2020-01-23 23:08:56 UTC
Yesterday in reviewing the hit which launched the career of one of the greatest artists in rock history we wrote – “one listen and you had to know it was a hit”.
While that seems like an obvious – and hardly debatable – statement to make about a record that was so infectious that it’s still putting listeners in a trance seventy years later, the fact of the matter is there WAS at least one person who seemed to have doubted its potential appeal.
That person was Lew Chudd, the owner of Imperial Records for whom Fats Domino was now recording.
Though that had been the song which had convinced him to sign the twenty-one year old in the first place, once they had it down on wax Chudd coupled it with a far different sounding song and decided to promote THAT one… this one… at first as the lead cut, despite it not being what his artist or the band behind him did best.
Crazy Bout That City… Or Just Plain Crazy
Along our way through the pages of rock history you’ll note that we frequently bring up these questionable decisions as to what record labels felt were the stronger sides only to quickly be proven wrong by the listeners reactions.
We point these examples out not to embarrass anyone or call into question their hearing or their intelligence (well, okay, we occasionally call people idiots, I’ll admit, but only when it’s so obvious that we can’t help ourselves), but we also do it to show that the industry thinking on any type of revolutionary music always seems to be a few steps behind the artists’ vision.
In the present we take for granted the hits of the past, confident that the outcome was never in doubt, but in truth it is ALWAYS in doubt when you have non-creative people with a conservative outlook who view music as a business rather than a form of artistic self-expression who are making the decisions which will determine what you’re allowed to hear.
Despite the fact that Chudd was making a sizable investment in New Orleans and despite the fact that the artist who was making his debut was a living breathing advertisement for the Crescent City, something which was perfectly exemplified on the other side of this single, when it came time to decide what to promote they went with what they must’ve felt like was the “safe” bet.
Since of course there are two sides to a single, ultimately the consumer will be the one with the final say on the matter, and although it shouldn’t have required a public vote to settle the matter thankfully the listeners are generally far more intelligent than the ones running things and so The Fat Man easily won out and in the process established both Domino and the record company as major players on the scene and set the course for the future when it came to the dominant style of their output.
But its success meant Chudd never had to answer for the fact that it was the drearier sounding Detroit City Blues where he himself initially placed his trust, promoting it in the trade papers as the song to push.
A Good Place To Go
Chudd of course didn’t write the song, nor presumably did he commission Domino and Dave Bartholomew to write it, so we need to consider the reasons why it was thought to be a reasonable subject to tackle in the first place.
For starters the two of them were facing a rather quick turnaround from the moment Imperial signed Fats to when they entered the studio a week later and so they not only needed material but wanted to make sure it wasn’t simply a half dozen simple variations on a theme. So from the standpoint of doing something slightly different to show off their versatility, this makes some sense.
Thematically it also was fairly topical for the era, for while both Fats and Dave were lifelong residents of Louisiana they’d both seen countless people around them over the past decade head North to escape the stifling racism that existed in the South. The automotive factories that had shifted from making cars to making machine guns and tanks during the war were the prime destination for the mass migration of African-Americans during the 1940’s and that’s the perspective used in Detroit City Blues, that of a recent transplant sort of spreading the word about the some of the things the Northern city has to offer.
Yet in spite of the obvious underlying meaning that wouldn’t be lost on most listeners fully aware of the circumstances of such a move, this is still Mid-Century America and so such issues had to be concealed to ensure its commercial potential wasn’t upended by those offended by criticizing half of the country for the need to move elsewhere for better treatment. As such the lyrics, though still reasonably evocative of the location, calling out Hastings Street as a gathering place for example, have no deeper connection.
Because it’s also lacking any personal asides in the story which conceivably could negate the importance of the location by focusing on specific people or situations, it cuts itself off from another way of making you feel invested in it all. Fats sings in general terms about the women there but doesn’t single out any one girl and when he talks about the nightlife there are no vivid observations to make it come alive.
