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KING 4418; OCTOBER 1950



Our third contestant in the Oh Babe game show is a familiar face to rock fans, one who really needs no introduction but we’ll make one anyway because he certainly doesn’t want to miss an opportunity for some cheap applause.

Tell us about yourself, Wynonie Harris.

“Howya doin’, Al? I just came all the way down from Omaha just to be on this show. You know it’s gonna be swell and I’m gonna win all the money… all the money!”

We have an unexpected fourth contestant to introduce as well, a last minute arrival… and who are you?

“Hello, my name is Lucky Millinder and ahh… I’m just glad to be on the show… thank you”.

Oh-kay… now that we’ve met our contestants let’s get to the game.


The World Turns Upside Down
Yeah, I know, technically Harris was swiping the line of contestant number one, not number three for those who got the reference. For those who didn’t, we won’t encounter its source until 1989, which at the rate we’re going will be about a hundred years from now, so you have plenty of time to bone up on your music knowledge before then.

But today’s record doesn’t require you to look forward in time at all, but rather backwards as we have what undoubtedly is the most unexpected reunion in rock’s first couple of years.

As we’ve detailed when first meeting Harris way back as rock began in September 1947 he was coming off a fairly long fallow period after his initial breakthrough in 1945 with a #1 hit that he recorded while fronting none other than Lucky Millinder’s band and was in desperate need of reorienting his musical direction.

It had been more than two years since Who Threw The Whiskey In The Well, a vital pre-rock milestone in its own right, had made him a star, but when he hadn’t been able to make any significant artistic or commercial progress on that achievement his momentum stagnated.

The reason why he was unable to advance his career could probably be boiled down to the fact that, not for the last time, his ego had hogtied his common sense as before that record had even been released Harris began to bristle under Millinder’s control, feeling that as the star of the show singing that surefire hit on stage each night, he should be better compensated.

Millinder ran a notoriously tight ship as a bandleader and had no inclination to take any guff from a hot-headed egomaniac and so the two parted company in Texas and Harris went out on his own, doing well enough with a few minor hits in the ensuing year to remain a headliner, but without the disciplined band and visionary leader at the healm Harris’s fortunes quickly deteriorated until rock ‘n’ roll – more specifically Roy Brown’s song Good Rockin’ Tonight – got him back on top in early 1948 where he’s more or less remained ever since.

Meanwhile Millinder, who arguably was second to only Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five as the top black band of the 1940’s, gradually saw his own position wane as rock ‘n’ roll took over as the predominant interest in the community he once held in the palm of his hand. Without a suitable singer to cut records in this style the big hits dried up and while he was still a decent draw on the road with slightly older audiences by 1950 he must’ve been aware that his days as a big name were coming to a close unless something dramatic happened.

But nobody likely saw THIS coming… Millinder signed with King Records where he immediately was paired on Oh Babe! with his former employee who was unquestionably the biggest star on the label.

For someone as narcissistic as Wynonie Harris, the realization his old boss needed him to revive his fortunes is something he surely relished more than all the hits he’d had in the years since they’d parted.


You Knock It
Though the end result of their brief reunion would result in a hit with this release the real question we have to ask is was this pairing really necessary?

For Millinder the answer is undoubtedly yes. His old trumpet player Henry Glover may have been producing hits left and right for King Records, but even he couldn’t turn outdated concepts into modern best sellers and Millinder’s crew, professional and well-drilled as they were, just weren’t capable of rocking to the extent that the primary audience demanded nowadays, something which becomes all too apparent on Oh Babe!.

It’s interesting that both of the records they cut together – and released simultaneously no less on two separate singles – were both cover records of current hits and it’s hard to say which was the least objectionable conceptually of the two.

If you had to look elsewhere for material this one probably was the more appropriate choice simply because the original by Louis Prima was not a rock record and thus Harris wouldn’t be trying to best something already done to perfection in the same genre. Furthermore, Millinder’s group, though pretty far removed from the freewheeling style of Prima, was at least comprised of similar parts with full horn sections and a sense of unity in their playing.

