Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: Vocal Groups 1940s and 1950s Collector Series, Volume One

Downtime during a play rehearsal at the Geffen, I chatted with a visiting British actor about music.  It turns out he was a huge fan of Nellie Lutcher, and he was surprised that--until me--no American he met had ever heard of her.

This story illustrates a conundrum: Great Britain can be thanked for educating us Americans about our own music.  From the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin, our precious living treasures were emulated.  Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, and a host of others were lifted up and practically worshipped by the discerning youth of the United Kingdom.  
In point of fact, for years, our discarded traditions were collected and lionized by the Lion and the Unicorn crowd.  Trad Jazz Societies sprang up to perpetuate styles now obsolete in all but New Orleans.  A continuing ITV series got its title from the brilliant Iowan cornetist, Bix Beiderbecke.
The album at hand is from an English label called Yorkshir (there is intentionally no "e' at the end of their name, but, presumably, a connection to Yorkshire exists).  The album consists of 78 rpm transcriptions; all from the period of sweet and sentimental African-American vocal groups.  The Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots had captivated mixed audiences in the 30s and 40s and well beyond.  However, I had never heard of the Brown Dots or Four Tunes.  Those ensembles, formed by former Ink Spot, Ivory "Deek" Watson, share this disc with The Cats and the Fiddle.

The latter group turns in uncharacteristcally lackluster work compared the their earlier Bluebird hits.  But the Four Tunes have a pleasing sound, with a playful celeste accompanying imaginative vocal arrangements.  Along with singer Savannah Churchill, see how they embellish "I'll Never Belong to Anyone Else."

As for the Brown Dots, they give life to this record.  "Satchelmouth Baby" is a fun relaxed swing.  "Shout Brother Shout" pokes a bit of fun at Black Church with a congregation of "hep cats."  

But the pièce de résistance is the Brown Dots' "At Our Fireplace."  This is a forgotten masterpiece.  

Using a fireplace as the setting for a song ingeniously sparks our expectancy, since stories have been told 'round the camp fire since ancient days.  What unfolds is the tale of a few friends getting together to philosophically discuss the ups and downs of married life.  The music is like a graveyard dirge.  A pianist plays fills in diminished scale to accompany a funeral chant.  Fear is present, but persistence and constancy fill the void and ultimately, as the last words tell us, "...in the game of life, true love will win."  Perhaps it is fitting that the single major chord, sung at the end, is not entirely in tune.  This creepy but inspirational tale has long been a favorite of mine, and reminds me that for any couple to stay committed it takes hard work and diligence.
Thanks, Great Britain!

 

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