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KING 4330; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Playing to the crowd.

It’s a tradition as old as show-business for established performers in a wide variety of fields, from comedy to music… and it boils down to the simple practice of giving the audience what they want, what they’ve come to expect and most importantly what you know they’ll respond best to.

It might not always engender much creativity but if the original concept behind it was a perfect match for the performer and that performer remained an enthusiastic participant in delivering variations on the same basic tactic then the audience’s anticipation for the outcome would often do the rest.

In early rock ‘n’ roll nobody fit this description better than Wynonie Harris, a singer who embodied all of the most colorful aspects of rock music lore in real life and then made his name glorifying those same deeds in song.
 

 

The Corner Of 14th And Oak
In 1949, arguably the last year where radio still was more popular than television, the number one rated program on the airwaves was a comedy called Fibber McGee And Molly.

First appearing back in the 1930’s the show was one of the most enduring programs on the air and perhaps the most beloved, at least of those with fictitious characters at their core. Created by Jim and Marian Jordan, a husband and wife team who portrayed the title characters, a store owner who couldn’t help himself from exaggerating everything and his eternally patient wife who put up with him, the show was in the Top Ten in the ratings for two decades and in that time almost all of the regular characters had developed catch phrases that would get a laugh before they were even uttered.

Perhaps the most famous recurring gag however involved a closet in which Fibber had stuffed everything imaginable into and upon opening it all of the accumulated junk would fall out on top of him. Since it was radio it was of course left to the listener’s imagination to visualize what the sound effects merely suggested and it got so that the mere possibility of someone opening the door would result in prolonged hysterics even though you knew what was coming.

You can call it lazy writing if you want, relying on the same joke for laughs all the time, but if so you’re missing the participatory aspect of investing yourself in a program for a good deal of your life.

Over the years an understanding had been forged between the audience and performers, one born out of a sense of trust and mutual reliance. The show had helped to get much of the nation through the Great Depression, depicting a couple who had little and yet never let it get them down. The audience related to them, empathized with them, laughed with them and in essence felt they knew them in a way that was every bit as real as knowing members of their own real life community. The joke itself may have been predictable but it was appreciated precisely because it gave listeners a reassuring sign that they were in familiar company and provided evidence that while time marches on and you never know what is around the next turn in your own existence, some things – such as a reliable gag on radio – mercifully remained the same.

Music of course had a different relationship with listeners than scripted radio comedies however and when it came to a two or three minute record you couldn’t very well keep singing the same chorus in each one and still keep fans’ attention.
 

Thought About That Jive
We’ve criticized countless artists around here, plenty of great artists among them even, for sticking too close to past glories, reviving the same characters for ill-advised unimaginative sequels or blatantly imitating musical cues taken from their past successes. Rock fans crave something new each time out and re-working the same song ad nauseum isn’t generally going to cut it over time.

But Wynonie Harris was different somehow. In many ways he was a cartoon character, a larger than life rock ‘n’ roll superhero. His exploits – drinking, sexual and otherwise – might not ALL have been rooted in his day to day life but they were at least made out to be and that image was exploited off-stage by Harris himself until the line between the two entities was blurred beyond recognition. Once the persona had become universally known the audience themselves were able to embellish it in their minds, looking to him as a way to transpose their own hopes and dreams drawn from their wildest imaginations onto a living breathing caricature that would faithfully appear on a new record every few months, adding another chapter to his growing legend each time out.

Maybe the 17 year old kid listening couldn’t get a date on a Saturday night but if he pictured himself as Harris’s stand-in he went to bed feeling better about his chances down the road. Likewise the 25 year old forced to suffer the indignities of a segregated world in silence could fantasize about possessing the swaggering attitude Harris displayed to alleviate some of his own frustrations.

So Harris now became determined to give them what they craved almost every time out in new and inventive ways.
 


 
 

Before You Started Running Wild
When a disreputable character such as Wynonie Harris is cutting a song with the title Sittin’ On It All The Time, the possibilities of what that record might entail staggers the mind.

This was no accident of course but in a way the more risqué the title is the more likely it is that the contents are going to be something of a let-down since in 1949 there were apparently some sort of laws preventing Americans from publicly displaying the language they all used privately. I believe it was called the Hypocritical Statute or something of that nature.

Anyway, Harris’s task will either be to get around those laws using the most daring double entrendes he can come up with or to let the title merely act as the free advertising for something a bit more mundane, which of course runs the risk of leaving audiences demanding their money back for not living up to their heightened expectations.

Strangely enough he chooses the latter here, but chances are that’s not what anyone will be complaining about when the record kicks off because we find ourselves being aurally assaulted by blaring trumpets which sound as if they’re conducting an air raid drill. Luckily it doesn’t last long – maybe they were just some aggressive birds rather than bomber planes – and the trumpets soon give way to more suitable rhythm which itself quickly takes a back seat to Harris himself who wastes little time before rampaging into the picture, raring to cut loose.

Whether strategy or merely impatience Wynonie’s arrival has the desired effect which is to launch us headlong into the song without giving us a chance to really get our bearings, thereby obscuring the fact that the song really isn’t as dirty as we’d hoped even though it IS about sex, as if you needed me to tell you that when Wynonie Harris is involved.

