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When it comes to classic rhythm & blues, as you all know, dealing in terms of LPs is never productive; many of the classic artists did not release LPs as such, and most of those who did had all the best material coming out on singles anyway. This was, after all, the pre-album epoch. Since I normally only review LPs, lots of great pre-rock'n'roll era material thus manages to escape analysis. However, what we have here is an excellent and, if not exhaustive, then at least fully representative compilation of recordings made at Atlantic, the forefront of classic R'n'B, and it's just too tempting not to use this as a good excuse to pay at least some attention to such an extremely important and vital genre - or, rather, conglomeration of genres - as classic American R'n'B.
CD I (1947-1952)
1. Joe Morris Orchestra: Lowe Groovin' [B]
Supposedly this is where it all started, folks, but there sure was a long way to go to reach even Ray Charles, not to mention Aretha. This is still more jazz than what would soon come to be known as R&B, although the arrangement - sort of like a simplistic blues tune lushly played by a jazz orchestra - is said to have been unusual at the time. Well, okay. The best thing about the recording is definitely Johnny Griffin's sax playing, slow and sensuous, although it's also probably the most "traditional" part of the whole deal. Almost surprisingly lazy and minimalistic considering the heights jazz had already ascended by that time, but hey, that's the deal. (Think of the Joe Morris Orchestra in 1947 as the equivalent of the Ramones in 1976, and maybe that'll cheer you up!) Besides, the main theme is memorable, which isn't something you can say about your average big band record.
2. Tiny Grimes Quintet: That Old Black Magic [B+]
The best thing here is, of course, Lloyd "Tiny" Grimes' guitar playing - bluesy, but friendly, and quite unpredictable in terms of chord changes. This may not be 'magic', not for the modern ear at least, but there certainly is something fairy-tale-like at least about some of these passages. There is still a 'generic' swinging midsection, driven by the ever present saxophone, but the four-note piano/bass rhythm that holds the melody up otherwise is so odd it's hardly even danceable. Unlike 'Lowe Groovin', if you took that melody, dressed it up in a more complex arrangement, gave it cleaner, more "modern" production and piled some vocals on top, you'd really have yourself a cool R'n'B number.
3. Tiny Grimes Quintet: Annie Laurie [B]
This one has sort of a 'When The Saints Go Marching In' vibe (in fact I almost thought it was a rearrangement of some sort for the first few seconds). A very playful and amusing guitar part which really makes you care, although not much more than that. A wild jazz sax break and a couple barely noticeable time changes help liven the thing up, but overall, there's nothing here that makes it much better than Some Like It Hot-style entertainment. (Not that I don't dig that sort of entertainment, mind you. But we haven't come here for that exactly).
4. Tiny Grimes Quintet: Midnight Special [B-]
No, this ain't Creedence Clearwater Revival. This is a pretty pedestrian, if, as usual, enjoyable blues shuffle, with, this time around, all of the "important" quintet members (that is, everybody bar the rhythm section) show off their skills, and considering that Grimes was easily the one major star in the combo, that wasn't such a hot idea. Even the guitar part itself is pretty camouflaged, and somehow it seems that everybody got so taken in by the tune's lazy 'midnight' vibe that they carried the minimalism a bit too far. Still, that's pretty much how that kind of 'midnight shuffle' is supposed to sound, so don't count on my opinion if you're a fan of the style. Funny that, according to the liner notes, 'Midnight Special' sold well enough where 'Annie Laurie' did not. Maybe the latter was considered, like, too raunchy for the times or something?
5. Joe Morris Orchestra: The Applejack [B+]
This one sets a first - namely, the first vocals to appear on the Atlantic label, even if the try is very tentative, to put it mildly: the only vocalizing is by Joe himself, consisting of but four words: 'Applejack, applejack, let's go!'. Even these four set a fresh trend, however, and this gets us in the mood for another "brutal" orchestral onslaught from Joe and his boys after the far more subtle and quiet approach of Tiny Grimes. Massive - and somewhat weird in terms of time signature - brass riffs abound here, and, despite a prominent piano solo in the middle, the tune is ruled by Matthew Gee's trombone, who gives the composition an almost macho attitude with his performance. The main theme is easily the best musical moment among all these early instrumental show-offs.
6. Frank Culley: Cole Slaw [B]
No vocals on here either, although there have been vocal-powered recordings of the same tune by other artists. Culley's version, according to the liner notes, is more renown due to featuring an entirely new type of tenor sax playing; I can believe it, although on a purely amateurish level, I don't see that much difference between Culley and Griffin. Nevertheless, the tune is nice and memorable, with the simple main theme being the most playful on here since 'Annie Laurie'. There's a fun call-and-answer tidbit between the sax and the guitar as well, before Culley launches into a nice long solo and then finishes the proceedings with the obligatory quieting down and getting loud again on the very last bar. Chances are, though, that you'll forget all about it upon being knocked out by the next tune.
7. Stick McGhee And His Buddies: Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee [A+]
Now we're rolling. Whether or not this is the first true rock'n'roll song ever recorded is not up to me to claim, but it certainly is a true rock'n'roll song - more than half a decade before them white guys stole you-know-what from you-know-who. A phenomenal hit among black audiences in 1948 and deservedly so - later popularized effectively by Jerry Lee Lewis, for whose tastes it truly seems to have been almost tailor-made. The 'Spo-Dee-O-Dee' is, of course, a euphemism for everybody's favourite four-syllable expletive, but that's not the best thing about the song. The best is, of course, its driving rhythm, Stick's sly, insinuating vocal performance, a prototype for Chuck Berry and the like, and his fabulous guitar break, from where it all began. The first track on the boxset which I honestly and openly enjoy for much more than simply historical reasons.
8. Ruth Brown: So Long [C+]
The first truly "major" artist in this collection, although off to a somewhat inauspicious start; in the beginning of her career, the future "Miss Rhythm" was mostly saddled with generic lounge material, the only reassuring moment in which was her already powerful singing. It's a pleasure to see her weave her way through the melody, but she's not the only one, after all, and musically this has about as much to do with R'n'B as Gilbert & Sullivan. The only good news is that it's so short and that the completely non-descript music never overshadows the singing - which, incidentally, appealed so much to everybody that it got her nine weeks of chart life.
9. Ruth Brown: I'll Get Along Somehow [B-]
Another one in the same vein, an even older and more 'conservative' lounge tune this time, but also a little bit more expressive, giving Ruth more power to stretch out - the midsection, in terms of pure vocal energy, is unbeatable in particular. She's being backed by Budd Johnson's Orchestra this time, with Tyree Glenn quite prominent on trombone... in the introduction, that is; everywhere else the band is predictably muffled down due to obligatory genre requirements. Not much else to say, though.
10. Professor Longhair & His New Orleans Boys: Hey Little Girl [A]
This guy could sure play a mean piano. This could have been a pretty average blues standard, nothing to write home about - but this guy could sure play a mean piano. Oh, he's a pretty cool raspy raunchy singer, too, but man could he ever play a mean piano. Certainly the biggest inspiration for late-comer Dr John, as well as miriads of other colourful coloured performers. Roy Byrd, aka Professor Longhair, has this awesome manner of playing a simple, but steady bass line with one hand and tricky lead lines with the other, way before Ray Manzarek did that for the Doors; in addition, on this particular tune the two parts are ever so slightly dis-coordinated, so you get a feeling that something weirdly dissonant is going on when in reality it does not - it's just that he's got this awesome knack for playing two different melodic patterns at the same time. And singing. And soloing. And completely self-taught - naturally, because nobody could have taught him this style.
11. Professor Longhair & His New Orleans Boys: Mardi Gras In New Orleans [A+]
Otis Redding's whistling on 'Dock Of The Bay' (coming up later in the set!) is occasionally mentioned as one of the, if not the, greatest use of whistling to be captured on a pop record, but I'd say the Prof's performance on this here tune comes dang close. The song hasn't become one of the quintessential Mardi Gras anthems for nothing: bar the cool-as-hell whistling and the great vocal performance, it's got this absolutely insane piano melody going on - again, there's a bass line played with one hand and an almost rock'n'roll-ish, frantically attuned lead melody done with the other. The paradox is that the tune itself is slow and lazy, just as befits a true New Orleaner; but the lead part is hustlin'-and-bustlin', just as befits the actual life in New Orleans. There's no piano solo this time (Charles Burbeck is given a chance to shine on the sax instead), but who really needs it, what with all the whistling going on? One of these tunes that gives the city a much better reputation than all the Cajun food put together.
