2020-02-10 14:49:09 UTC
When assessing all of the individual aspects of being an artist it’s safe to say that nobody in the 1940’s was more well-rounded than Amos Milburn.
From the very start he had truly mastered it all – writing, singing, playing (piano) and being equally proficient with ballads and uptempo songs, not to mention working seamlessly with the best studio sessionists in the biz at the time, led by Maxwell Davis, and then showing he wasn’t reliant on them to equal their work together when he entered the studio with his own hand-assembled road band and came away with records that were every bit as good.
Perhaps his most notable achievement was how consistent he was, not just from one release to the next, but both sides of each record over the past three years saw barely a drop-off in quality from one side to the next.
But somehow, even during this dominant stretch, Amos Milburn seemed to lack the WOW! factor that made him forever doomed to be underrated historically.
Don’t Have To Tell Me
Decades are strange beasts even though the separation of one to the next is marked literally by just a single month on the calendar (or a single day… or hour, minute or second if you prefer, however narrow you want to place the divide). But invariably the difference in perception regarding decades becomes quite large when looking back at the past, as if they sometimes seemed virtually unconnected.
Amos Milburn was in rarefied air during the Forties and with a new decade now underway and rock ‘n’ roll climbing ever higher in terms of popularity and recognition there was every expectation at the time – by Aladdin Records and casual observers around the music industry alike – that Milburn would not only see his own star rise higher as well, but would likely be the one pulling rock music along with him, like the tail of a comet.
But years later the image of him in the 1950’s – even the early Fifties – is that of someone who was more or less just holding steady… treading water, even though he remained commercially successful with more #1 hits to come, and of course he was still in possession of the same qualities as an artist that had made his position at the top of the rock ladder seem set in stone as the decade began.
So while the move from the Forties to the Fifties seemed unlikely to alter his stature, the perception in retrospect is he was never quite as strong once the calendar flipped. Maybe it was because rock itself was getting so big that with far more competition for headlines he didn’t quite stand out as much. Or it could be that his own style had already been absorbed by the public and so newer styles would be more likely to capture people’s attention, making Milburn’s output seem like an extended game of “been there, done that”.
Or perhaps he HAD peaked creatively after all and while still capable of excellent work it wasn’t always up to the ridiculously high standards he’d set for himself at the tail end of the 1940’s.
The reasons behind his gradual decline won’t become clear – if they ever do – until we examine every single record he made over the next few years of course, but having laid out the premise of his subsequent career arc here’s where we start to track that journey, with Tell Me How Long Has The Train Been Gone, a prophetic title as we try to find out if the train derailed somewhere along the way or, like most artists who’ve been around for awhile, if he merely ran out of track.
Get Here To See You
Though the commercial returns on this single weren’t up to par for Milburn, as neither side of Aladdin 3043 made the Billboard national charts, the flip side, I’m Just A Fool In Love, made several territorial charts in Cash Box and thus you’d have to qualify it as something of a hit. That being said however, compared to what he was used to it was seen as a disappointment and consequently Aladdin quickly put out a follow-up the very next month.
Things weren’t quite so dire as the numbers make it out to be however, but if you’re looking for reasons why Tell Me How Long Has The Train Been Gone didn’t galvanize listeners right away despite being a good song featuring a captivating vocal turn by Milburn, I think it’s pretty evident that it might’ve been seen as just a bit too unusual for its own good when trying to rope in a wider audience.
The first thing you notice here is that Amos Milburn is not alone. There’s more passengers on this train than we’ve heard before with him, as in another voice that’s just as prominently featured in the arrangement as his own, something that certainly was unexpected the first time you hear it and even after that its presence still throws off your equilibrium a little.
This was what those in the business call “creative” when it works and “ill-advised” when it fails.
But this doesn’t fail, at least not creatively, but while I’ll grant you that for its time something like this was probably too experimental to be easily appreciated, isn’t that what we generally demand of the greatest artists? Risk-taking?
The song showcases a back and forth exchange between a wise-ass onlooker and the always unflappable Milburn, whose laconic tone is put to great use here as it contrasts with the hyper and skeptical voice of a band-mate who mostly speaks his part, though he also takes his share of singing the chorus too.
