2020-05-18 13:05:34 UTC
The first time we encountered Ms. Martin in mid-1949 on her debut record we exhausted all of our lame jokes and intentional misappropriations regarding her and the later rock artist of slightly greater renown with whom she shares a first name.
So we’ll mostly avoid that theme in her final record on her docket which gives us plenty of room to discuss the original Madonna in rock ‘n’ roll. Though obviously not as notable a presence in the history books as the second, she’s not without some admirable qualities of her own.
Causing A Commotion
Selective Records was pushing Martin’s prospects fairly hard in the winter of 1950, though not with the usual ads bought and paid for since it’s doubtful that had much money laying around for that extravagance, but rather they were busy hyping her to the reporters in the trade magazines, even going so far as to claim that this record was her debut when in fact her actual debut for the label, Rattlesnakin’ Papa, came out last June.
But since all of about a dozen people outside of the Martin family bought the record the company figured nobody would be any the wiser if they fudged the truth some, especially since word of a newcomer on the scene was sure to draw a little more attention than trying to stir interest in someone who had failed to do so less than a year ago.
Call it creative license or commercial desperation if you want to shy away from calling them bald-faced liars, but either way you can hardly blame Selective for wanting people to at least check out Martin’s records since they knew she had potential to build an audience for her work… if only that audience could be made to listen in the first place.
According to the press releases Martin was a viable club act – she’d gotten noticed in Chicago apparently, but they were now touting her appearances in San Francisco, which makes more sense since Selective was a West Coast label – and you can easily see how someone with this type of flashy performing style would be a good draw.
There’s a difference though between providing suitable entertainment for a night on the town when music is just one part of the allure, sharing space with dinner, drinks and companionship, and when, as on a record, that music has to be the entire focus of your attention.
At a club songs like Madonna’s Boogie would be very effective – energetic and easy to get into with some familiar lines that were sure to draw a smile of recognition from the slightly buzzed customers bobbing their shoulders in time to the rhythm.
But on wax those same attributes have to stand up to more scrutiny and it’s here the inherent creative limitations of a club performer begin to show through.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of this record is that it was hardly a very original song. Instead it was more like a collection of well-worn verses that were simply adapted to a basic boogie and turned loose, hoping the spirit of the performance might override the need for something deeper.
Even if the source of the lyrics were vague to most listeners, Madonna’s Boogie at least makes sure that anyone who managed to hear it wouldn’t be likely to forget who was doing it since her name is in the title. But beyond that this has no greater ambitions than to merely show Martin could put on a reasonably good show.
For starters there’s no story just a succession of set pieces, each one setting a basic image that you’ll have no trouble grasping but which are essentially meaningless because they’re all so overused. We’re told about her man ditching her and leaving her nothing but a mule to ride upon his departure and you don’t need Cliff-notes, just a working memory, to know that sure as you’re sitting there that mule will lay down and die, just as it did in countless other tales through the years.
Not content to let the public domain references go at that she then tells us about Jack and Jill, the parched couple forever in search of water which apparently where they live resides high in the hills (so much for science class telling us about water naturally flowing downhill). These nursery rhyme origins have already been mined in another rock song when Big Maybelle told us about it far in more detail on Sad And Disappointed Jill, though in this section Madonna DOES give us the one noteworthy line that deviates from the origins (though for all I know she swiped it from somewhere else) when her Jill comes back down the hill with twenty bucks… and any salacious comments about how she might’ve earned that money from Jack, just keep to yourselves!
But it’s not the hoary verses that are the biggest problem when it comes to elevating this above the ordinary as much as it is the shifting nature of the term “boogie woogie”, which here becomes rather confusing as she uses them individually as separate verbs indicating they have different meanings as apparently the root of her problems in life comes down to the admission “I boogied when I should’ve woogied”.
She then flips the words around in the chorus saying she’s going to “woogie her boogie now” and though you can’t help but wonder what in the hell she means, you’ll probably agree that it’s best not to ask and just let her prattle on because the explanation wouldn’t necessarily make any more sense and at least this way we might get to hear Madonna do what she does best, which is play her piano.
Ray Of Light
Though the musician field itself – in rock or any other style for that matter – is widely perceived to be largely a male domain, when it came to the piano women were equally adept and it was the one instrument at the time which had no shortage of skilled practitioners, from jazzy chanteuses like Julia Lee and Nellie Lutcher, or the boogie poundings of Camille Howard and of course in rock we’ve already seen what Devonia Williams was capable of, so Martin’s potential appeal in this realm was more than enough for Selective Records to take a chance on.
One listen to the her pounding away on the keys and you can see she’s not exactly the meek and mild type when it comes to her playing – justifying the cocky self-promotion of the Madonna’s Boogie title – and even though the production qualities are somewhat lacking here (more a matter of mic placement than fidelity, as they probably didn’t want her work on the ivories to overwhelm the rest of the pieces) her skills still shine through.
The right hand is a little light in tone, flicking more at the keys than pounding them, emphasizing the tinny nature of the higher notes at times even though what they play is fine. Her left hand however is rock solid and she plays full of confidence, driving the rhythm assertively and getting you into the groove without much trouble at all.
You could make the argument they might’ve been better off to just let her cut an instrumental but since piano boogies were generic by nature you can see why they decided to allow her to sing and inject some character in this. Besides, she actually sounds really good for most of it… her voice is strong, her command is solid, her attitude is first rate and she’s not holding back at all. Ideally with a little more time to try and formulate a game plan it wouldn’t have been hard to find a better way to combine the two elements on something more original than is shown here, preferably by just coming up with lyrics that act as a verbal throw down to anyone wanting to challenge her on the keys.
Had they done that, let her brashly deliver just two basic stanzas about her prowess as a pianist, taunting any fella who feels he could go toe to toe with her and then let her bang away while drums clatter and horns add their punctuation it might’ve left a far greater impression on listeners than the recycled leftovers offered on this, no matter how engagingly delivered this may have been.
Like A Prayer
Sadly she wouldn’t get that chance again as Martin’s career on record seems to have ended with this release and she headed back to whatever live gigs she could scrape up with the inevitable diminishing returns as time went on.
This type of temporary pairing between a struggling label and a nomadic artist was all too common in this era as it seemed that whenever small companies were desperate to fill out their release schedule with whatever merchandise fit their musical sensibilities they’d quickly look around for whomever is within reach. More often than not this is a local club attraction who gets brought into the studio with no time to prepare and is expected to basically replicate their live act and hope for the best. When these shots in the dark failed to pay dividends they’d just look somewhere else and repeat the same mistakes until the label eventually went out of business.
Madonna’s Boogie wasn’t going to change Selective’s fortunes even in the best of circumstances but nonetheless is a modestly enjoyable – albeit inconsequential – record that shows that Martin does indeed have some diverse skills that may have been worth exploring with more time, patience and money than she was afforded.
That of course was rarely in the cards for most companies so Madonna Martin goes down in history as little more than a fairly anonymous figure who if not for her unique name might not have even reached “fairly anonymous” and had to have settled for totally obscure instead.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 4/10