2020-03-12 13:16:21 UTC
Not on Youtube
Would René Hall, who’d soon go on to become a widely acclaimed arranger and producer, have ever moved behind the glass if he’d been more successful as an artist?
An interesting question to ponder since of course we know he didn’t become a star as a headlining artist and thus, in order to remain in music and not take up a career selling insurance or tending bar, he looked for other ways in which he could contribute. First it was session work as one of the top guitarists of the 1950’s and then he moved into arranging and eventually producing, working along the way with a honor roll of some of rock’s biggest names.
But had records like this done early in his performing career made a bigger splash then it seems a little more doubtful that he’d have given up the spotlight to toil away in relative anonymity behind the scenes.
Hangin’ On With A Magician
There have been a FEW guys who found success as artists and later become more well known as the ones calling the shots, we’ve met two already in Paul Gayten and Dave Bartholomew, and there will be some more to follow ranging from Todd Rundgren to Dr. Dre, but generally speaking the more successful you are on stage the more difficult it becomes to pull them OFF stage to do something out of the spotlight.
René Hall however probably had something of an uphill climb to stardom as it was however, simply because his primary skill was as a guitarist, not a vocalist, and especially in the early 1950’s that wasn’t a role that was as widely acclaimed as it’d be a few years down the road. But make no mistake about it, Hall can absolutely play the hell out of a guitar and so it’s hardly surprising that’s what he’d feature on René’s Boogie. But even so, and admittedly maybe this is a case of hindsight being 20/20, what also stands out here is the tight arrangement he gives the song, hinting at his future occupation for anyone who had the ears to listen for it.
His playing here is sharp and diverse, full of little touches that are designed to be showy but don’t detract from ambiance of the overall record by calling undue attention to themselves. As the title implies this is a boogie, something which can tend to be generic, but there’s nothing generic about how he pulls this off.
Hall takes a standard structure and injects a series of quirky ideas throughout in his many standalone spots, changing tones, pace and playing style to alter the feel as it goes along. For instance, dig the high pitched “twang” that replicates the cartoon sound of a bow and arrow that would be play such a featured role in The Marvelettes’ My Baby Must Be A Magician 17 years down the road.
That might not be the only thing Motown picked up on from this either, as he later plays a quick four note repeating riff that sounds a lot like the famed “Morse Code” opening on The Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On from 1966 (written, produced and arranged by Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland, three other figures who also set aside their performing careers for more rewarding work shaping the sounds of an empire). While it’s doubtful the Motown brass was pouring over little-known records from 1950 in search of new ideas as they ruled the rock world in the mid-1960’s the fact is Hall had those same ideas years earlier even if he kept them mostly buried in the mix, just whimsically poking their heads out briefly from time to time.
As such this record shows his ability to seamlessly shift from one distinctive sound to the next and have them all come across as perfectly compatible within the song, something that’s indicative of an astute musical mind. Though he eschews the harsher more aggressive approach that a lot of rock guitarists were already displaying his choices here are constantly inventive as he’s able to keep an instrumental guitar boogie endlessly interesting without resorting to merely blowing up the speakers.
The Fine Art Of Furniture Arranging
It might seem strange that while we just praised the arrangement in the last paragraph of the last section we’d turn around and say that it’s ultimately the arrangement which does in René’s Boogie, at least when it comes to standing out and finding a receptive audience.
But those things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive when you think about it. Lots of things in the creative arts are exceedingly well done but are still found to be lacking in a more generalized way. I won’t quibble that these are often for vague reasons but any time you as a consumer, a listener, or a reviewer for that matter, are asked to give your first impressions of a song you may note all of the individual components and credit them for being carried off with skill and class, but your immediate reaction is almost always a more visceral one.
Does it GRAB you?… MOVE you?… EXCITE you?
If it does then we’re not having this specific conversation about this record. It’d have either been a huge hit – provided enough heard it and were similarly moved by it – or it’d be a lost classic along the lines of Goree Carter’s Rock Awhile, a record which far more emphatically stated the case for the guitar in rock ‘n’ roll even as it failed to reach a wide enough audience or perhaps startled them so much that they didn’t quite know what to make of it at the time.
By contrast René’s Boogie does none of that even as it’s impressive technically and reasonably enjoyable aesthetically.
So where does this go wrong… or if not “wrong” per say, why does it fail to make a bigger impression?
Well, it’s the horns in this case, even though they too are not doing anything wrong exactly. Their playing itself is fine, they’re not the main attraction so they’re adhering to their roles as the primary supporting cast (the drummer, bassist and pianist are mostly concerned with establishing the rhythm, though there are flourishes on the keys at various intervals), but because they’re NOT called on to do more it places the entire weight on Hall’s shoulders and as a result it becomes an uneven record, leaning too heavily on just one sound.
Imagine this approach instead… since the song is a basic progression of ideas, each one getting a brief window to be seen in, hand just two of those over to other instruments. I’d go with the tenor sax both times but you could conceivably give one to the pianist too, especially if he and Hall were to engage in some kind of back and forth exchange which would allow Hall to keep himself in the spotlight.
That would work well with a sax too, even if each of their lines would have to be slightly longer to not seem schizophrenic listening, or you could just let the tenor honk away for eight or twelve bars, building up the volume and the pressure which would then be punctured by Hall slicing in with an extra-fierce response of his own, high pitched and stabbing before sliding back down the scales. The warmer all enveloping sound of the horn would contrast perfectly with the more tart sounding guitar in its upper register which would serve to draw more attention to Hall. By stepping back momentarily for something else just as strong it makes his reappearance all the more notable.
As it is though the horns play rudimentary riffs in unison and while the tone is much different than the guitar it’s not nearly as compelling. Used in a slightly different way their presence would’ve made what Hall was doing seem even more special.
You can’t really complain about its lack of a response in the winter of 1950. Even as rock’s sonic textures were expanding rapidly to include more guitars in its formula this was bound to be something that came and went without much notice.
But as commercial non-entities go René’s Boogie showed what others down the road in the industry would find so compelling about Hall, the fact that he could not only play with exquisite taste and touch but that he had a sense of how to put songs together even if in this case he didn’t quite go far enough in that regard to make this transcendent.
Ultimately his willingness to take a back seat would be hailed as one of his greatest attributes, but since that came in another role – one he may never have moved into had this, or something else under his own name, performed better in the public arena – we can chalk this up as a “successful failure” in the big scheme of things and certainly something worth visiting even if Hall had quit music altogether in a few years time and gone into selling insurance instead.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 6/10