12. Harry Van Walls Orchestra with Spider Sam: Tee Nah Nah [B-]
Back to so-so material for a while. This is bluesy, too, but with very little personality; Harry Van Walls is usually recognized as a darn good piano player in his own rights, but he's pretty darn muffled on here, only getting a short, restrained solo, and so, by the way, is Frank Culley, contributing a standard tenor sax part, far removed from the excitement of 'Cole Slaw'. The vocals are handled by 'Spider Sam', a pseudonym of Brownie McGhee used for contractual reasons - nice, but way too "lounge-y" for my taste, especially when taken right after the grizzly delivery of Professor Longhair. All in all, just one more reminiscence of the fact that true R'n'B did not appear overnight, but actually had quite a prolonged and painful birth period.
13. Al Hibbler: Danny Boy [C]
Sorry, not what I'm looking for at all. Fans of heart-wrenching Broadway crooning are welcome, but I can easily picture my life - and anybody else's, for that matter - without black boys trying to sing like Bing Crosby. Al has sure got a great set of pipes, and the song is far from the worst thing you can get out of traditional American entertainment, but the arrangement is slick and soulless at heart, and the melody is reduced to the obligatory pompous nothing so typical of bad musicals. The fact that something like this could ever penetrate R&B charts just goes to show that by early 1950, it was still unclear what R&B was in the first place.
14. Joe Morris Orchestra: Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere [B]
Joe goes vocal, adding the young, gifted, and black Laurie Tate to the orchestra. Apparently this was a major hit in the early Fifties, but it's still dabbling in the "old style" somewhat. Personal remark - Laurie is a bit too high-pitched for my taste, making it impossible to actually concentrate on the music in the background - every time I turn the volume up just a little, I immediately end up with a headache and am forced to sacrifice thoroughness for physical health. Still, she's got a great set of pipes, no mistake about that, and at least this has nothing to do with crooning - the song is undeniably bluesy and proud of it. If you manage to attune your ears to the proper wavelength, you might even get some major kicks out of it.
15. Ruth Brown: Teardrops From My Eyes [A+]
Ruth's first big hit, and a well-deserved one. All it took was a little bit of speed: the soulfulness and (potential) emotional richness have now been enriched with an upbeat, danceable rhythm. This ain't rock'n'roll, but it sure is just as powerful. The melody is generic blues, for sure, but it's dang catchy; and besides, we're not talking advances in songwriting here, we're taking it all in context, and the context is gritty, unlike so much of that other stuff we'd been sitting through. When Ruth makes a pause and the brass section soars up for the instrumental passage, it's kick-ass time all the way, with Budd Johnson's tenor sax the most prominent voice in the crowd. And you can just see the woman strutting her stuff - "Miss Rhythm" indeed!
16. Stick McGhee: One Monkey Don't Stop No Show [A]
"Drinkin' Wine Spoo-Dee-O-Dee" may have been the prototype for a million rock'n'roll tunes; this song may as well have been one for miriads of uninventive, good-timey, mid-tempo blues-rock jams. Fortunately for us, prototypes and archetypes are frequently so much more fun to listen to, and this classic show-stopper is no exception. Good ol' Sticks sings and plays like there was really no tomorrow, and delivers some genuinely funny and witty lyrics, too (the tune is actually self-penned for once). Check out some of these licks, now go tell me the guy wasn't a huge influence on Chuck Berry - who, in turn, was a huge influence on everybody else. Sure this has dated a bit, as much as everything else on this first disc, but then, so has the Beaujolais of 1896, and you don't find no monkeys complaining about that sad twist of fate.
17. The Clovers: Don't You Know I Love You [B+]
The vocal groups make their triumphant entry on the album. Well, maybe not that triumphant. This Clovers tune is a cozy cuddly little bluesy shuffle with cozy cuddly vocal harmonies and cozy cuddly sax playing. Hardly anything too revolutionary or groundbreaking, but at least it's not crooning - and there's enough of that subtle tongue-in-cheekiness attitude that protects songs from the pest of overemoting and extra undeserved pomposity, most of it expressed through John Bailey's shaky, quivery "little-man" vocals. It does boast a better production than all those early Ruth Brown numbers, for instance, with the music being way more upfront and Frank Culley's sax playing in a fine light for all to see.
18. The Cardinals: Shouldn't I Know [B-]
I still find sentimentalism among vocal groups seriously more grating than tongue-in-cheek playfulness, so this Cardinals tune automatically fails to reach the "heights" of the Clovers for me. Still, it's not all that offensive. The guitar part is very light and pretty, and the lead tenor guy doesn't really get on your nerves all that much, plus, he leaves enough space to the supporting brothers to showcase their versatility. Aw shucks, nothing recorded in that era can really be all that offensive, provided the quality control and the fact that it's all done by living, breathing, professional people on living, breathing, professional instruments. But it's not the kind of stuff I'm interested in; and besides, if you really want to check out the sweet sappy bluesy multi-vocal sound, wouldn't Motown rather be your thing?
19. Big Joe Turner: The Chill Is On [A-]
The first true "blues giant" figure on the set. As much as Big Joe is likeable and a great singer and all, though, I'd say Harry Van Walls' piano playing really steals the spotlight. No longer shoved in the background as, paradoxically, it used to be on the tracks actually credited to Harry Van Walls Orchestra, it now absolutely smokes, with Harry playing as many different figures, loops, somersaults, and trapezias as the blues structure can allow. Of course, in the modern world, populated by a couple hundred thousand professional blues piano players all of which took lessons from pioneers like Harry, it's pretty dang hard to appreciate his contributions. But perhaps in conjunction with the smokey, grizzled up lounge atmosphere and Turner's wall-rattling voice it'll be somewhat easier.
20. Big Joe Turner: Chains Of Love [B+]
Big Joe's first big hit with Atlantic. The lounge atmosphere is even more pronounced here than on 'The Chill Is On', but as long as the ultimate combination of Turner and Van Walls is together, that's alright by me. I still like 'Chill' better, though, it being a bit more tough and upbeat. The best thing about the song is probably that little sequence of piano tinkle issued by Harry during the first five seconds - or, rather, its cute deceptiveness; it leads you into expecting something old-timey, play-it-again-Sam-style, but the final result is something way more modern sounding, at least for the early Fifties. Turner's singing is wonderful - just an ounce of crooning to melt the ladies' hearts, yet framed by a harsh, trademark-bluesman tone.
21. The Clovers: Fool Fool Fool [A-]
Doo-wop 'n' blues, the perfect combination. Once again, the Clovers deliver a minor, deliciously lightweight, gem, penned, if the liner notes are to believed, by no other than Ahmet Ertegun himself. (No Turkish flavour whatsoever, though). Everything works, except for, perhaps, the somewhat inane lyrics (I could swear that the middle-eight goes 'when I saw you walking down the street, I said there goes my meat' - now wouldn't that be nice?). Willis Jackson blows a mean sax, John Bailey's vocals are hilarious and charming, and the harmonies are simple - by modern standards, that is - but impeccable. All that's left for perfection is a good piano player.
22. The Clovers: One Mint Julep [A+]
The peak of this early Clover-creativity period. The last missing ingredient is in place: Harry Van Walls' piano tinkle, gripping you with its deliciously corny mystery from second number one and never letting go. Against this no-can-fail device, the band engages in their most playful and establishment-tickling concoction so far, a song so spicy and attractive that it must have served as the prototype for at least a couple dozen Leiber-Stoller hits, including 'Young Blood' (the 'I met her Dad' motive) and 'Love Potion # 9' (the melody and atmosphere in general). The vocals, as usual, are impeccable (culminating in the unforgettable 'I got six extra children from a-gettin' frisky!' bass line), and it doesn't even need a sax solo in order to look complete. Seek no further if you're into getting your kicks out of the pre-rock'n'roll era; the Clovers and Stick McGhee prove that rock'n'roll as we know it didn't even have to happen.
23. The Cardinals: Wheel Of Fortune [B-]
Now really, the Cardinals are indeed the Yin to the Clovers' Yang. Again, this isn't so much actively offensive as it is just boring. Technically, it's an improvement over 'Shouldn't I Know' in that the harmonies are much more complex, but you know what - they'd have rendered humanity a far better service if they'd just keep the harmonies and leave the whining tenor guy out of all this. At least the lyrics aren't anywhere near as trite this time, but then stop me before I actually start discussing the lyrics in a mediocre doo-wop song.
