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KING 4555; JULY 1952



Who thinks this is a good idea?

Covering an instrumental hit in a vocal rendition requiring someone to come up with lyrics to fit the song is difficult enough, but to then trust one of rock’s most irascible singers to deliver it makes this even riskier.

To top it off Wynonie Harris hasn’t exactly been burning up the charts as of late, with just two hits since the calendar for 1950 turned the page to 1951 and considering this style isn’t in his wheelhouse, it’s not hard top predict this train isn’t getting out of the station.


Should’ve Listened
As we’ve said many times before, record companies care about as much about music as tobacco companies care about your long term health.

In both cases the only thing that matters is sales and since Wynonie Harris remains a big name, despite a recent commercial downturn, and because this song is widely known since Jimmy Forrest hit with it back in the winter, you can certainly see King Records’ thinking on this one.

Bring those two familiar names together – the song title and the artist – and see if you can stir some interest, even if it’s shallow curiosity rather than deep-seated love for either one.

In fact they weren’t the only one to be taking a chance with this idea, as United Records, the same company that issued Forrest’s #1 hit, has just released their own vocal version by their latest signees, The Four Blazes, a great vocal group who were among the toughest omissions to our history of rock ‘n’ roll project, as they are just too polished – leaning too much into pop and jazz at a time when rock vocal groups are increasingly leaving that behind – for us to allow in the door.

That being said however, they were damn good at what they did as evidenced by their last single, Mary Jo, currently sitting at #1 on the R&B Charts as we speak. All four members sang and played their own instruments with bassist, lead singer and songwriter Tommy Braden really standing out. The vocals on their version of Mood Indigo on the flip of that hit are downright breathtaking at times.

They did a good job on Night Train too, with a haunting rendition that uses the same lyrics that Harris sings, albeit delivered in a much different manner.

Whereas The Four Blazes keep the pace languid, like the instrumental, adding a faint echo to their elongated harmonies on the title line, Harris steps things up a bit… not quite as much as usual, but still more impatient… and in the process renders the storyline rather irrelevant.

But what did you expect coming from somebody whose main experience with trains was racing to catch one with his pants falling down around his ankles because a few irate husbands were chasing him with shotguns for defiling their wives at an impromptu orgy that just happened to spring up when he rolled into town.


I Don’t Know What I’m Gonna Do
Maybe it’s fitting that the band chosen to back Wynonie Harris on this song is his old outfit from the mid-1940’s led by Lucky Millinder, for while the tune itself – at least in Forrest’s instrumental – had enough rock components to qualify for the genre’s playlist, the rest of the versions are leaning further back to the source of the original riff Forrest stole it from, that of Duke Ellington.

Nothing against Duke, one of the greatest bandleaders of all-time, but there’s a reason why the end of his peak commercial years coincided with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1940’s… and the same can be said for Millinder.

Now that Harris’s glory days are behind him too, it’s all too appropriate that he’s putting out a record that looks backwards a little too far with its arrangement as well thanks to the… hold on, let’s see here… by my count, TEN horns on this: four trumpets, two trombones, two altos and two tenors.

Trade in those trumpets, trombones and one alto for a single baritone and maybe this might stand a chance. Then again, it probably wouldn’t at that, not as long as Wynonie Harris is caught between lackadaisical and uninterested in his vocal performance. While we can marginally commend him for toning things down considerably from his usual egotistical strutting, he’s still not quite embodying the spirit of Night Train which finds him bemoaning the loss of his girl who hightailed it out of town on the 5:15 or something because he treated her bad.

Well, at least they got THAT part right!

Because he’s not nearly as mournful as The Four Blazes, who sounded as if their hearts were literally aching, Harris can only project mild annoyance with his delivery, as if he’s more disgusted than distraught. Yes, I’ll admit that the way he goes down at the end of each line shows he’s trying to put across the right feeling, but there’s little chance he was invested in the song because he’s smart enough to see it for what it is… a desperate cash in attempt.

Millinder’s crew, as to be expected, are impeccably professional, yet thoroughly out of date which doesn’t help matters. Only the sax solo by Count Hastings has any modernity to it and even that is bound to be grating to some listeners because the main riff from the the familiar version is being played by Harold Clark behind him, yet buried deeper in the mix.

What’s the point of even cutting a vocal take on an instrumental if you take the best part of that instrumental and treat it like an afterthought?

Then again we can also ask what’s the point of putting a rock singer with a pre-rock band, or what’s the point in having a character like Harris, who couldn’t find words like “remorse” or “sorrow” in the dictionary with four letter head starts, cut a song that requires him to believably create that impression.

Sadly, none of them probably have an answer for those questions and we won’t tax their brains by asking any more and risk getting the same blank stares in return.


Now I’ve Learned My Lesson
Like a lot of successful independent record companies we’ll meet along the way, King Records – by far the most important rock label of the last five years – is dealing with shifting tastes brought about by the natural turnover in audiences and Wynonie Harris is the unfortunate casualty in that evolutionary progression.

When he burst onto the scene fronting Millinder’s band in the mid-1940’s he was well ahead of the musical curve at the time, portending the rock revolution on the horizon.

When rock ‘n’ roll hit big in 1947/48, it was Harris who was leading the charge, not just in terms of hits – he had the first chart topper in the field, let’s not forget – but also in terms of style and attitude.

But now those lessons have been fully absorbed, reconfigured and streamlined into something new, all while Harris himself hasn’t moved far past what made him so big just a few years ago.

Night Train was not going to change that, for even if he HAD delivered a better performance on it, and even if the band WAS more suited for rock than Millinder’s crew, this release was a clear capitulation to the realities of his shrinking appeal.

King Records were using him here to try and reach an older audience that was no longer quite as active on the record buying front and by highlighting the outdated aspects of a now familiar recent song they were essentially telling him they felt his chances at leading another charge into a new era was over.

No wonder he sounded gloomy singing about how this train took his baby so far away, knowing that train was also taking his chances for a career revival along with it.


(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:
Jimmy Forrest (February, 1952)