2020-03-20 13:39:07 UTC
In the calendar year 1950 Johnny Otis and his retinue of vocalists were the hottest aggregation of rock stars on the face of the earth, scoring a whopping ten Top Ten hits on the national charts…
This was not one of them.
But any thought that this record could therefore be chalked up as non-essential or even a misfire was entirely off-base.
Though it’s true that it didn’t reach quite the same level of universal acclaim as much of the rest of their work that year and consequently has been sort of forgotten in the annals of Otis’s lengthy career, that didn’t mean the record, or its release on the heels of their breakthrough, was an error in judgment.
On the contrary… this was EXACTLY what they should’ve been doing.
You Won’t Be Blue
Let’s not make TOO big of a deal out of its failure to make the Billboard charts, for as we’ve said they had just ten slots on their national listings and those polls were still largely gotten from more mainstream retail outlets, hardly the types of places that catered to younger black rock enthusiasts.
By contrast Cash Box used regional charts which were taken from the jukebox trade in black communities and it was here that rock ‘n’ roll thrived in early 1950. To that end The Turkey Hop made their charts across the nation, albeit sometimes spread over a couple of months… from Atlanta to Albuquerque… Cleveland to Connecticut… Dallas to Detroit, … not quite A to Z but you get the idea. If nothing else it showed that its popularity was pretty wide even without doing so well in any single week to crack Billboard’s more historically recognized listings.
Even if you were to doubt the numbers when it came to the song’s popularity it’d be pretty hard to ignore the fact that far more respectable bands were laying down their own versions in the ensuing months, as Lionel Hampton made some noise around North Carolina with their rendition in April and then Les Brown And His Band Of Renown released their own take on it a few weeks later. If one of the top black jazz bands and a stellar white jazz band who worked alongside Bob Hope for a half century were sullying themselves by trying this rocker on for size you know it made a pretty big impression across the music biz.
So then why, you may ask, would we – no advocates of rock acts trying for mainstream crossover success – start off this review by saying this type of record was exactly what Otis should be focusing on to consolidate his rapidly ascendant position in rock ‘n’ roll?
Because when listening to the original two-part version he and his band lay down you wonder how ANY respectable jazz musician would think this was compatible with their brand of music, because in Otis’s hands it’s the perfect example of how musically raunchy and invigorating a rock song can be.
If You Want To Be Slick
You gotta hand it to Ralph Bass, Savoy Records’ West Coast A&R man – he was making sure the company had as many cuts as they could possibly use, as this was Otis’s fourth full session for the label since November, each time laying down either four or six cuts, giving them a total of twenty songs – or ten singles – to issue on the group before they headed out on tour.
Chances are this was done in part because Savoy was still stinging from losing Big Jay McNeely a year ago when they signed him and got only two sessions out of him before he dumped them because he was told to head east without his band to play at various New York hot spots and the loyal – and wisely distrustful – McNeely refused and landed at Modern Records within a few days time.
But here’s the funny thing – guess who was sitting in with Otis’s band on THIS early January session? That’s right, Big Jay and his baritone playing brother Bob McNeely, giving Savoy the very thing they felt they were missing out on, although of course it’s not likely that Herman Lubinsky, Savoy’s cantankerous owner, was aware of the other musicians on the date.
Regardless though, the presence of the brothers McNeely ensures The Turkey Hop was going to have plenty of kick to it.
This is a two-part record, although it’s a bit unusual in that regard for the time, as one side is purely instrumental and the other side features The Robins on vocals. There’s some confusion as to which side is which, as the label and some ads indicate the vocals are on side one, but every single later reissue has them reversed, so pay no attention to the Part 1/Part 2 designations in the Spotify tracks or on any CD and just listen to them both in whatever order you choose.
For THIS review though we’ll go with the way it initially appeared, with the vocals first.
The Robins, as we mentioned in Double Crossin’ Blues, would soon split with Otis but that was still a month away when they cut this and so here we get to see why the pairing was so damn important for both parties.
For Otis he had in his ranks a young vocal group who had no allegiances to prior pop-slanted singing styles, such as The Ink Spots, something which as the 1950’s dawned and rock became ever more entrenched with younger listeners, gave them a definite advantage over the biggest rock vocal groups The Ravens and Orioles, each of whom had pop leanings in their ballads. The Robins were just ill-suited to that style and by all accounts had no interest in it either.
Yet even though they were aligned perfectly in every way – age, musical leanings and a fresh image untainted by past performances – to succeed in rock in a big way, they still needed good songs, good arrangements and good musicians behind them to take advantage of that, all of which Johnny Otis specialized in, as anyone hearing this record could easily see without needing us to remind them.
Your Knees Will Do The Rest
The grinding interlocking saxophone riffs of the McNeely brothers creates something of a dirty, or at least suggestive, atmosphere which is immediately picked up on by the four voices that come in and accentuate that feel with how they deliver their lines.