You could therefore conceive of Millinder adhering to a loose interpretation of Prima’s arrangement and not embarrassing themselves in the process. Better still though would be if they came up with something even more high octane which would require a definite attitude shift on the band’s part but which would compliment Harris’s strengths as a singer as well as giving the rock audience what they would best appreciate.

Instead Millinder offers a slick version of the song that starts to sound sickly the more it goes on. The horn flourish that opens the record is far too polished to be effective, especially knowing who’s about to enter the picture and the dichotomy between the two – Millinder’s politely cheery horns and Harris’s vaguely bawdy vocal projection – can’t possibly be resolved and so the two entities trade off rather than compliment each other. Lucky’s crew sticks to their own image of what Oh Babe! should sound like while Harris, as was his want even in the best of circumstances, heads off the reservation looking to stir up trouble when he’s in the spotlight.

Their modest playing behind Harris during the vocal sections is almost worst than no support at all and the instrumental breaks, well played though they are in isolation, have nothing whastsoever to do with Harris or rock ‘n’ roll in general.

But will such seemingly insurmountable obstacles stop Wynonie Harris?

What do YOU think?

This Is What’ll Happen To You
This being the third time we’ve heard this song in a rock rendition, plus hearing Prima’s vibrant original for comparison’s sake, we have to admit that while sort of a gimmicky concept there’s a certain charm to its ebullient spirit… something that Harris certainly is well equipped to handle.

And handle it he does, at least as best as he can with such middling support, laying into the series of nonsensical exclamations that make up the bulk of the song with lusty charm.

As such Oh Babe! plays to his strengths… rousing vocal riffs where enthusiasm rather than insight or emotional nuance are key. The rollicking nature of the hook isn’t provided by the band, but rather Harris’s vocals, and so you get caught up in it even while you may cringe at the outdated trappings Millinder tries to add to it.

The problem though of course is that as a strict composition there’s not much here for him to sink his teeth into. This would honestly work best as an opening number on stage, cutting it it short after a single chorus where it’d segue into one of his more appropriate hits. Then at the end of a lengthy set you’d pick up the song again in a closing refrain to take you to the final bows before they came back on for an encore.

As a record however it’s basically a nothing but a vocal exercise… it just so happens that vocalist is one of the guys who you rarely get tired of hearing, stirring up excitement with each shallow line and giving it enough allure in the process to keep you modestly happy in spite of the incongruous nature of the entire production.

Got To Be Crazy
The game show host on De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising kept asking each contestant “Do you have the answer”, only to find out none of the four did… much to their embarrassment.

Here there’s also no sensible answer to the question of why Lucky Millinder, a bandleader who was clearly not attuned to rock ‘n’ roll and had a longstanding beef with Harris, would be matched up with him, other than perhaps for the sheer sport of those watching them interact from the control room!

Oh Babe! succeeds as well as it does entirely due to Harris’s personality, not the woeful out of date backing… something which Millinder had to have known when this song cracked the Top Ten briefly, though he surely was loathe to admit it.

It was a far cry from the era when Lucky Millinder scored four chart toppers with music that was setting into motion the changes on the black music scene which would eventually result in the very music that he himself was unable to faithfully replicate. It’s even more ironic that it was Harris, the guy who gave Millinder the last of those #1 hits in 1945, who laid bare that reality on this record.

But since we’re sure that Harris didn’t spare Lucky’s feelings when ribbing him over the change in their fortunes since they’d last worked together, let’s leave Millinder a bit of his dignity intact by saying this: If this exact same record was released under his name alone and targeted exclusively to the market he was still trying to reach without anyone knowing who the hell Wynonie Harris was, you’d still say it was pretty good because that context would allow for the brassy outdated musical choices they make.

Of course, you’d still come away from it saying that the singer, whoever he was, should really go out on his own and try his hand at rock ‘n’ roll because he’d probably be pretty damn good at it. All of which means that even when trying to put Harris in his place, he’ll find a way to come out on top.

Sorry Lucky, payback is a bitch.


(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:
Larry Darnell (October 1950)

Jimmy Preston (October 1950)