24. Big Joe Turner: Sweet Sixteen [A]
Slowly squeezing the lounge out of the blues - this is technically in the same style as 'Chains Of Love', but both Turner and Van Walls are on a fuckin' roll; neither of them had sounded that confident and happy to revel in his own potential as before. Big Joe gives out a real tour-de-force, transforming an ordinary blues performance into one single wail of emotion - his voice travels a million miles where in some less apt throat it would just stay in one place. And Van Walls almost seems to forget this is a slow, moody one, rattling away at the keyboards as if he were the long-lost father of Jerry Lee Lewis or something (listen to him take off at about 1:53 into the song, ain't that rock'n'roll?). Didn't like it too much at first - grew on me at an insane rate, though. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wanna do generic blues right, take a lesson here.
25. Ruth Brown: 5-10-15 Hours [A]
A little more homely than 'Teardrops', noticeably underarranged in comparison, but that's mighty fine by me, as it gives Ruth an even better chance to show off the vocal power. This is her sexiest one yet, lyrics, intonations, modulations, and interjections comprised. Rudy Toombs' melody is generic and minimalist, but the feeling is quite genuine, and there's an atmosphere of sweet raunchiness like there'd never been before. It's also way bouncier than the bebop it grew out of, danceable and groovable all the way. Gotta love the lyric 'If you ever think about me Daddy won't you let me know/I will be your loving baby, you can be my so-and-so'.
26. Willis Jackson: Gator's Groove [B]
A more than appropriate conclusion to the first disc; on its own, the track would mostly just prompt one into saying "wow, exuberant" and then moving on to nobler goals in life, but when put at the tail end of the "early years" period of Atlantic, it's like a pompous big band summarisation, the final credits to a triumphant Hollywood happy end. Willis Jackson's got marvelous lungs and a great sense of timing, but I'm even more impressed by the powerhouse drummer, whoever he is; the BOOM effect on here is unlike anything recorded at Atlantic until that time, in fact, sounding frighteningly ahead of its time, too. I'm pretty sure that's a Hammond organ in the background there as well - the first apparition of such, too?
CD II (1952-1954)
1. The Clovers: Ting-A-Ling [A]
By now you know you can't go wrong with the Clovers, so even if God himself comes down to tell me this song is shitty, I will just have to continue reveling in agnosticism. Boppy and doo-woppy again, in pretty much the same vein as 'One Mint Julep', but why mess with a great formula if you've only just invented it? Plus, I can totally see millions of young black (and white) boys identifying with the lyrics - the Clovers perform songs written for the common man, not for a Hollywood soundtrack, and that gives them, nay, not extra charm, their main charm. The lyrics are actually minimal - the bluesy form, the intercutting sax solo, and the relatively slow pace of the song allow for just a few lines in these three minutes - but how much more do you need other than 'Well I'm just a poor young boy/And these girls about to drive me wild?'. Also, supposedly this is one of the last instances where the expression 'rock and roll' has to be taken in its former, non-music-related meaning...
2. Ruth Brown: Daddy Daddy [B]
Well, I can't go giving out A's to everything Ruth Brown put out, so here's a B to a relatively minor number. It wasn't one of her major hits, and for an understandable reason - the arrangement is relatively sparse and the whole thing is sort of a throwback to the previous decade, not modern-sounding enough to be a great success (still hit #3, though). The piano parts are delicious (Van Walls? the liner notes do not specify the player), and Ruth seemingly gives a little Ella impression along the way. The song ends with the same "pseudo-fade-out" as '5-10-15 Hours', which makes me wonder if the technique of a real fade-out was acceptable in the early Fifties in the first place.
3. Ray Charles: The Midnight Hour [B+]
Well, it's... Ray Charles. Who am I to knock Ray Charles. The worst I can say is that 'The Midnight Hour' is not one of my favourite tunes of his, but still, it would be a million fuckin' times worse if sung by anybody other than Ray. Slow, intentionally lazy and contemplative, not too hot on instrumental skill, but completely redeemed by the finest of finest vocal performances. Ray's suave rasp is arguably the best thing in the male vocal department that ever happened to Atlantic - enough to forget the crooning embarrassment of Al Hibbler, and beating even such grizzled veterans as Professor Longhair and Big Joe Turner. He plays a cool little piano solo, too.
4. The Diamonds: A Beggar For Your Kisses [B-]
Again, I accept the professionalism, but I always choose the "lightweight" over the "heartbreaking" when it comes to vocal groups. These guys are sweet and all, but they are even sappier than the Cardinals, especially with these hockey chimes around. The melody is considerably well-written, no doubt about that, and the three-part harmony arrangements are arguably the best thing about the song, with the tenor and the bass leading their parallel lines for most of the song's duration and creating a sonic background that was quite unusual for the times. So, technically, this is flawless, but that's the rub: it's so much formula that I can't bring myself to shed the necessary tear. Fortunately for me, or else the next logical move would be to go rent Sleepless In Seattle.
5. Ruth Brown: Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean [A+]
The coolest song of Ruth Brown's career remains as cool today as it was in 1952. The ace card is out: this girl can be one hell of a screamer, and deliver a performance grittier and rougher than all them wussy male cats that we'd already heard. There's little reason to doubt that it was the hysterical 'MamaAA!' yell, with the shrill last note to it, that served as a major inspiration for Little Richard, and the ferociousness with which she revs herself up on the long verses as they rush towards the chorus was arguably unprecedented. No wonder Atlantic had to re-issue the single - I fell totally in love with the song upon hearing it more than fifty years since its birth, and I can only imagine the impact it made then - with the vocals, the ultra-catchy, generically bluesy but still original melody, and the proto-feminist lyrics. Last, but not least, kudos to Mickey Baker for making it guitar-driven and adding a real rock'n'roll spirit to the thing.
6. The Clovers: Good Lovin' [A]
This is somewhat different. The Clovers try on a much fuller sound here, relying more on the ever-growing complexity of their collective vocal patterns rather than the "one nice tenor guy with inobtrusive backing vocals" principle. (Presumably this has to do with John Bailey leaving the band for draft reasons, and the somewhat less vocally stunning Charlie White filling in his shoes). The result is, on one hand, somewhat anthemic, on the other hand, makes you wanna pay more attention to all the wonderful ba-du-ba-ing of the "backing" vocals rather than the lead part this time, which is almost consciously left a little bit underworked. The worst thing I can say is that it's goddamn hard to sing along to the song, much as it invites you to. The other complaints are non-existent. Great Clovers fun, as usual, and a deserved classic.
7. Ruth Brown: Wild Wild Young Men [A]
Her fastest one yet, and this time they really mean it when they put the "rock and roll" phrase inside the lyrics. Where 'Mama' was defensive sexuality, this one is pure aggression by definition, and Ruth does everything she can to transmit that feeling - the vocal climaxing in the mid-section is as awesome as can be. Sure the main melody is, again, rather rudimentary - a direct sequence of being penned by A. Nugetre, our favourite Turk's name spelled in reverse - but how much does that matter? You could argue that neither Elvis nor Jerry Lee nor Chuck nor anybody else we know so well in that decade had really improved upon the amount of kick-ass energy displayed here.
8. Ray Charles: Mess Around [A-]
Previously only experienced by me in the every-bit-as-good, but, of course, somewhat different Animals version. Once you have dug just a wee bit into the Fifties, though, that playful piano intro and its seamless transition into the head-spinning fast blues melody can't be confused with anything else. All of a sudden the suave rasp of 'The Midnight Hour' disappears into thin air, and what we have is a frantic rock'n'roller - a small impediment like blindness sure ain't gonna prevent Uncle Ray from outrocking and outrolling all competition. Just a brief comparison of this drunken rave with 'Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee' goes to show how far the standards had progressed in but four short years. (Not that 'Wine' wasn't an outstanding achievement for its own epoch - far more outstanding, in fact, than 'Mess Around' for its own; but surely the average modern audience will feel it easier to identify with the latter than the former).
9. Big Joe Turner: Honey Hush [A]
'Shake, Rattle & Roll' may be the one Big Joe song that everybody's familiar with, but 'Honey Hush' actually came first, and they're both practically the same song, so I can only attribute the latter's huger success to the whoppin' anthemicness of the chorus. Nevertheless, 'Honey Hush' was far from a flop as well. Here we have one more proof of the overall tendency to speed it up, replacing six-shooters with rapid-fire machine-gunning; first Ruth Brown, then Ray Charles, now Big Joe is also turning from slow soulful declarations to rock baby roll. The Pluma Davis' Orchestra does a great job on the backing track, especially the all-powerful brass section, and Joe is arguably having more fun than anywhere else on here - listen to all the crazy tricks he's pulling off during the final 'hi-ho Silver' part. Yet another definite highlight and a major link in the "establishment of the rock'n'roll sound" chain.
