2020-05-07 13:06:06 UTC
In the annals of rock history the earliest years have been treated by most mainstream outlets as merely the uninteresting lead-in to a bigger story… that is, if they’ve been recounted at all.
Never mind that rock music in the late 1940’s was culturally and musically revolutionary not to mention incredibly popular within the intended community who elevated it to national prominence in short order. If you weren’t a member of that community however you tend to treat it almost as if it doesn’t exist, or that it was largely inconsequential.
But there were a few records from that time which, for various reasons, retained a glimmer of historical recognition and thus the artists responsible for them have seen their names remain at least moderately recognizable through the years.
One such name was Stick McGhee, but while his one huge hit is still somewhat familiar to modern audiences the rest of his output suffers from the same fate as most of the rest of rock from this era even when the records themselves reveal a great deal about how haphazard a proposition this music was considered by those who stood to profit from it.
Yet it’s only through analyzing that facet of the ensuing catalog of more obscure songs that we can get a firm idea of just how many self-made obstacles rock had to overcome on its way to becoming a universally praised cultural juggernaut.
Kicked Down Doors And Came Barging In
When Atlantic Records went to great lengths to have the journeyman singer re-cut a two year old song of his that was making a little noise in New Orleans, the company was in dire straits. In their two years of operations they’d scored exactly one modest national hit – Tiny Grimes’ Midnight Special – in the fall of 1948 and along with Grimes had just one other viable artist on their roster in Joe Morris.
Outside of those two ex-jazzmen turned rockers their label was about on par with your next door neighbor’s commercial airline they run as a hobby, or your cousin’s acting “career”. In other words, for all intent and purpose Atlantic was a record company in name only.
But by quickly capitalizing on a passing mention made by a Louisiana distributor about the local interest in a hard-to-find Stick McGhee record made for a now defunct label called Harlem Records, Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertgeun had the inspired idea to find someone to record that song for his company and then lucked into landing none other than Stick McGhee, the originator of it, in an amazing set of rather convoluted circumstances.
With Atlantic’s prospects buoyed by Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee, a #2 hit last spring, they began their slow crawl to commercial solvency in the ensuing year, which is where we find ourselves now.
But in the usual re-tellings of that story, mostly by Ertegun himself, what’s usually glossed over if not outright ignored is the fact that during this past year Atlantic didn’t capitalize on their good fortune because Ertegun, one of the most lauded figures in music history, was utterly deaf, dumb and blind when it came to what to follow-up that big hit with when it came to Stick McGhee.
I Didn’t Come Here To Make A Social Call
It’s been awhile since we’ve covered McGhee on these pages, because of those botched follow-ups issued by Atlantic, so I suppose it makes sense to give brief overview of how Granville “Stick” McGhee was, because that factors into their thinking when it came to how to position him in the market.
Stick was the younger brother of bluesman Brownie McGhee, who accompanied him on his hit with his loose jangly guitar providing much of the ambiance that helped to make it so popular. Brownie had a much longer and more successful career than Stick, but it was almost exclusively within the blues field, primarily in the Piedmont blues style, a more rural sounding strain than the recent electric blues phenomenon.
Since the blues, whichever style we’re talking about, was widely known to designate the cultural aspect of the performers and audience just as much as the underlying musical attributes themselves, it was used as a catch-all term by many to indicate at a glance that the artists were a) black and b) not playing jazz, gospel or pop.
In other words though there WAS a style called the blues, many styles in fact (acoustic and electric, rural and uptown, even distant variants like jump blues and cocktail blues) the majority of those in mainstream music circles – read: white folk – just lumped any and every black singer under the blues banner, regardless of what it was they were actually singing and playing.
Of course as we know rock ‘n’ roll was NOT blues in any way, shape or form, but unfortunately a lot of those white folks at the time, including record label owners like Ertgeun, weren’t exactly clear on this. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he was musically astute enough to understand there was something new on the scene which was different than the traditional blues forms, as well as different from jazz, et. all, but sometimes when you’re in the midst of something that is evolving at a rapid pace in ways you don’t fully grasp you have a tendency to fall back on what you know in order to ground yourself in something more familiar.
Hence, Ertegun mistakenly attributed McGhee’s record as much to the blues idiom as he did rock ‘n’ roll, which itself was a term only picking up steam in the black community that Ahmet was not a part of. We’ll grant him a small amount of leeway here because of the presence of Brownie’s bluesy guitar on the track and the fact that the original Harlem label version was cut prior to rock’s arrival, but that’s all we’ll give him a pass for.
That first hasty session, as you might expect, featured McGhee cutting more traditional sounding blues stuff, not surprising since Brownie was accompanying him and they hadn’t been prepared for this opportunity. Yet among the songs they cut was a pretty good pure rocker – Tall Pretty Woman – which went unissued even though sonically it was the closest thing to their hit. Instead they put out the blues stuff and watched it all sink without a trace, fatally undercutting McGhee’s momentum while setting their own cause as a record label at the forefront of rock even further back.
