2020-02-13 15:32:27 UTC
As a marketing ploy the term “Made To Order” sounds pretty good in theory. The concept behind it being that rather than mass produce a product in a one-size fits all, “take it or leave it” manner, the consumer gets to have a say in its final design.
Sometimes this is fairly simple and makes perfect sense. Sandwiches at a deli have always been made to order, which is how “Hold the mayo” came to be widely known in the vernacular of society. Buying new vehicles or new computers requires going over the options you want them to have and conversely those you tell them to leave out. Certainly a portrait you commission to have painted has no choice but to be made to order otherwise you’d be buying somebody else’s face to hang on your wall.
But for other things the idea doesn’t hold up very well. If an appliance company had to make every refrigerator or dishwasher to someone’s specific and unique specifications it’d hardly very be efficient. Boxes of cereal that were made to order so you didn’t have to have any red Fruit Loops in your bowl each morning also might be rather inconvenient for the people at General Mills.
If songs were made to order at someone else’s behest it’s a pretty good bet that the end results would usually be fairly dismal and creatively uninspired.
“Usually”… but not always.
When One Door Closes, Another Opens Up
There were, of course, a lot of side effects when it came to the gradual commercial decline of big band jazz during the tail end of the 1940’s but the one which most effects our focus was the migration of prominent jazz sidemen to the ranks of studio musicians for the many up and coming independent labels focusing more of their efforts on the booming business of rock ‘n’ roll.
Apollo Records had actually been one of the first of the indie labels of the 1940’s and their most notable returns came from gospel, but when they started dabbling in rock they quickly came to realize they’d need a reliable, professional and versatile group to provide musical support for a diverse roster of largely unproven hopefuls which is how former Erskine Hawkins alto sax star Bobby Smith came to head up Apollo Records’ sessions.
We’ve met Smith already on Eddie Mack’s first efforts for the label back in November so it’s not necessary to recount Smith’s credentials other than to say he was very good at what he did, not just playing but also writing and arranging. Now we should remind you that he and the rest of his cohorts in the studio were still employed by Hawkins and thus still hoping for a turnaround in jazz’s fortunes, but while they waited for that day to come – and it wouldn’t, at least not to the extent they’d have liked – they were content to earn some dough playing this far cruder material being asked of them.
But pocketing a few bills to spend on booze and after-hours poker games wasn’t their only reason for branching out from Hawkins in this way… for the ambitious Smith it gave him the perfect opportunity for making records of his own. After all, there were no guarantees in the music biz and it always helps to establish your own name to improve your chances for securing future jobs.
As you’d expect from such an aggregation the majority of their output for Apollo under Smith’s name fell into the jazz category, but on Bess’s Boogie they showed they could rock too, and fairly convincingly at that.
The First Lady Of Record Industry
“Bess” was not just some random name picked out of a hat to use as the title of an instrumental, it was named for a very specific lady, that of Bess Berman, the owner of Apollo Records.
She and her husband Ike had founded the company back in 1944 with some of their co-workers at a record store in New York. By 1948 the rigors of owning and operating a label had apparently gotten to be a little much for the others and so the Bermans bought them out at what turned out to be the perfect time, just as the independent companies were collectively rising to challenge the hegemony of the market that the major labels had enjoyed for so long.
Contrary to the prevailing social hierarchy of the day where women were often viewed as second class citizens, it wasn’t Ike who was the one in charge, it was Bess, widely viewed as one of the toughest people, regardless of gender, in the industry at the time. This diminutive Jewish woman approaching fifty years of age put fear into others with her aggressive nature at handling the company’s business.
While her husband oversaw the mechanical side of the company – that is, the actual pressing of the physical records in the plant – Bess was the one doing everything else for Apollo, signing the artists, lining up the sessions, promoting the records, dealing with distributors, jukebox ops and radio personalities, and representing the company in public settings.
She also had plenty of say in the musical direction the label took, which sort of spares Bess’s Boogie from being viewed an egregious form of ass-kissing to the woman writing the checks for Smith and the band (or an equally shameless form of self-aggrandizement by the woman herself in naming it), and instead shows that she was hoping to steer some more of their product into rock ‘n’ roll because that’s where the commercial geese were laying their golden eggs.