10. LaVern Baker: Soul On Fire [B]
The former "Little Miss Sharecropper" has a predictably immaculate way of singing (otherwise why would Atlantic take an interest in the first place?), but, as it always happens, first time around is no great shakes. Just like Ruth Brown before her, LaVern starts out with "inoffensive" stuff, like this mild, unmemorable lounge ditty that could have been sung with similar effect by just about any crooner in the business. She does give it extra personality - the 'set my soul on fire!' line is belted out like her soul really is in flames - but not that much personality, although probably just enough to get rid of the "Miss Sharecropper" tag she'd been wearing for half a decade now.
11. Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters: Money Honey [A]
The high rating is due to the quality of the song itself rather than the group singing it. What can I say? I'm a white-ass bitch raised on Elvis' version, and while I won't fall into the racist trap of trying to establish who's the real cool one - Elvis or McPhatter - the grittier, guitar-based, rock'n'rollish arrangement of Elvis gets my vote in this particular case at least. Which isn't to say I'm not enjoying the Drifters' original spin, or that McPhatter doesn't give it his all, or even that the saxophone break is boring. Fine song, classy performance, and it's nice to acknowledge that the Drifters - at least, while McPhatter was still with them - chose to follow the route of the Clovers rather than the Cardinals.
12. The Clovers: Lovey Dovey [B+]
Another big hit for the boys, although perhaps not quite as interesting in melody and/or arrangement terms as before. This can be considered somewhat of a slow proto-rockabilly number, catchy, fun, and quite predictable, apart from maybe the slowly building - and then quickly falling - midsection. Not much of a departure from the 'Good Lovin' sound, actually, although the vocal harmonies are less complex. Van Walls, as usual, cooks hard in the background but is hard-ly heard behind all the harmonies and (occasional) saxes. The liner notes do call to mind that, although this is a slow one, it was neither blues nor ballad - which made it different. But it's not that much slower than everything else the Clovers had been doing, actually. It's their usual, regular, and quite nutritious schtick.
13. Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters: Such A Night [A]
Okay, this is where Elvis moves over, because this song was certainly made for McPhatter and no-one else. The jolliest, most invitingly danceable piano rhythm as of yet carries the tune, but without Clyde's high-pitched blasts it would have been nothing more than a piece of fluffy, innocent, easily forgettable teenie pop. As it was, it became yet another monster hit for the band, and introduced a new type of vocalist - neither a 'little man' nor a 'crooner', but something of a more emancipated, playboyish-like character, if you get my drift - or should that be "if you get my drift-er"?
14. Professor Longhair: Tipitina [B+]
Meanwhile, far away in the city of New Orleans, Professor Longhair was still growing his hair and keeping on doing his thing. Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, the Clovers, and the Drifters may have shaken the foundations, but the Professor was too far away to care, naturally. Unsurprisingly, 'Tipitina' is just more of the same: deep comically-shaded bawling over weird crooked piano riffs that sound like nobody else's. The melody is even more generic than usual - you'd easily recognize it from 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy', among other standards - but the chords are just whack, making it doggone hard for the drummer to keep in time. It's like he was doing a drunk man impersonation - somehow moving, and moving quite progressively, along the road, but completely incapable of keeping a straight line, yet reaching the final destination safe and sound all the same. It's too bad this playing style pretty much died out in traditional bluesmaking together with the Professor - might have made things in the genre far more interesting.
15. Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters: White Christmas [A-]
A heck of a Christmas tune. Nothing too Christmas-ey about the mood or the melody (apart from a brief "jingle bells jingle bells jingle bells" scatty bit in the end), which just may be the reason why it is one of those perfect Christmas songs, devoid of the usual cliches. The main gimmick here is that Bill Pinkney sings the first two verses in his deepest bass, and then McPhatter takes over with the high pitch, pulling the song in an entirely different direction and giving it the necessary chintz'n'blintz. The best thing about it, however, may just be the choral backing vocals, so solemn and playful at the same time.
16. Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters: Honey Love [B]
If you don't know this in its original version, you might be familiar with it through the Elvis version of 'I Need Your Love Tonight', as the latter is more or less the same song, just sped up and electrified the white-rock'n'roll way. The 'honey' on here is way different from the 'honey' in 'Money Honey' - cooed out in the classic honey-lovin' McPhatter way, but the Drifters don't go for sheer sappiness; 'Honey Love' is, above and beyond all, a light, catchy dance ditty. The - as usual - groovy backing vocals make the song twice as interesting as it would otherwise be, culminating in the ridiculously hilarious and hilariously ridiculous stern "hit it boy!" just as the song enters its final five seconds. Gotta love it.
17. Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters: Whatcha Gonna Do? [B+]
Whaddaya know, these guys are quite able to pull off a fast one, too - and McPhatter's ultrasound-defying vocals can rock the house down in their own special way. Since the tune is also credited to 'A. Nugetre', you don't expect too much songwriting to be involved; the one reason we're listening to this is to appreciate the Drifters's backing harmonies in revved-up mode and see whether the entire result is worthy of the recent legacy of Big Joe Turner and Ray Charles. Well, it's not quite like that, too smooth and toothless, I guess, but it'll do fine and dandy for pure toe-tapping fun. Besides, McPhatter's vocal modulation on the verses constitutes a particular hook of its own.
18. Big Joe Turner: Shake Rattle And Roll [A]
The song that made history - although, as I have already mentioned, it's essentially a re-write of 'Honey Hush'. Again, in terms of rapid-fire aggressive rock'n'roll excitement the Elvis version might be better suited for our ears, white ones at least, but definitely not courtesy of the lead singer, since Big Joe's got much more of that natural flame in him, where Elvis is just carrying the torch. Sorry for all the comparisons, but truth is, this early bearded rock'n'roll stuff does not lend itself well to self-sufficient description. The most noteworthy thing here, I guess, is the preservation of the original lyric ("well you wear low dresses, the sun comes shinin' through/I can't believe my eyes all that mess belongs to you") which predictably got censored in the "white" versions of the song. It's also funny to realize that 'Shake Rattle And Roll' made Big Joe Turner into, essentially, the founding father of black rock'n'roll, even if he was anything but a veteran rocker at heart. Perversely, something like one year later just about the same thing "accidentally" happened to Bill Haley...
19. The Chords: Sh-Boom [A]
For some reason, this song was chosen as the scapegoat for the whole "keep it simple, stupid" attitude of the nascent r'n'b genre. Why? Because it happened to be popular and its title was 'Sh-Boom', instead, of, I dunno, 'Every Cloud Must Have A Silver Lining'. In reality, it's not one iota simpler than most of the other tracks on this disc, just more upbeat and a wee bit more juvenile in attitude. But it's got a tricky harmony arrangement, a cool sax solo, and a (relatively) complex verse structure - it's not even one of those intentional exercises in lobotomy like 'Surfin' Bird'. Unfortunately, the Chords are not known for any other successes - but this shiny happy pastiche is sure worthy of being the 'Don't Worry Be Happy' of its decade, and I would take it over the entire Bing Crosby catalog.
20. Ruth Brown: Oh What A Dream [B]
Miss Rhythm returning to the land of slow soulful ballads. This was a major hit, too, but apparently she had to establish herself as the mother of rock'n'roll before people would start treating her soulful material seriously as well - because, frankly speaking, there's no big abyss separating 'Oh What A Dream' from her early lounge stuff. She may have gained extra experience and professionalism, and the bluesiness of the melody makes it ever so much hipper than 'I'll Get Along Somehow', but still I do like her so much better in the "wild young men" mode. Alas, Harry Van Walls is no longer providing piano backing as well, making the arrangement pretty undistinguished. Still - no denying the awesome vocal power, so you won't catch me nyah nyah nyah.
21. Tommy Ridgley: Jam Up [B+]
Rock'n'roll, baby. The fastest, wildest, and most unhinged instrumental performance as of yet - it's funny to compare it with the early Joe Morris Orchestra tracks and see just how far the label had gone in less than a decade. Ridgley himself doesn't do much except for shouting out encouragements, but his band establishes a simple, efficient groove and the members take turns to solo, mostly all kinds of saxes plus a brief stinging guitar break from Ernest McLean. As dated as the approach may sound to today's ravers, the track still manages to get me going every time. At the very least, it doesn't sound one tiny bit less full-powered than the best of Fifties' rock'n'roll; more powered, in fact, than much of it.