It’s a travel brochure being passed along to you rather than a first-hand account by someone who’s lived there and really knows the terrain and as a result it never becomes more than just a name on a map, distant and without character, which is a hard thing to overcome on a two minute record.
Be A Real Good Sport
But if anyone was capable of doing so and elevating this to at least being something worth listening to for the sheer performance alone it’d be Domino and Bartholomew. Fats higher youthful voice might be a little more strident than what he’d become famous for down the line, but it’s still got an appealing yearning quality to it that draws you in. But because what he’s telling you is fairly generic and because there’s no unique qualities to how he delivers it – no vocal imitations of a harmonica as on the flip-side which was so captivating for instance – your interest tends to wane. He sounds fine, but just not compelling.
So that leaves it to Bartholomew’s arrangement to give Detroit City Blues a real identity and goodness knows he’s got the band with which to do so, but while they too play with solid efficiency, nothing about it really stands out.
The main problem is the tempo, which is medium-to-slow, offering nothing vigorous to grab your attention. Now that in of itself is hardly a bad thing, especially when paired with such an uptempo party-starter as The Fat Man. It’s always a smart move to vary the sound on two sides of a single to give listeners an option.
But the reason why this feels slightly out of place is because it doesn’t match the story, which is supposed to be upbeat and even celebratory of the Motor City. After all, Fats is telling us how great it is – presumably to skeptical relatives back home – yet he and the band sound fairly despondent about being stuck up there.
The main melodic thrust is carried by Domino playing triplets on the piano, something which would become his trademark, but they don’t carry with them any real energy in this case and so the horns when they fall in take a similar approach, moaning rather than booting, honking and squealing. Even the solos are taken at such a slow pace that there’s no room for any fireworks.
So how could this have been improved without simply swapping it out for another song altogether? Actually, I think it’s fairly simple. If you want to keep the musical motif the same, then re-write the lyrics to have Domino voice how homesick he is for his loved ones in New Orleans. Talk about not knowing many people here in Detroit and although there’s plenty of work and plenty money and plenty of girls and even plenty of places to go to MEET those girls to spend that money on, he’s too depressed to ever leave his tiny apartment and is longing for red beans and rice and the wild nights at the clubs that line the streets back home.
That’d give you a reason for the maudlin music, yet with an opportunity to crank things up during the bridge when he sings about missing New Orleans, before dropping back into the funk he’s in when singing about how he’s got to hang up the phone or close out his letter now so he can go to bed at 8 PM because he’s got to get up early in the morning to go to work.
I can’t say the Detroit Chamber Of Commerce would care for that rendition, but he’s not paying state income tax in Michigan so why should he act as a recruiter for their town in the first place?
Everything Will Turn Out Fine
Though we can criticize the choice of Lew Chudd to single this song out as the one that had potential, maybe in the end the fact he did so and was so quickly proven wrong was the best thing that could’ve happened for all them, Fats and Dave foremost among them.
When The Fat Man hit so big right away it confirmed the power of New Orleans brand of rock on a national level and in essence gave them permission to do what came natural to them from then on and emphasize the unique musical and cultural attributes that made their city so vibrant. It also showed an apparently still-skeptical Chudd that it was entirely possible to build a national brand using a very regional sound.
Surely Chudd was thinking that a generic sound would have more widespread appeal, but what he should’ve realized is it’s because Detroit City Blues is so generic it had no real chance to be noticed and even less chance to be embraced.
I’m sure when the single itself became a hit Lew Chudd could’ve cared less which side was responsible for those sales, he’d get his money either way, but he wound up getting far more money in the long term because the hit side was the one that was far more unique yet at the same time more easily replicated by the artist, producer and musicians going forward.
So while you can certainly call this a decent B-side, well-played with some modest charm, it’s more accurate to call it a successful failure precisely because it stopped them from heading down this dead end path and turned them all back in the right direction – to New Orleans.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 4/10
A 4? He should have his head examined. It's at least an 8.