Whether or not the band would’ve chosen to head in this direction if the decision had been left up to them, they dutifully submitted to the made to order specifications of a rock record to give their no-nonsense boss what she wanted.
Now Let’s Boogie
The foundation of the song is built solidly on the rock framework as the boogie the title refers to is front and center with a piano laying down the familiar riff that has formed the basis of so much music over time. The horns naturally are going to be featured and while there’s a definite jazz mindset in their tight formation in the intro, they manage play with just enough swagger to convince you their heart was in this excursion into the music that was threatening to render their day jobs extinct.
With the basics established right off the bat Bess’s Boogie is setting up to be a rather good entry to the rock instrumental canon, but when the horns step aside to give the piano a spotlight, probably Ace Harris, he eases off the pressure a little too much, clearly overthinking his part by tossing in slightly quirky patterns on the high end of the keys that won’t hold nearly as much interest for rock fans looking to cut loose as just a no frills pounding boogie would’ve done.
Now your concerns start to take hold again, especially if you’re familiar with their backgrounds, and so if you expect their classier backgrounds are going to do them in you surely wouldn’t be alone. But somewhat surprisingly they don’t veer into the obligatory musical sidetrack that so many jazz cats slumming in rock commonly called the “We don’t like this crap any more than you do, so let’s show you what we really can do while annoying the kids who bought this record” section, and instead when the horns come back the energy picks up again leading into the hottest stretch they’re capable of which returns them to firmer rock ground.
Kicked off by a scream by someone in the background, the tenor proceeds to take a solo that has all of the grit and power we crave, something which can stand with most of the rock degenerates who’ve stood on this stage. While it hands off to Smith’s alto following another scream – maybe that’s how they thought rock acts always communicated with one another – the power decreases with his horn’s lighter tone but the all-important attitude remains firmly intact and the tenor returns to close this part out in fine fashion.
Even better is Leroy Kirkland’s brief guitar solo which features some biting lines, adding a different texture that turns your head. You wish the horns would sit out entirely at this point, as they keep chiming in with their massed group riffs that reflect their jazz pedigrees, but in spite of this the song keeps churning throughout. As expected for someone with as much experience in arranging as Smith, everything fits together well and even the parts which are lacking the impact of the best aspects aren’t ill-fitting, just under-powered for their roles.
Holding Their Own
This wasn’t going to make them headliners in rock ‘n’ roll in spite of turning in a legitimate effort to fit the part, but it’s a good solid rock record with some definite high points that can be admired by even the harshest critic of the many jazz interlopers on the scene.
Granted there’s still a bit of uncertainty when it comes to their decision-making in executing the song that gives away their musical ancestry, something laid bare when someone in the group even brings things to a close by shouting, ”Well Bess!?”, almost posed as a question to see if Berman herself thinks it will fit the bill for what she was after.
Who knows, as sincere as they appear when playing that could even be a tip off that maybe they were just as happy when Bess’s Boogie didn’t find a big audience, for that would’ve meant changing their team uniforms and switching leagues altogether. (Note their slinky bachelor pad vibe on the flip-side, Desert Night, which is for the most part excellent – except for the florid piano midway through that is – and was done in a style that was probably much closer to their hearts).
Yet unlike a lot of jazz cats who looked down on any association with rock that they were forced to endure for mercenary purposes, these guys – at least in a studio setting – treated it like an honest and respectable job and seemed not to have any discomfort in adapting to the mindset required to pull it off effectively.
To that end Bobby Smith would continue to handle most of Apollo’s sessions (rock and otherwise) for the next few years with his typical classy professionalism and later on Kirkland would step into that role for the label’s mid-1950’s roster of rock acts such as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, by which point of course there was no turning back from this direction as a company.
If Apollo Records itself never became a major player in rock it wasn’t due to a total lack of compatibility with their musicians as Bobby Smith proves, acquitting himself well whether adhering to his own musical vision or producing a made to order record in a style he had only just come to know.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 5/10