22. Al Hibbler: After The Lights Go Down Low [B-]
Okay, this is much better than 'Danny Boy', but still Al Hibbler just doesn't quite seem the right choice for Atlantic, to me; it's hardly a coincidence that he only recorded for the label during several very limited time periods, the second of which culminated in this song. He does belong to the Duke Ellington crowd, rather, or maybe just to anybody who's ready to play gaudish lounge music all day and all of the night. Coming right off 'Jam Up', it's like hearing the Dave Clark Five in the age of Frank Zappa. Besides, I just don't like his voice. I think he might have been a big influence on Tom Jones, although I'd rather you wouldn't quote me on that.
23. LaVern Baker: Tomorrow Night [B-]
Pretty much the same style as 'Soul On Fire'; it's a little hard to believe that this crocodilishly traditional behemoth of a solemn lounge tune was recorded in a single session with the simplistic, lightweight, but far more "modern" 'Tweedle Dee'. The origins of the song date back to the late Fourties, and the only interesting thing, as usual, are LaVern's vocals, deeper than the Grand Canyon and defying most of the tired old metaphors tried by people for centuries. She's got a great range, but that's just not my style, you know, unless you put it in a Rita Hayworth movie, where it truly belongs, unlike this collection, where Ray Charles and the Clovers are effectively machine-gunning its effects.
24. LaVern Baker: Tweedlee Dee [A-]
Just like Ruth Brown before her, LaVern finally makes the transition into the world of hot frenzier youthful music. But with LaVern, for some reason, it was the "nursery rhyme" kind of song that became her chief plat du jour. No big deal, though - gimme a good set of pipes and a great musical backing out here, and you could be singing the Constitution of the United States for all I care. Maybe it was the success of 'Sh-Boom' that made Atlantic tap into the giggly world of kiddie silliness some more (although once you read deeper into the lyrics, of course, all these 'apple pies' and 'bubblegums' turn out to be far more adult-oriented than one might think); anyway, the deed is done, and what you got is a fun, catchy, boppy, somewhat samba-ish toe-tapper with a fully confident and convincing delivery. Maybe the song doesn't quite give LaVern enough room to shine (material like 'Tomorrow Night', being so much looser, has some advantage in this respect), but it's all a matter of a nitpick rather than a picnic, if you know what I mean.
25. Ray Charles: I Got A Woman [A]
This was later picked up by Elvis, who made it even faster and harsher, a real tough "white" rocker with furious (for the time) guitar solos and stuff. But he ain't got nothing on Ray all the same, for whom the song means so much more - it's the old classic example of taking that old spiritual sound and suddenly giving it a sexual appeal. He actually got a lot of flack for it back in those days, but today 'I Got A Woman' stands out as one of these proverbial landmarks in artistic liberation and, of course, rock'n'roll history. Ray's vocals are magnificent as usual, stretching almost to breakdown point where necessary ('she's my baby, don't you understand?'), and the only possible complaint is that the piano is so goddamn low in the mix.
26. Ray Charles: Greenbacks [A]
Hands down the most hilarious tune on the whole passage, even if there's relatively little going on, music-wise; the lyrics are clearly the main focus of attention - although when the full band kicks in, it's the usual Ray Charles-led bucket of class. If the unforgettable chorus - 'on a greenback, greenback dollar bill! just a little piece of paper coated with chlorophyll' - don't get you going, then what about lines like 'whenever you're in town and looking for a thrill - if Lincoln can't get it, Jackson sure will'. Heck, the whole song's quotable from top to bottom. The sax solo in the middle is pretty mean as well, as if the guy were blowing through a fuzzbox or something.
CD III (1955-1957)
1. The Cardinals: The Door Is Still Open [B-]
Sigh. Not these guys again. I was so well off without them through the entire second disc. Yeah yeah yeah, it's the same professional sweet-to-the-brink blameless perfectionist doo-wop. I have absolutely no problems with that. I just don't like it, that's all. I don't like the guy's voice, I don't like the arrangement, I don't like the sentiment. Please take your well-deserved pop success and your record industry awards and your five thousand hours of airplay and go away. Now and for all. This isn't r'n'b. You are not invited.
2. Big Joe Turner: Flip Flop And Fly [A-]
If it ain't broke don't fix it yes indeed 'n' sure I do. This is practically and absolutely the same song as 'Shake Rattle & Roll' with a different - to be fair, marginally more interesting - set of lyrics. So I'm a bit stumped as to what to say. I mean, it's not like you could surprise anybody by ripping off and recycling melodies back then (and things haven't changed much today either), but here you could practically segue one thing into another and nobody'd even wink. Aw, what the heck, it's such a cool sound anyway.
3. Ray Charles: A Fool For You [B+]
We've seen Ray the sexy crooner, Ray the wild man of R'n'B, even Ray the Clown on 'Greenbacks'. Now comes the turn of Ray the Godfather of Soul, as he tries delving deeper into the human spirit and climbing higher onto the decibel level of the human voice. Hookless soul is not my favourite musical genre, but somehow Ray is capable of transforming the very flow of his voice into a hook, never singing the same line twice, making it all seem as highly realistic as it is artistic, if you know what I mean.
4. Ray Charles: This Little Girl Of Mine [B+]
The B-side of 'Fool For You', it gives the impression of a minor toss-off like all B-sides are supposed to, although in reality it's yet another of Ray's major "gospel ==> sex" transformations, having been reworked from a tune called 'This Little Light Of Mine', no less. The song's short length, relatively poor recording quality, and a weird "rushed" attitude probably ensure that it won't make anybody's Top 10 Ray Ditties anytime soon, but it's still pleasant and a decent showcase for the man's range and power, and some of the vocal and instrumental moves make it into an enticing preview of the soon-to-come and, obviously, far superior 'Hallelujah I Love Her So'.
5. LaVern Baker: Play It Fair [B-]
I honestly like her much better when she's tweedlee-deeing and tweedlee-dotting. The vocals are outstandingly powerful, and the backing band is outstandingly versatile, but in the general Atlantic context, these two "outstandings" border dangerously on "generic". Overall, I qualify the ballad as boring, although the instrumental brass section is funny - especially when Sam Taylor's sax gives these two "tentative" puffs as if he's not really sure whether he's allowed to start wailing away or not.
6. The Drifters: Adorable [B]
The band's first big single without McPhatter, freshly "drifted" into the army (sorry, couldn't resist a pun attack here). New replacement Johnny Moore isn't quite as "adorable" as his predecessor, though, so they try to compensate by making the melody relatively more interesting than usual and raising the fabulous vocal harmony onslaught higher than ever before. To use an out-of-the-past metaphor, Moore is like a fresh water jet out of a clear fountain, whereas the other boys are soft, hypnotically gurgling little waves at the foundation. (Eeek, how about that). I thought at first that the sappy streak might have spread across the band's tablecloth a bit too freely after McPhatter's departure, but it's all very relative, and whatever be, these guys never were no Cardinals.
7. The Robins: Smokey Joe's Cafe [A]
Well, we are entering Leiber-Stoller territory here, and Leiber-Stoller means quality; probably taking their inspiration from other 'quirky' tale-tellers of the recent past like Rudy Toombs, they took on the baton of entertaining us "the insinuating way" and did it with gusto. The Robins, soon to metamorphose into the Drifters, get the honour of retelling yet another dismal tale of human relationships in the form of a classy R'n'B stomp, far heavier on the guitar than usual and featuring the grimmest, grittiest sax break on this boxset as of yet. The 'wah-aah, Smokey Joe's Cafe!' refrain is cleverly placed at all the strategic locations, and the vocals are cooky and funny and all. It's not quite as catchy as 'One Mint Julep' or as famous as 'Young Blood', but every bit as impressive in general. Wherever Smokey Joe's Cafe is situated, it's on my list of places to visit.
8. The Drifters: Ruby Baby [B-]
The Drifters do a moderately fast one, again penned by Leiber-Stoller but with a relatively straight face on this time. Err... upbeat, fast, pretty harmonies, wheezy sax breaks, but lacking anything particularly special due to its fairly common sped-up-blues structure. It's times like these which make me remember that, whatever we think, Atlantic was first and foremost a money-making machine - as long as a certain formula was making money, there was little need to change it. This song, too, was a hit, although in my personal world it wouldn't register anywhere above "condescendingly average".
9. The Cookies: In Paradise [C+]
Beyond the slightly unusual echoey introduction (almost real African drums out there!) and the enticing "dripping" of guitar and piano chords, there's little I can find likeable about this - maybe it's not so big a coincidence that after this song, the Cookies were relegated to back vocal support on Atlantic. The vocals sound silly, stuck somewhere in the middle between real sentiment and kiddie playground (at times bordering on cradle, especially when they start wah-wah'ing), the melody is routine, and the impression doesn't last long. Isn't this the kind of music that provided Frank Zappa and his Mothers with so much source material? Except that the Cookies, unlike Zappa, manage to really bore me as well. And the male "interlude" in the middle is just plain horrible.