Let The Good Times Roll And Let’s Have A Ball
When they finally brought McGhee back into the studio in October 1949 they were starting to right the ship. Atlantic still was prone to misjudging the marketplace – as seen with a string of poppier Ruth Brown singles before she got steered in the right direction later in 1950 – but at least they were making some progress in properly assessing what worked.
For McGhee that meant rock ‘n’ roll and to that end they collectively came up with a very good – if rather blatant – quasi-sequel to their hit entitled, rather unimaginatively, Drank Up All The Wine Last Night.
Written by Stick himself along with Rudolph Toombs, a songwriter who was fast becoming the secret weapon on Atlantic, if only behind the scenes, the song is about what you would expect, picking up the same theme and the same basic structure as the smash, even including the same “spo-dee-o-dee” refrain, albeit in a revised delivery.
None of that sounds too promising I admit, but rather than think about this as a new idea, (since they weren’t exactly hiding their intent to copy what had worked) it helps to to view this more as a company – and artist – finding their footing before it’s too late.
To that end this record actually works really well. Kicking off with a snarling electric guitar that sets a more ominous mood, the shuffle rhythm falling into place behind them as Stick’s shimmering metallic tinged vocals create a vibrant image that the arrangement wisely highlights.
Though the lyrics are somewhat redundant as they try and sneak in memorable phrases from the earlier song to make sure you don’t miss the connection, the fact is the stanzas themselves are fairly effective in their primary goal which is simply to establish a mood capable of overriding your concerns regarding its lack of originality.
To that end Drank Up All The Wine Last Night is helped by the sheer fact that most drunken gatherings – at least the parties I spent too much of my wayward youth attending – are pretty interchangeable. The houses change, maybe the brand of beer in the keg is different each night, but otherwise the people, the conversations, the hook-ups and the brief dust-ups are reliably predictable and so it’s hardly a surprise that McGhee is merely recounting the same basic activities as he did a year ago.
The song is taken at a slightly more deliberate pace which is helped by the heavier backing – sort of a vaguely proto-hard rock feel in the zygote stage – the song is essentially a series of set-pieces broken up by some drunken group chants behind the choruses. Not too deep, but not looking to be either.
Made A Beeline
The music takes on the biggest responsibility in putting this across and both McGhee brothers are wielding electric guitars with the right amount of menace to give this the feel it needs.
The muscular rhythm guitar is supercharged at times, sounding almost as if it wants to veer into distortion before pulling up just short of that. The lead lines during the breaks feature a higher, sharper tone, off-setting the other which returns behind it at the end of the solo. It’s probably Brownie on lead and Stick on rhythm, but whoever is responsible for the respective parts they work well in tandem.
Meanwhile the rest of the band is up to the task of matching them with Big Chief Ellis on piano, Gene Ramey on bass and the anonymous drummer all being locked in from the get-go while the addition of horns – absent altogether from the March session – add a crucial component that helps to modernize this and truly shows the difference in the label’s emerging mindset.
They don’t come in until the second verse, and even then are held back for the most part, content to just add accent notes for flavor, but they give a different feel that changes your perception.
Their first solo – or rather their backing of Brownie McGhee’s solo – is a little weak, owing the prominence of the alto, but the second one which features the tenor alone is much more suited to the song, playing a solo that seems almost as if it’s under duress, like a cord being stretched to the point of breaking, adding a good deal of tension to the proceedings as a result.
Down the stretch the horns jump in to add to the growing cacophony, everything blending together like a improptu cocktail made with whatever remnants are left in a half dozen bottles strewn about the house.
As a song Drank Up All The Wine Last Night might not get high marks for freshness, but then again if it’s sole intent was to get you drunk, or the musical equivalent of wanting to keep the buzz still lingering from a year earlier, then this will get the job done without the effects of a hangover come morning.
Got That Glow
No cultural movement, nor any record company attempting to seize upon a cultural movement for their own benefit, is going to move forward without occasional missteps and Atlantic Records was no different.
That their ensuing stellar reputation tends to disguise their more egregious mistakes is probably to be expected, but the full story without the creative editing done by Ertegun and his sometimes sycophantic minions is far more interesting than the whitewashed version that skips right from McGhee’s breakthrough to the company’s run of consistent success starting later in 1950.
For Stick McGhee, an otherwise minor figure in that larger story, he’s not yet in danger of being completely forgotten thanks to that earlier song, but Drank Up All The Wine Last Night shows that – as unambitious as it was from a creative point of view – he was more than capable of being a compelling performer.
Once he’s allowed to pursue different ideas he’ll get further chances to prove his worth, but of course by that time he’ll be reduced to an afterthought as Atlantic takes off commercially. When that happens the discarded empty bottles from these early benders that gave them a sense of belonging in the rock world will be swept away and forgotten by most.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 7/10