2020-02-26 14:39:04 UTC
How’s that saying go?
You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
This was something Atlantic Records should’ve printed on their stationary as 1950 kicked off as their slate of releases for January included two singles by their recently departed stars which – while not masterpieces by any means – were still better than anything else they were busy issuing at the time.
More importantly than that however is these sides embodied down the basic blueprint of what should be… and soon WOULD be… the musical direction of the label as a whole if they wanted to compete in the marketplace on a consistent basis.
For those slow to catch on as to which direction that would be, the title spells it out pretty clearly.
Out Of The House
Both Joe Morris – the other act Atlantic lost a few months back – and Tiny Grimes had become rock artists by default almost when Atlantic’s “cast a wide net” theory of recording happened to coincide with rock ‘n’ roll’s precipitous rise in 1948.
The two ex-jazz musicians found that their jazzier sides weren’t drawing the interest of their rocking sides and over the next year they made solid, if sometimes tentative, advances with their rock output until based on their successes in this field Morris and Grimes found themselves courted by other labels.
Morris went to Decca, presumably with an eye on re-establishing himself in a classier motif for a major company, while Grimes headed to Gotham, an independent label with an even more consistent dedication to exploring rock at this point than Atlantic.
Atlantic presumably were okay with losing them because of their recent big hits with newly signed artists. But when Stick McGhee, who scored with Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee last spring, and Ruth Brown, whose debut, So Long, was a big hit over the summer, failed to connect with their follow-ups it made Atlantic’s loss of their ol’ reliable artists Morris and Grimes, consistent sellers if not hitmakers, far more acute… especially now when these leftovers they threw onto the market in the post-holiday season were doing better in the marketplace than their newer artists’ releases.
Rock The House had been cut back in March 1949, as rock ‘n’ roll’s commercial clout was growing by the week and it would be Grimes’ final Atlantic session before his departure to Gotham… it was also one of his best records for the label.
The House Is Rockin’ At Last
I don’t know if I’ve written this, or even thought it until now, but since we’re now into the 1950’s we’ve got over a hundred artists who’ve released rock records since it was born in 1947 I think it’s safe to say that Tiny Grimes and his still unnamed band might just be the best pure musicians we’ve come across so far. Grimes was a technician on guitar and Red Prysock a beast on the sax and though there are other twosomes that boast some great credentials these guys have you covered both ways and they definitively show that off to good effect on Rock The House
The first half of the record is where the bulk of the action is, from Grimes’s all too short but scintillating single string run which opens the song that’s quickly replaced by Prysock’s more fervent blowing which picks up the exact melody – almost like passing a baton in a relay race – before the other horns, much lower in the mix, come in to get the rhythm situated as Red drops out altogether. With the groundwork having been laid in true democratic fashion Grimes comes back with a sharper and fiercer line in the spotlight that gives this an added veil of danger.
It’s a perfect set-up, showcasing all of the components in brief concentrated form that leaves you hungry for more. But before we get to “more” we get something else instead, something that at first is totally unexpected but entirely welcome, a group vocal chant – nothing special unto itself, just rhythmically chanting the title line and telling everybody listening to join in – that energizes the record and gives it an identity so you know just what it is you’re listening to, something always tricky when it comes to instrumentals.
The vocal chant doesn’t last long and is followed up by more Grimes, slicing and dicing his way through the melody – though here the others do contribute an interjected high pitched “Wooooooooh” which is surprisingly effective at conveying even more excitement, so much so you wish they repeated it again.
At this point you’re ready to jump right into the mosh pit with them but unfortunately the next section the recording limitations become far more apparent and though it doesn’t derail the record by any means, it puts a damper on it in the modern age – and for all we know back then too – when we expect clear fidelity if we’re going to give ourselves over to a song.
Making A House Call
Having heard this from a number of different sources, none of which corrects the primary flaw and some of them seem to swap out one problem for a different one, the issue doesn’t appear to be the fact that it hasn’t seen any solid remastering in our lifetimes, but rather the problem was on the studio floor itself when they were cutting the record to begin with.
In due time Atlantic’s vaunted sound quality would become very apparent when comparing their output with their competitors, all of which was thanks to the incomparable Tom Dowd, their young engineer who traded in working on the Manhattan Project developing atom bombs for working in a recording studio developing rock ‘n’ roll, which some might mistake for his former pursuit if going strictly by the explosive impact of some of the records he worked on over a half century in this field.
Dowd, a musician himself, was an electronic genius who would later be among the first to work with stereo, 4 track, 8 track, 16 track… you get the idea. If it was pioneered in the studio chances are he was responsible… unless Les Paul was, but that’s a story for another day.
By 1949 when Rock The House was cut Dowd had just come on board with Atlantic after briefly working for National Records but either he was still learning on the job, or he may have been reluctant to speak up with a veteran band, but the obvious problem is the mic placement for the rhythm section is too distant. Understandably you’d want Grimes and Prysock, each on their own mic, louder in the mix, but while that works well when they’re taking solos it doesn’t work so well when they’re not, because then the main thrust of the song is half lost in the ether.
The playing and the ideas behind the playing here is very good, with the drummer’s dynamic pick-ups and the piano is keeping up that consistent boogie while Grimes is laying down typically invigorating lines, but you need to strain more than you should to appreciate it. When Prysock comes back in guns blazing and tears the roof off obviously that’s not in any danger of being missed, but then the really tone things down, playing intentionally soft, again a good idea especially when Grimes exits that stage with his fiercest playing, bolstered by some unhinged frantic blowing in the upper register by Prysock, but that slow subdued build-up loses something in the recording process, undercutting its effectiveness just a little.
But on the studio floor this was pretty damn flawless, showing that Grimes had fully embraced the rock idiom after some hedging on which direction he’d ultimately travel earlier in his Atlantic career. Now it must’ve seemed the label was cursed, for as soon as he shows what he’s capable of, he left them for greener pastures.
On The House
Because of the fidelity issues I’m a little conflicted over the score, even though I’ve gone to some length to downplay their importance here, as they’re just a way to summarize my views in an easy to understand fashion, they’re not intended to be a universal judgement that everyone should share.
In the case of Rock The House if I were to judge it strictly as a record, the one available for you to buy, steal or hear in passing, the slightly sub-par mix might drop this a point, still a very good record but not quite reflective of the musical merits buried in that mix.
But while frustrating for those who are used to hearing everything in pristine sound I think we’re all quite capable of seeing through the recording flaws and appreciating the content of the record and so while we’ve made note of its technical issues, we’ll leave it at that and not penalize the band for the sins of the label.
An artist has only a limited amount of performances to stand as their legacy and the song contained within shows why Tiny Grimes was so highly regarded across the music world and why Atlantic Records would soon try and bring him back in the fold after letting him go.
So if you want to put an asterisk next to this score with an explanation that says * = for those who heard it in the studio – be my guest. But maybe someone out there who is shaping up to be the 21st Century Tom Dowd will see this and will dig through the Atlantic vaults and see what modern technological feats they can pull off to make this sound as it did when Grimes and company tore through it back in March 1949 before some of its genius got lost in translation from the floor to the lacquer.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 8/10