10. Big Joe Turner: The Chicken And The Hawk [A]
"Shake Rattle & Roll Vol. 3", but who'd mind? Certainly not Big Joe himself, and at least this time around there's plenty of minor touches that put this ditty in a separate class. Van Walls marks his return with his trademark boogie-tinkle, the saxes play all kinds of cheerful little riffs, the lyrics (Leiber-Stoller again) tell an amusing story, and the chorus hook is slightly different as well. Unlike the previous two times, this whole thing is more playful and humble, as if Joe had consciously abandoned the "anthemic" approach and started innocently little-guying around. In any case, the piano-brass interaction is unbeatable, and I have no choice but to lower the "anti-un-originality" shields and let 'em all in.
11. The Clovers: Devil Or Angel [C]
What the fuck has happened to the Clovers since we last heard 'em? Why is America's formerly hilarious group #1 all of a sudden pushing this generic doo-wop rubbish on us? To be more precise, why are they now attempting to stuff this kind of material on their A-sides, to be later collected boxset-wise, instead of relegating it to the dark side of the 12" moon? Are they considered too old and washed-up for prime material? Have the Drifters whupped their asses? Or the Robins? The Cookies, maybe? I'm speechless. In anybody else's hands, this completely generic, plastic-soul thingie would have been merely forgettable; in the hands of somebody as cool as the Clovers, it's an abomination.
12. Ray Charles: Drown In My Own Tears [A+]
If you only have to hear one Ray Charles song (which is pretty much like saying "if you only want to have sex once in your life"), at least make sure it's this one. And it's not even my favourite musical style of his, the slow, laid back, piano-driven tearful soul. But he gives the tune a reading as powerful as can ever be - in fact, I'm not sure if anybody could really beat this emotional standard until James Brown came along. The vocals are pure magic, never in a look-at-me-I-get-so-hysterical vein, but dripping with concealed, subtle tension, like a carefully isolated wire under which there's a multi-megavolt current beating. He doesn't even need backing vocals - the Cookies only come in at the very few last bars to give the song a slightly more climactic ending. One of the greatest odes to desperation ever performed, period.
13. Ray Charles: Hallelujah I Love Her So [A]
And he hits it again; the song seems a bit misplaced - lightweight optimistic "comedy" next to tense, high-style "tragedy" of the previous tune - but once it is taken on its own merits, it stands out for what it most certainly is, namely, one of the jolliest and catchiest ditties ever performed (and this time, written) by the man. Once again, he gets to be mixin' church influences ("hallelujah") with sexual attraction, but since this ain't no big news by now, the most important thing is probably... well, how about the little drum tap after the "hear her knockin' on my door" line? Yeah, that should probably be it. There's a great rendition of the tune by the Animals that you might also want to hear, but they haven't got much on Ray, really.
14. LaVern Baker: Jim Dandy [A]
1955 closed out niftily with this great nursery romp from LaVern. Again, ballads are ballads, and some ballads are great, but nothing compares with the cheap thrills of nursery-rhyme r'n'b when it's done well. This one is fast, fast, with Van Walls-influenced tinkling piano (player unknown), hilarious mumbling back vocals, and lyrical lines that hint at smut but never quite arrive down there. And for what it's worth, LaVern's fiery 'go, Jim Dandy! go, Jim Dandy!' refrain is every bit as exciting and anthemic as Chuck's 'go Johny go go go go!'. But probably because of the nursery rhyme thing nobody takes this stuff too seriously, which is a pity because it rocks, and rocks good.
15. The Coasters: Down In Mexico [A]
Latin influences? We'll take them. This is the first time you get to hear some Spanish guitar on the album, in fact, not some, but lots of it - simply a whole lotta guitar, acoustic, electric, whatever, which is refreshing after so many sax-dominated performances. (Not that there ain't no saxes on here, but they almost come off as an afterthought). Once again, Leiber & Stoller are coming up with something maliciously tongue-in-cheeky, seductive and gleefully immoral; Carl Gardner delivers the last lines with a devilish smirk, inviting you to taste certain decidedly un-puritan pleasures down there, south of the border. No obvious blues, no predictably cliched lyrics, this is unprecedented and a lot of sleazy pseudo-Mexican fun.
16. Big Joe Turner: Corrine Corrina [A-]
Get this: it's Big Joe again, and it is not a rewrite of 'Shake Rattle & Roll'. That should have settled all the problems, but, of course, there's also the little one of the song not being terribly interesting in its own rights. (Even if Dylan liked the song enough to turn it in as the only full-band performance on Freewheelin'). Predictably, it's fast proto-boogie blues, with fluent sax parts, the (by now) ever-present Cookies on backup vocals, and Joe in fine form, but then he never happens to be in any other. Er... what else is there to say? Absolutely nothing. Tappity-tap.
17. Clyde McPhatter: Treasure Of Love [C]
McPhatter without the Drifters is like Bryan Ferry without Roxy Music - if you love the guy, you might not even see the difference, but if you're level-headed with him, you might even hate the solo turnout of things. Alas, I belong to the latter category (in this case, at least). Yes, great voice, but this isn't really r'n'b, this is sweety saccharine pop that also happens to be overblown to corny proportions. No wonder it hit the pop charts higher than r&b ones upon release. Sorry, folks, this is the kind of music I will probably never learn to appreciate. And he had to spend two years in the forces to come home and do this? Man, the Army sure has a vandalizing influence over people - look at Elvis for Chrissake.
18. The Clovers: Love Love Love [B-]
And we say goodbye to the Clovers, if not on a particularly high note of their Atlantic career, then at least with a semi-decent wave of the loungey hand. This is upbeat, lightweight, fluffy, a bit delicate, a bit amusing, and featuring the first (and last?) use of a jolly ragtime piano in the arrangement. Anybody in the Thirties could have recorded it, but it's up to the Coasters and the Atlantic engineers to give the song its warm fuzzy sheen. Still there's no getting away from the naggin' feeling that the Clovers are way, way past their prime. So much so that even their last hit, 'Love Potion #9' (not on Atlantic), seems to have been completely overshadowed by the Searchers' cover.
19. Chuck Willis: It's Too Late [C+]
Again, a predictable rating; standard fare doo-wop is standard fare doo-wop and I'm never gonna place it as high as standard fare rock'n'roll even if people start signing petitions. Apparently, Willis "wrote" the song, but I'll be damned if it hadn't already been "written" at least a couple dozen times, and his vocals aren't that good to give it a personality all its own, while the arrangement is pathetically generic. A little flash of excitement bleeps red once they go into the mid-section, but even that one is fully predictable. Basically, it's just another case of a solid artist beginning his career on Atlantic with a "boring ballad test", a tradition initiated by Ruth Brown, if not earlier.
20. Ray Charles: Lonely Avenue [A]
But with Ray Charles you just can't miss, of course. This one is no big emotional tear jerker, but it's a jerker all the same, because of the way the verses are jerked: 'well I FEEL so SAD and BLUE, and it's ALL beCAUSE of YOU...'. The Cookies provide cool detached backing vocals on the chorus, and the song gets by because of its superficially even and collected melancholy, not despite it. Of course, it could have been a disaster if sung by anybody other than Ray, but his rasp is, as usual, unforgettable. In melody terms, this is Ray's most minimalistic piece so far, but then he doesn't really need all that much to make an impression.
21. Ivory Joe Hunter: Since I Met You Baby [C-]
Blah. Blah. Generic, personality-free blues arranged as generic, personality-free doo-wop. At least the Chuck Willis tune was mildly inventive melodically, but this is outrageous even on pure terms of predictable mediocrity. "Remarkable singer and songwriter?" Good singer, zero songwriter, at least judging by this track ('Empty Arms' is moderately better). Placing this thing next to 'Lonely Avenue' is like matching David Bowie with the Osmonds, and can only be excused by the historical nature of the boxset.
22. Ruth Brown: Lucky Lips [B]
The final inclusion from Ruth's catalog is this unpretentious upbeat pop song, not exactly suited one hundred percent for her traditionally powerhouse approach, but... nice. Catchy and entertaining. Maybe it's just the rigidly structured pop melody that leaves so little space for wiggling and twiggling; heck, it doesn't even leave space for a sax solo! For some reason, I've never liked the "repeat last line of the chorus with the help of an entire robot-responding choir" approach (i.e. the 'with lucky lips I'll always have a fellow in my arms' - 'WITH LUCKY LIPS I'LL ALWAYS HAVE A FELLOW IN MY ARMS' thing) unless it was meant humorously, which, on here, it isn't. But, like I said, gimme anything over generic sappy doo-wop.