Therein lies the trick, the slight of hand maneuver, the aforementioned “playing to the crowd”. Harris is giving us the impression of impropriety without running afoul of the law in the process. The title line isn’t quite the grand sexual euphemism you might’ve been imagining, instead it’s a reference to what the woman in question has NOT done, namely give her virtue up when men have come calling over the years.

And there’s the selling point lyrically, the revelation that this woman, 63 years old as of the telling, has been essentially living the celibate life of a nun all of these years without the gaudy trappings of the dowdy black habit and beads.
 
 

 

What Good Is Your Stove If It Don’t Give Out No Heat?
The concept itself is pretty clever as it skirts the dicey censorship of having Harris coax, cajole and wheedle the clothes off yet another female for his own base urges, yet still manage to crack wise about doing the deed in almost every line without unzipping his fly before the first chorus, which qualifies as a nice change of pace for the notorious Mr. Harris.

Some of the lines themselves are also fairly well crafted – though pay no attention to the Sally Mann co-writer’s credit here, that’s King Records owner Syd Nathan’s alias so he can steal half the royalties, a maneuver which he has just recently begun to take advantage of – as Wynonie runs down the details of her resistance to get intimate with men at every turn.

Of course even here he can’t quite keep out of trouble as his first sarcastic comment about her unwillingness to consent to a little hanky panky is a little discomforting as he says “When you were ten you used to run from men” as if this is a BAD thing at that age! TEN YEARS OLD?!?!? I should HOPE she’s running from men.. and moreover I really hope they chose that line simply because “ten” is the only age that rhymes with “men” otherwise we might be obligated to turn someone in over this confession.

The implications at fifteen, the next age he dwells on, probably aren’t much better, but then he starts to tick off more acceptable years, 22, 25, 31, 35, 38… eventually getting to the riper vintages of 44, 49, 52, all of which found her similarly standoffish, thereby giving some sense of just what “it” they meant by Sittin’ On It All The Time.

All of these are delivered in a rapid-fire setup/punchline approach which allows Harris to unleash the full power of his voice, but also to steamroll any questions about their taste (the early ones) or their redundancy (the latter years). In other words, they had a decent idea but rather than fully explore every possibility in how to best present it they settled for something direct and lacking any nuance or subtlety.

Now you can make the argument that cutting to the chase is a sound theory to follow. After all pornography seems to be fairly popular and no longer contains anything resembling acting or scripts as they once did when they aspired to be taken more seriously as legitimate film and it hasn’t seemed to hurt their bottom line. If anything it probably helped the bottom line as there’s less expense without a wardrobe department since nobody is starting off wearing clothes they’ll quickly discard anyway.

But in music we need more foreplay so to speak. A backstory, a more well-rounded character, some sort of explanation as to why a presumably attractive girl had no desire for companionship for all those years. We don’t need a complete psychological breakdown but at least give us some sense of who we’re dealing with here. Instead all we get is a bellowing loudmouth cracking wise about her remaining single for so long… and considering Harris’s eternally crude persona who can really blame her if that was the type of man who was calling on her year after year?
 


 

Still Knocking At Your Door
There’s no question that the intent of this record, and increasingly of Harris with most of his output, is to play to the crowd, to live up to the image of himself he’s created and which the audience has bought into and enjoys hearing him expound on in the most colorful ways possible at every opportunity.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But they need to do it with more panache than they show here. Sittin’ On It All The Time isn’t subtle about any of it, from the title itself to the final punchline at the girl’s expense which shows even Harris’s libido has an expiration date of sorts.

There’s still plenty to like here, Wynonie is in particularly good form vocally throughout and the shift from a melodic to a rhythmic backing as Harris launches into the roll call of years is a welcome sight that shows all were aware of how important it was to groove you. Even the saxophone’s interjections low in its register after the backing singers, whoever they are, repeat the title line like a wayward Greek chorus is effective. But there’s nothing that surprises you as it goes along, or even attempts to surprise you, which gives some indication as to the assembly line mentality they were at risk for falling into.

Basically this is painting by numbers Wynonie Harris. All of the relevant colors are splashed boldly on the canvas but the details required to make any picture worth hanging on the wall are blurred, or left out altogether. The color palette the horns use – far too brassy behind the sax during the solo which itself is just barely fulfilling its role – are mismatched, the brush strokes for much of it are too thickly applied and the frame doesn’t quite compliment the art within.

But we know that there’s still plenty of buyers for this – it was a Top Three hit nationally and topped local charts in places as far-flung as Detroit, St. Louis and Seattle – and we’re certainly not begrudging them their enjoyment of it. A quick glance at it as you pass it hanging in the hall will draw a smile and unlike a lot of cheap paintings that get shoved in the closet after awhile (to fall out on unsuspecting people who open the doors no doubt) this won’t go unnoticed on the wall, which I suppose is the ultimate litmus test. Wynonie Harris might’ve been playing to the crowd, and somewhat shallowly at that, but the point is there WAS a crowd waiting for something like this.

It may not be the best of them but it wasn’t the worst either and as long as it kept Harris in the gallery it was enough to make it worthwhile.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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