The words themselves are not X-rated by any means, they’re just telling the listener to do this particular dance called The Turkey Hop, but it’s HOW they say this that has you eager to get on the floor and start rubbing body parts with a willing and shapely partner.
By their mere intonations alone they make this dance, which truthfully sounds kind of convoluted by the “steps” they lay out (and there’s no evidence it ever caught on very big), seem like the best time you could possibly have with a prospective mate while still fully clothed. Part of this is Bobby Nunn’s deep voiced interjections which can make “Hello” sound like a deviant sexual proposition, but the others are selling their enthusiasm with the proper approach… too eager and they’d come across as inexperienced, so they lay back and deliver it with sly smiles which make it sound as if they know what you’re truly in for if you do this thing right.
So now that they’ve sold you on the dance you need something to dance TO, meaning not only do they need to keep up the melodic thread but they’ll have to call on support from the band to hold up their end of the bargain and with Otis’s crew you know that won’t be a problem.
The saxes may fade into the background during the vocals, but Big Jay throws in some tasty responses before dropping way down in the tenor’s range – or letting brother Bob take the first solo on baritone – a slow seductive spin around the floor. It hands off to John Anderson’s trumpet which manages not to derail things by keeping the lines compact and then Pete Lewis comes along to finish the instrumental break with some lethally sharp guitar lines.
By the time The Robins return you’re so locked in that you could care less that they’re merely repeating the same basic instructions and their held note on the fade of side one eases you down as if the combination of the dancing, booze and other allurements merely hinted at have finally hit you and you slide to the floor with a contented smile on your face.
You Don’t Want To Stop
Clearly the main attraction here was meant to be the vocals, it’s what gave the song its name, its identity and its primary hook to boot, but as they’ve already shown the musicians contributed mightily to its ambiance and now they’ll get a full side of the record to extend that feeling and keep the… ahem “dance” going a little longer.
That same sax riff kicks this side off as it did Side One, albeit with more help from the other horns, but it’s Big Jay McNeely who is taking center stage for the majority of The Turkey Hop.
At the one minute mark Anderson interjects a brief trumpet cry and then Jay goes off on his own, taking this away from the familiar addicting riff into something improvised. As always his taste and judgment on these matters is pretty flawless, making it distinctive yet keeping it within the overall aesthetic already established.
Though this is the instrumental side we DO get to hear voices that chant the title a few times midway through, but oddly enough they aren’t The Robins, but rather Otis himself out front, presumably with other band members. Considering this was cut at the same session it’s odd that the actual singers who appear on the other side were not used, but maybe they were busy doing their OWN “turkey hop” with various girls who heard the commotion from outside and wandered in.
Down the stretch McNeely picks back up on the main riff, a sound which has lost none of its appeal over the nearly five minutes we’ve been listening to it, and eases back on the volume, drawing you in closer… and apparently drawing Bobby Nunn away from his own extracurricular activities in some dark corner of the room, as it’s he who chimes in one last time, imploring any remaining wallflower – “Aww, do the turkey hop now!” – as it slows, then starts again, then comes to a worthy and fitting conclusion with Leard Bell’s emphatic drum roll, everyone tired out from… alright, we’ll keep it respectable… from “dancing” but as with this type of dancing you could easily be coaxed into playing both sides again to trip the light fantastic once more.
That’s What I’m Talkin’ About!
Whether your activities were in fact an actual dance or something more deliciously primal the record provides the ideal accompaniment for anything worthwhile you may find yourself doing after dark. It’s open-ended enough to be suitable for practically anything and because of its length, even if you DO flip the two sides and start with the instrumental, it gives the impression of being a never-ending party.
When looking at Otis’s leap to the forefront of rock starting with Double Crossing Blues a few weeks earlier you could certainly understand why that record was so big, but you could also make the argument that it was so unique that it couldn’t – and wouldn’t – be easily replicated, therefore his popularity might wind up being relatively short-lived if he had nothing else to add to the festivities.
But while this follow-up didn’t reach the same heights as that previous single, The Turkey Hop was actually more indicative of not only Otis’s strengths as a bandleader, but also rock ‘n’ roll’s appeal as music to move your body to.
Every aspect of this fits well – the musicians are in top form, the melody may be repetitive it’s but compulsively so, insisting you follow it around and around, and to top it off The Robins are the perfect salesmen for this type of bump and grind act, not looking down on you for seeking these pleasures out, but joining in on them right alongside you.
When measuring the impact of this song against those bigger hits, both preceding this and which were to soon follow that have become the cornerstones of Johnny Otis’s legacy, this understandably gets lost in the shuffle. But when stacking his output up purely by their merits, it’d be hard to find too many things from this magical year he was embarking on that could match the almost six minutes of pure undiluted rock ‘n’ roll contained within.
Or as Bobby Nunn himself said while urging on the delirious masses, “Don’t ever stop!”.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 9/10