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KING 4378; JUNE 1950



With any artist whose reputation rests on a dozen or so major hits with a certain loose-knit thematic unity to them, there’s bound to be records that slip through the cracks.

Some may be deemed too pedestrian compared to the more brazen classics, or out of step with their dominant approach, or maybe in this case simply destined to be overlooked for being paired with an all-time great on the top side through no fault of its own.

Yet any music fan longs to uncover a rough gem of some kind, something continually bypassed over the years that holds up well against the artist’s best work.

This isn’t quite that record for Wynonie Harris, but as far as mostly forgotten sides never to be included on any greatest hits roll call this is a different kind of song that winds up being far more interesting than many of the more familiar sides that are content to try and plow the same ground as his most legendary performances.


Counting Every Drop
Though Wynonie Harris’s musical scouting report might paint him as something of a one-trick pony, highly effective but slightly repetitive when it comes to the off-color topics and hard-charging vocal attacks, the fact is he was always more versatile than his image would suggest at a glance.

Never much of a straight ballad singer, certainly not any threat to be crooning love songs, the key to presenting Harris in a different context often centered on finding inventive arrangements to offset the take no prisoners vocal approach he favored.

True to form on Stormy Night Blues we encounter the same bellowing showman as usual, even his cadences fall in a pattern we’ve become accustomed to with him, but producer Henry Glover manages to frame him in a way that contrasts well with that familiar presentation, taking the edge off his lusty tone and almost forcing him to subdue his brash persona to adhere to the song’s storyline.

It’s not the easiest marriage to maintain however and there are times when one of the components seems like it might not belong, but the more you listen the more you appreciate the balancing act and while Harris himself might not have been the most willing participant when it came to reining him in, he acquits himself well in the end and delivers something just different enough to make this stand out in his catalog in an off-handed way.

Thunder And Lightning
After a subdued opening, horns and piano waltzing along at a measured pace, the first thing that jumps out at you is the presence of a vocal group which gives the entire record an entirely different flavor that what you’re used to with Harris.

Not necessarily the perfect flavor all the time mind you, as they seem to veer between two different stylistic shadings, but because they play such a big part in this and are distinctive enough to make it unique, their role becomes crucial when deciding whether you’re willing to accept the record or not.

The humming that introduces them is captivating, rhythmically intoning the word “Oooh” in a variety of ways until it sweeps you up with a haunting vibe that justifies the Stormy Night Blues title. Their vocals aren’t intended to represent the peak of the storm by any means, but rather it sort of conveys the sight of it in the distance, dark and foreboding with a hint of eerie calm before the skies open up.

That’s the part that is going to earn Glover his plaudits for coming up with something unusual to set this song apart. Harris typically worked alone vocally and if there were other voices on a track – All She Wants To Do Is Rock for example – it was just the band chanting responses to him, not singing full parts in harmony.

But when this unnamed group are given actual lyrics to sing that’s when you’re taken aback for a second, not only caught off guard by their prominence, but also their tone which is almost too smooth to fit on a Wynonie Harris session. For a second you even find yourself wondering if they’re trying to drag this into pop territory with their precise intonations, though the choppy rhythm pattern they use probably suggests that’s not the case.

The question is never definitively settled however. The humming behind Harris they return to remains enchanting at its best, while their more traditional singing between his stanzas never fully connects even though after a few listens you get used to it and are much more tolerant of its incongruous nature.

As for Harris, we don’t have any questions regarding his tactics, he’s delivering his lines with a declarative self-assurance that probably is a little too boisterous for the theme (the storm is just allegorical after all, representing his state of mind since his girlfriend left him) but because you’re used to such posturing out of him you barely notice that rift between his alleged state of mind and his outward assertiveness.


The Rain Is Pouring Down
Though it can’t help but be a little uneven at times, what distances this from run-of-the-mill filler is the way in which the lyrics and the backing music mesh to create a visual scene with just a few well-chosen aural cues.

The story itself is pretty standard stuff, certainly songwriters have been using weather related similes for as long as there’s been music, but they’re not trying to be overly clever with any of their lines on Stormy Night Blues, nor are they hoping to hide how basic the metaphors are. Instead they choose the words with enough care to prevent it from coming across as hackneyed but then they tie those words in with musical touches that bring them to life.

The “wail of the wind” he describes is met with two quick glissandos, short and to the point, and is followed by the fluttering of two notes when he tells us how “the wind is whistling through the trees”. It’s a little more subtle than actual whistling would be, but it conjures up much the same impression while not being out of place in the arrangement which is largely piano driven to begin with (the great Milt Buckner on the bench).

Truthfully they could’ve gone even further had they emphasized the drums more when he talks about the clouds turning black or given the saxophone a shriek to deliver when he drops down in tone to mention the lightning, but that also could’ve come across as overkill.

None of what they do give us exactly qualifies as revolutionary arranging techniques, but there’s an admirable game plan in place that gives the record a very polished feel, something that often was in short supply when Harris didn’t have a surefire winner to work with.

Here they all stick to their lanes, deliver their parts with skill and focus and come away with a song that manages to grow on you the more you hear it.

Blow Wind Blow
It’s a rare instance when Wynonie Harris isn’t the most crucial component on his own record, but while he has no problem here taking up much of the spotlight, he’s not what is going to make Stormy Night Blues sink or swim.

For that we turn to those anonymous singers, a professional group brought in specifically to add some polish to the proceedings. But I’m sure many will wonder if it’s a little too much polish though for someone used to barreling through his songs with no thought of restraint or moderation.

Where you fall on that question – are they out of place or merely a quirky appendage – probably will determine which side of the spectrum you’ll land on when it comes to rating this.

But considering how often we get no more than what we’ve come to expect from an artist, especially one whose persona is so set in stone already, their role here – though momentarily jarring – should ultimately be seen as a welcome addition, if only to shake up those expectations a little.

If every day has the same weather it tends to get a little boring – in life as well as in music – so while this hardly anything that is going to change your opinion of Wynonie Harris one way or another, it’s something that might just get you to sit up and pay attention to a song that otherwise would likely go unnoticed.


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