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KING 4389; SEPTEMBER 1950

 
 

 

A truly fascinating record in that you have a confluence of musical and generational contradictions coming to a boil reflecting the whirlwind of ideas that had produced and shaped rock ‘n’ roll over the past three years.

It’d be easy to read far too much into such a record if you let yourself get carried away looking for various clues as to their collective mindsets at the time, but then again it’d be hard not to at least try and interpret some of what you hear to get a better sense of the times.

In the end it may add up to just a lot of baseless speculation, interesting but hardly definitive, or it might amount to nothing more than a simple grasping for relevant themes on the studio floor in between tours.

But it could also provide a rare insight into how everybody involved was reacting to the rapidly advancing music scene as the 1950’s slammed the door shut on everything they’d come to know over the past decade.
 

 

The Best Thing To Do
Let’s start with a couple of prominent words here to set the scene. The first is Wynonie Harris’s nickname, “Mr. Blues”, dating back a number of years when he was lumped in with that broad genre of music when it was really a catch-all term for any authentic black music that wasn’t jazz or gospel.

Harris’s music was termed “jump blues” which distanced it from guitar/harmonica based Delta blues as his songs featured both stripped-down jazz-based horns and upbeat, rather than downcast, lyrical perspectives, often with an undercurrent of humor, and in Harris’s case lots of sex. It was bawdy music unfit for aspirations of societal upward mobility and the name Mr. Blues was an indication that Harris was born to lead such a movement.

But all movements must keep moving to justify their existence and the advent of a newer style of music called rock ‘n’ roll pushed jump blues to the back burner, even as it was busily recruiting Harris himself to be one of the standard bearers of the new style.

The stubborn singer that he was of course meant that he had to first be convinced of its legitimacy before willfully joining in, but thanks to a string of commercial flops leading up to his transformation he was somewhat more amenable to the idea. When he then topped the charts with Good Rockin’ Tonight, returning him to star status, the die was cast and a rocker he became once and for all.

As you can probably figure from just a quick glance both of those terms factor into Rock Mr. Blues, not just in the title but also in the story that accompanies it, as Harris finds himself almost struggling to come to grips with what he’s helped wrought with his run of success that popularized one form of music while largely ushering the other style out the door.

How much of this was actually going through his head at the time and how much of it simply made for a good plot to delve into is unclear, but it does show that there was an awareness of the appropriation of the terms and how they would not only define the music, but define Harris himself in the end.
 


 
 

Stop Rockin’?!? Are You Sure?
The song is presented as an internal struggle being voiced by a decidedly conflicted Harris. He starts off by saying he’s going to STOP rocking… stop the very thing that made him a star, the thing which he, as much as anybody this side of Roy Brown, legitimized in the mind of the industry and the public at large.

Though we have to assume that it’s merely a thematic device (conflict equals drama is the first lesson of fiction writing after all), it’s hard not to pick up on the emotions swirling under the surface.

Harris was one of the older artists to make it big in this younger style of music. Most acts have an affinity for the musical and cultural touchstones that existed during the period they came of age rather than the period they rose to prominence. For example Paul Simon and Lou Reed remained doo-wop aficionados even as they charted entirely new courses themselves. Harris was probably no different and so while rock elevated his career, he may have still been holding out hope that he could resuscitate the sounds of the past and make those big again.

Or it could just be that Rock Mr. Blues was designed to give that impression and it was left to other people’s interpretations to read into it what they wanted. Either way it works well in that regard because the rift between past and present is one that anyone from any era can relate to.
 

Don’t Need No Wind For Mr. Blues To Rock
So the basic plot forms a solid theme to explore as Harris bemoans the activities he’s being “forced” to acquiesce to and insists he’s going to stop altogether. He goes on to recount his past successes, name dropping titles and lyrics in a way that manages not to come off as lazy, cheap or exploitative (although they’re all pure rock songs, which figures since they’re all hits on King Records where he was still recording).

In any event Rock Mr. Blues paints a pretty good picture of the road he’s traveled recently as well as giving voice to his concern that he might be getting a little long in the tooth to keep pulling it off convincingly. But you’d never know it because he sounds great, his voice is way up in the mix with a good deal of echo added to it, especially during the lead-in which gives it much greater punch.

During all of this he’s being answered by a chorus of dissenting voices telling him that he’s foolish to give it up, that they love what he’s been doing and want to hear more of it. The back and forth exchanges are slightly more effective on paper than on wax simply because the other voices themselves are fairly weak, ironically sounding as if they’d be more comfortable in a less rugged style of music than the rock they’re championing.

Harris though, despite his protestations to the contrary, sounds as if he was as comfortable rocking out as a man could possibly be, his lusty shouting and raw tone adding plenty to the music’s rough and rowdy image. As a result he’s not quite convincing you of his resistance to sticking with this direction, but considering King Records had no intention of switching Harris to a less demanding brand of music they wanted to make sure the audience wasn’t misled into thinking this would be his swan song in that realm.
 

Rockin’ Just Like We Like It
Because the focus of the song is firmly on the lyrical declarations, both of Harris and the others in reply, they take up the bulk of the arrangement leaving little room for the musicians to do more than simply stay out of harm’s way other than adding a few more emphatic punctuations to the vocals every now and then.

To try and give Rock Mr. Blues a sense of crackling energy in spite of those limitations it’s left to the drummer to get as much as he can out of the cymbal to cut through the voices while the piano does its best to carry the rhythm in a subtle manner.

What the song lacks however is the fiery solos that would elevate this even more. The best sections are actually done with just minimal support as in the two stop-time bridges the horns merely answer Harris with a two note capper while Wynonie provides the lion’s share of the power with his vocals, showing that often it’s not the what’s being played that makes for the most memorable moments, but rather the way in which it’s framed.

The sax solo midway through the record squanders its chance to light things up with some more passionate playing and while it’s still pretty decent you’d really love to hear something more potent than that which the song clearly calls for.

In spite of this the song is well balanced, there’s nothing out of place, everything fits together nicely and there’s constant forward momentum which ensures that Harris isn’t left with all of the responsibility here.
 


 

Gonna Keep Rockin’
The constant struggle between striving to define the future and wanting to cling a little longer to the past will never cease to exist and as a fairly shallow psychological study or as a fairly rousing record – take your pick – Rock Mr. Blues manages to fulfill both of those needs in impressive fashion.

Listening to Harris cry out “Rock, rock, rock!” with the fervor of a preacher in a revival tent tells you that he wasn’t about to give this life up, so ultimately the status quo for the 1950 rock scene is upheld, as if there was ever any doubt this would be the case.

But whether setting out to do so or not the record does hit upon something that was inescapable for every artist, even the fire breathing rockers like Harris who seemed to embody everything about the music that made it so explosive in the first place… namely the rhetorical question he asks, “How long can I keep this good rockin’ on?”.

The answer as it turns out is “not forever”.

This was further proof that you couldn’t rest on your laurels for long. Rock ‘n’ roll was busy coming up with new concepts all the time and a never-ending flood of new artists with new ideas came rushing into the picture month after month, all determined to displace the established sounds and the reigning kings like Harris who first brought those sounds to our ears.

That’s why rock itself endures and why each generations of stars, even those as big as Wynonie Harris, eventually fade away. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, it’s simple evolution at work, but there’s also nothing they can do about it no matter how hard they try.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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