed at King’s doorstep, just grateful to still be wanted by someone, probably flaunting his threads and using every ounce of bravado he had left in him to suggest he was still the same big man of the scene who’d landed a #1 record back in 1945, but underneath the cocky exterior resided a man who, unless he was completely delusional, knew he didn’t have a clue as to what might revive his fortunes musically.

He still gives it his all, that much you could be assured of whenever there was a microphone around or an audience to impress, Wynonie Harris was nothing if not a committed showman, but here he tries to wring water from a dry sponge.

Amazingly he just may just get a few drops out in the end.


Not Mean, Not Evil
The song itself, or at least the lyrics, are actually halfway decent. They’re not exactly what someone who just heard his rising hit would be hoping for if the store clerk got them to cough up another three bits for the “NEW Harris side that just came in!!!”, but at least it offers up a few refrains where he gets to impart some rudimentary advice on dealing with the fairer sex, which of course always was his stock-in-trade.

But even there it falls short, not only because some stanzas seem made up on the spot with him having trouble coming up with a punchline to rhyme so he simply repeats the set up in a different tone, but also because he’s approaching this from the perspective of one who loses at love, taking away his ability to brag about his prowess with the ladies and strut around the barnyard like the baddest rooster on the block.

But due to his vitality he can at least momentarily con you into thinking Love Is Like Rain is a song worth hearing, but unfortunately the musicians are completely lacking in drive and urgency. Maybe when they cut it the song seemed fairly contemporary, but just a few months later it sounds archaic compared to what he just released.

Considering the circumstances and granting Syd Nathan and company SOME measure of respect for their business acumen, I have to believe that this was a case of trying to send out one of the weaker sides in the immediate wake of their best material in the hopes that it’d pick up some inadvertent sales on its back.

But listening to them in succession the budding rock fan of 1948 would have no choice but to ask, What the hell WERE they thinking?


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