Who this is I’m not entirely sure, but it’s definitely one of the saxophonists, either Willie Smith who also sang on some of his own records, or Don Wilkerson. Whoever it is the part he plays injects this song with plenty of character, transforming what would otherwise be a straightforward musical performance into something resembling a one act play.
We’ve seen these sort of things tried before and often fail miserably, as Frank Culley found out when trying to inject off-the-cuff hipster lingo into the execrable Rumboogie Jive, while The Trenier Twins have struggled to translate their successful stage-show banter to records to date. So based on those precedents the chances that Milburn, who as far as we know wasn’t known as an aspiring thespian to begin with, would be involved with something to buck this trend was pretty far fetched.
Of course that’s just what they do, showing how this type of idea can work by keeping the music itself as focused as possible while the joking is laid on top of it, like whipped cream on a sundae.
The People Keep Coming
If the dish was ALL whipped cream of course it wouldn’t be a great desert, but what the spoken asides do is offer a contrasting – and humorous – viewpoint to Milburn’s declarations which are taken straight. Because Amos is SO good, never breaking his concentration, singing with the same high-stepping soulful strut as always on what is truly one of his more captivating melodies, the comic interjections are not forced to carry this as so many records which try substituting laughs for musical merit fall prey to.
it also helps that the roles in this performance are built on solid footing and maybe the best comparison is to the role of Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, wherein his comedic turns alternately pulls, twists and reshapes the plot. That’s the same thing that happens here, as the second voice is playing the jester’s role, a musical trickster of sorts and though he’s not the focus of the main act, he’s the most indelible character.
Now it has to be said that one reason why Tell Me How Long Has The Train Been Gone failed to match the popularity of the long run of hits Milburn had been chalking up over the past year and a half is almost surely due to the audience either not liking the humor interfering with a more traditional song (and taking away from Amos’s time in the spotlight), or simply not appreciating the experimental nature of it. This is always true of things which push boundaries and there’s no reason to think rock music would be any different, but in this case the spoken lines are indeed funny, even the sung parts by him which are done for farce are well done, and the way it contrasts with Milburn’s voice makes it all the better.
Musically it’s nearly as good with the jittery piano opening, the steady clipped drumming behind Milburn throughout and a really good Wilkerson tenor solo in the break (which would seem to indicate he was the voice in question, since earlier he said he had to play his horn in the extended spoken banter between he and Amos, and it’s the tenor which follows soon after, as the alto of Smith is already playing).
Of course all of this trickeration helps to conceal that were this song to be taken perfectly straight – no joking involved – the story line wouldn’t make much sense, as Milburn’s wonderment (or frustration or curiosity, take your pick) over the train’s departure seems to have no root cause in the skimpy plot. We’re simply dropped into the scene when he’s already agitated over the missing choo choo and expected to catch up. With everything else that’s going on we never DO get an explanation, but we also don’t really need one, we’re content to just enjoy the ride.
Another Choo Choo Soon
Milburn’s stature as one of rock’s leading figures of its first decade, and perhaps it’s most dominant artist of the first half dozen years, means there’s no shortage of iconic hits and treasured B-sides and assorted deep cuts and even unreleased gems to stand as the cornerstone of his legacy and so something a little off-the-wall like Tell Me How Long Has The Train Been Gone, which was a commercial disappointment to boot, is naturally going to be slighted historically.
But when analyzing his entire output and trying to compare it to acclaimed artists from other eras of rock this is one of those more obscure tracks that should actually bolster his case for being considered among the truly elite. He managed to pull of a tricky balancing act here, one which combines serious musical and vocal chops with uncharacteristic role-playing full of flippant quips that results in some well-earned laughter.
Though maybe its failure to connect was indeed the first sign in awhile that Milburn was human after all, it’s also a record that deserved better reception than it got and so any blame Amos gets for this unusual offering breaking his hot streak could probably be just as easily placed on the audience for letting themselves be caught off-guard by its quirky style.
As experiments go you could do a lot worse than cracking a smile over this one, hit or not.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 7/10