23. Clyde McPhatter: Without Love (There Is Nothing) [B]
Somewhat better than 'Treasure Of Love', if only due to McPhatter firing all the guns and putting on a truly stunning vocal performance over a melody that's about as interesting as... well, ever. Watching him rise and fall is a delight, no matter what I might feel in general about this approach - and the nicest touch is that he throws in a good amount of vulnerability. The voice shakes and quakes, no longer quite as smooth and "detachably untouchable" as before; look at him wobble his way through the title of the song as if there really was ample reason to wobble. A couple decades later we'd be expecting that kind of stuff from Michael Jackson - but unlike the latter, McPhatter knows where to draw the line. That said, it's still not enough to make me fall in love with the tune.
24. The Drifters: Fools Fall In Love [B+]
Meanwhile, Clyde's former colleagues (well, rather figuratively speaking, of course - most of the original band members had been replaced by the end of 1956) were still doing jolly innocent upbeat stuff, tongue not too firmly in cheek and heart not too openly on sleeve. Leiber-Stoller contributed this one, which means it's certainly catchy, and there's, uh, a guitar solo which, I suppose, is rather unusual, and I really like the sax coda to the song - nice touch. Other than that, rock on.
25. Big Joe Turner: Midnight Special Train [B+]
And now the man is entering the "Corrine Corrina" re-write mode, and as usual, I don't mind. This, unlike the Tony Grimes tune of the (nearly) same name, is the same blues number that most people will be familiar with from the Creedence version, although the lyrics are a real messy hodge-podge that Big Joe might have improvised on the spot, I have no idea. I'd be glad if he did - it'd fit in well with the reckless spontaneity of the performance. The female backup vocals hold pretty well, too, although the backing band goes unnamed in the credits. Nothing earth-shaking (predictably), but a charming way for a guy like Joe to kiss Atlantic goodbye.
26. Ivory Joe Hunter: Empty Arms [C]
Uh... no and no again. Every time Atlantic reminds me of how it used to be the launchpad for terrific, inventive, individual, groundbreaking artists, it immediately follows it up by reminding me of how it used to be a cash-hungry, lowest-common-denominator-pandering, conservative organisation. Granted, the melody is a little more creative than the worn-through pattern of 'Since I Met You Baby', but corny lounge is corny lounge; listening to this stuff always reminds me of the Lou whats-his-name character in Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose. Of course, that guy was an overweight Italian-American cantatore where this guy is an overweight African-American R'n'B performer, but crap music is crap music, no matter what genre, style, mood, weight category, or ethnic state you're in.
27. Chuck Willis: C. C. Rider [B]
For some reason, I've always liked this song much better when it was 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy', heh heh heh. But at least it's predictably and expectably miles better than Chuck's previous contribution. The saxophone break is decent, the background vocals are decent, the vocal melody is decent... geez, I'd probably offer a reward to anybody who'd be able to come up with a unique, challenging description of Chuck Willis doing 'C. C. Rider'. Today, it's pretty amazing to realize that a whole new dance - the stroll - was born out of this performance. But hey, if they say it on TV, uh, I mean, in the liner notes, then it must be true.
28. The Coasters: Searchin' [A]
Now this is just a great song. It isn't particularly well arranged, or exceedingly well sung, or tremendously resonant... it's just a delight in terms of composition. Leiber-Stoller at their best. The 'gonna find her, gonna find her' harmonies are there for eternity. So is the falsetto line about the bulldog. Although the arrangement is actually quite delicious, what with the tinkling ragtime-influenced piano rhythm and all. You can hear the Beatles doing the tune, too, on the first volume of Anthology - and it's nice enough, but recorded at a point when the Beatles weren't yet sure about how to make great white music out of great black one. It's amazing to realize 'Searchin' and 'Young Blood' were actually placed on one and the same single.
CD IV (1957-1960)
1. The Coasters: Young Blood [A+]
Funny, same single as "Searchin'" and the production is so much bigger and glossier. In fact, every single other version of the song I've heard feels kinda midgety compared to the original - not just because the bass is so overwhelmingly loud and the brass so overbrassingly brassy, but also because the singing gives the word "exuberant" a new meaning. The most awesome moment, I guess, is Bobby Nunn's resonant bass on the "you better leave my daughter alone" line where he manages to sound like a threatening human Jewish harp; sheez, they just don't manufacture vocal cords like these any more. The lyrical matter of the song is, of course, classic Leiber-Stoller, and it gives the band a great excuse for showing off their theatrical side, like on 'Down In Mexico' but with a sleazier attitude.
2. The Bobbettes: Mr Lee [B]
From the same whirpool as 'Sh-Boom' and 'Jim Dandy', I guess, comes this next in a series of fluffy, dispensable, ultra-charming nursery rhymes. (Supposedly it's about a teenage crush on a teacher, but hey I'm a straightmannered ol' chump, so gimme none o' that smut). The Bobbettes have some cool girlish power, being able to go from squeaky and innocent to sleazy and roaring. And the tune structure is nice enough, going from twist-like Mother Goose to good ol' fashioned R&B and back. And the "hiccuping" is a fine touch. But somehow the novelty factor starts to get a little grating after a while. And there has to be a reason for the Bobbettes being just a one-hit wonder, too.
3. Clyde McPhatter: Long Lonely Nights [C-]
Ahem. The name of the singer and the name of the song pretty much speak for themselves. Run-of-the-mill lounge music, this, and this time around I can't even acknowledge that the vocal delivery is stunning or fabulous or whatsoever. Hey, I'll even take flashy Broadway over such tripe. Bet your life Norah Ephron loves this stuff, though.
4. Chuck Willis: Betty And Dupree [B-]
If there's one solidly overrated performer on this boxset, it's this guy, and I'm real sorry about his early death, but the only milestone-worthy contribution of his is 'C. C. Rider' and his version isn't even the best one available. 'Betty And Dupree', then, is plainly a 'C. C. Rider' rewrite and a moderately lousier one; the lyrics seem to have been slapped on at the last minute (he probably just forgot to write them and only remembered by the time the tapes were already rolling), the melody is exactly the same down to the lazy sax riffage, and the only individualistic touch is the 'gather round me everybody' introduction which conveys this false gospel impression for ten seconds. At least when Big Joe rewrote his own songs like pancakes, they were fun.
5. Chuck Willis: What Am I Livin' For? [B]
Mildly better, but still set to the 'C. C. Rider' groove. Still, this is a different song, with more of a tender, plaintive ballad mood to it, and the verse melody is nice enough. Don't get me wrong: Chuck is a good singer, and he does convey plenty of emotion. It's just a matter of tough competition, and I don't feel that tracks like these really step out of their filler shoes when you know for sure you got some more Ray Charles coming up. These two and a half minutes of humble doo-wop certainly weren't the worst of my life, though.
6. Chuck Willis: Hang Up My Rock'n'Roll Shoes [B+]
Or maybe, you know, it's just a matter of being artificially tagged and then forced to replay the same style all over again. So if you really want to live up to the "King of the Stroll" title, you gotta do nothing but the Stroll. Doubtless he would have gotten out of it, eventually, if not for the tragically short lifespan. Anyway, this one is, uh, sorta rock'n'rollish but still definitely dressed in the 'C. C. Rider' mantle. Self penned, and popular enough so as to be covered plenty of times (I far prefer the Jerry Lee Lewis version, for one), with a sweaty sax break and even some unexpected grrrrrowling while making the transition from verse to chorus. Maybe really the best of the five Chuck tracks on here, even if not necessarily the subtlest. But I'll still take Big Joe.
7. The Coasters: Yakety Yak [B+]
A relatively minor hit (artistically, I mean, not saleswise) by the Coasters' standards. Leiber & Stoller are obviously trying to cash in on Chuck Berry's "school vibe" here, tossing off lyrics that are funny but not that funny, and the musical backing is so ridiculously, grossly danceable that instead of making me go rock'n'roll it brings on memories of assorted Benny Hill chase scenes (especially the comic sax break). In other words, this is the kind of unsafe territory where "lightweight fluff" goes from unpretentious compliment to obscene lexicon. Still, it's the Coasters, and that's always quality of some sort - and I do like the 'YAKETY YACK! - DON'T GO BACK!" chorus/bass exchange.
8. Clyde McPhatter: A Lover's Question [A]
Clyde's final entry in the boxset is one of his biggest hits and easily the best of his solo numbers. In fact, it reminds me of the original Drifters vibe - not only because the backing vocals are so prominent, but also because there's a nice danceable lightness to the song which McPhatter had previously pretty much traded in for monotonous, boring doo-wop ballads. Here, he's got his usual silky tenderness but isn't trying so hard to slice onions in your face, if you know what I mean, and I respect that. The arrangement is surprisingly spare - just a three-piece instrumental band, no saxes or strings or keyboards, and I guess that's part of the song's minimalist charm as well.
9. LaVern Baker: I Cried A Tear [B-]
I'm a fuckin' superficial sellout, but I liked 'Jim Dandy' much more than this. I even liked 'Soul On Fire' better because her singing out there kind of justified the word "fire" in the title. True enough, her singing here kind of justifies the word "tear" in the title, but for a strong woman like that to go sentimental on our asses... okay, okay, I'm spewing bullshit here (in addition to being uncannily foul-mouthed), but the fact is, the melody is primitive, the drive is zilch, and the "soul" aspect is not very strong. Bring on the Aretha Franklin years.
10. Ray Charles: The Right Time [B+]
I do think it's sort of a "lesser" track for Mr Ray, if only for being so steadily monotonous, but it's still towering miles and miles above the silly Creedence cover version (a Fogerty mismatch if there ever was one!). Here, what really saves the day is Ray's smart decision to cede central spot to one of the Raeletts (former Cookies) midway through before coming back in for the last verse - she's in great form, the girl really is, and as a frenzied duet, it works ever so much better, because otherwise all you'd have'd be those incessant 'waa-doo-lay' and that tends to make a grown man cry. Still, it's a good thing he was blessed with that kind of voice, isn't it? Almost makes him incapable of churning out truly subpar material.
11. The Coasters: Charlie Brown [B+]
It sure can sound weird today how all these guys, once having found a certain new groove, would milk it to the very last drop before moving on to something different. On the other hand, when applied to gastronomic objects, this kind of thing is usually laudable, so why should we complain? 'Charlie Brown' is the same kind of hi-speed romp with crazy saxes up the wazoo as 'Yakety Yak', this time, however, placing the protagonist in a school context and pinning everything down on him so mercilessly that the only reply possible is 'why's ever'body always pickin' on me?'. Once again, the song defines catchy, and although it's a trifle, hey, the biting lyrics will allow you to read any kind of social critique into it. At will.
12. Ray Charles: What'd I Say [A+]
I may be mistaken here, but I think it's primarily the length of this thing - it had to be split in two parts, one part the actual song and one part the 'jam' centered around it to fit onto one single - that was the most innovative thing about it. Nevertheless, it's not the length, but the basic chord sequence that has forever entered our rock'n'roll subconscious, and Ray laid it on here for the first time. He had to know he struck gold with this pattern - what else could explain his taking so much time with the intro? A whoppin' fifty seconds have passed before we're subjected to the first vocals, enough to convince everybody and his grandma that what we have here is an instrumental, and then wham it happens. And then - that jam, the wildest thing recorded in the entire rockin' business by that time. It's no wonder that Jerry Lee Lewis was among the first people to have grabbed the tune for himself, and his is a great version, but as much as I revere Jerry Lee, Ray's original is the 'What'd I Say', and despite the hundred million variations done since then on the subject, it is still the same way. Maybe only 'Louie Louie' and 'Wooly Bully' can compete with it in terms of how so much can be achieved with so little - but 'What'd I Say' has a kind of subtle elegance that is certainly not to be found with those blunt garage outbursts.
13. The Drifters: There Goes My Baby [A]
These aren't the same Drifters. These are a completely different band! And a better band! Benjamin Nelson - future Ben E. King - is just so much better a frontman than Clyde McPhatter, you know. Okay, that's controversial, but there's no denying the fact that the two men have completely different styles, and I, for one, by far prefer King's powerhouse vocals to McPhatter's effeminate crooning. The song, too, is a classic, and an odd one in that it obviously goes for a big, booming, Phil Spector-ish type of sound, and yet the players are constrained by so-so production and, well, too few instruments, which gives it a particular kind of charm. There's echo a-plenty, and strings, and at the same time it sounds so homemade, and completely lacks the polish and gloss of contemporary crooner music. In short, proof enough that sometimes firing all the members of the band is actually better than just firing one - or two - of them.
14. The Coasters: Along Came Jones [A]
Okay, this is where the silliness boils over and the hot steam starts scalding my hands and feet. The clownish sax runs, caricaturesque lyrics, and overdone vocalic stylisations are at their absolute peak, even if any biting social overtones you may occasionally find in Leiber-Stoller's work are trimmed down this time - after all, this is nothing but an innocent little spoof on the concept of the Superhero in Western (or, for that matter, any other) movies. But, as usual, it is wildly catchy; the song structure is even less predictable than usual, with more "spoken" text than on any other Coasters song; and the cute little cackling before the 'along came Jones' chorus is, well, cute. And it really doesn't get sillier than that - no wonder that after this lengthy proto-Benny-Hillian run the Coasters finally switched to something different.
15. Ray Charles: Let The Good Times Roll [B-]
Another stylistic twist for Ray and not one much to my liking. This big fat lounge sound is, I'd say, far more suitable for all those glitzy, but tasteless Marylin Monroe flicks of the time than for Ray's essentially down-to-earth nature. But then again, if I'm not mistaken, Ray always did have a thing for glitz. I could easily do without the almighty trumpets and trombones, beneath the likes of which Ray's piano playing is all but inaudible. Also, the song has this purportedly have-a-good-time atmosphere going on for it, but just how much better was 'Mess Around' - stripped to the bare essentials, fast, rollickin', and catchy? It's not that easy to let the good times roll when they're rolling on so slow and almost retro-jazz-like for the times. Then again, I was never a huge Armstrong admirer either. Interesting trivia: the orchestra was conducted by none other than Mr Quincy "More Than Just Michael Jackson's Producer" Jones.
16. The Coasters: Poison Ivy [A+]
Finally, an entirely different fare for the Coasters, even though it again comes from the Leiber-Stoller team. Not only is there no crazy sax solo, there ain't any kind of solo: just a super catchy pop melody with a faint shade of darkness in the lyrics; no wonder even the Rolling Stones eventually recorded a cover version of the tune (I do prefer the Manfred Mann interpretation, though - a pretty rare case, as it's usually hard to prefer a Manfred Mann interpretation of anything). Absolutely no clowning is involved, either; the Coasters are reverting back to the level of 'Searchin', perhaps afraid that the tomfooling image of the previous three singles might get glued to them once and for all - and for good reason, too.
17. The Drifters: Dance With Me [A]
In the meantime, the Drifters drift on with their new formula. A little sappy, a little stringy, a little catchy, maybe a little less monumentally overwhelming than 'There Goes My Baby', but maybe some like it better that way, too. You can tell the early Stones loved that sound when they were going for something sentimental themselves, but Mick Jagger is no Ben E. King when it comes to this kind of style and this kind of 'whoa-whoah'ing. The string arrangements are particularly nice: they own the melody but don't make any attempt to drown you in its schmaltzy glop. "Bill Davis was the guitarist", the liner notes say, but I don't even hear any guitar - and, surprise surprise, I don't mind.
18. Ray Charles: Just For A Thrill [B]
A fine choice for a goodbye song from old Ray, as this is his last inclusion for Atlantic; nevertheless, a bit too loungy for my tastes. What can you say, this is the kind of music that defines 'bourgeois cool' and nowadays you do expect it to pop up regularly in your average shitty glam movie. Aargh, the things banality can do to decent music. Still, this is Ray, and Ray means class, regardless of the intended audience, and the singing is impeccable and the piano playing is light jazz and champagne and caviar, and guess what - if you just whisk out all the thirteen Ray numbers off here and give them a record all their own, this is the ideal closer. Like, we wouldn't want to blame Ringo for 'Good Night', get it?
19. The Drifters: This Magic Moment [B]
'Dance With Me' Pt. 2. Technically the melody is different, but if you don't pay a heap of attention, you might as well not notice. Easier on the cellos, harder on the violins, the rest is just more Ben E. King and his unbridled romanticism for youse. But oh, I know: this time, there is guitar - a little Spanish flourish in the mid-section when the honey is at its sweetest and even the backing vocals go away because they can prevent the female listening audience from orgasming on the spot. Somewhat overdone, I say; I'll stick with the first part, thanks.