Saturday, January 06, 2018

Listening to Prestige 299: Mose Allison 

I wonder if Bob Weinstock didn’t exactly know what to do with vocalists. In a late interview, looking back at his career, he mentions in passing that vocals were always the records that sold best, and he gives King Pleasure and H-Bomb Ferguson as examples. But he only produced one session with Ferguson, and only released one 78 from that session. 

His history with Pleasure is perplexing. “Moody’s Mood” was one of his biggest hits, but he didn’t make an effort to get behind Pleasure’s career. The “Moody’s Mood” session consisted of a band led by Teacho Wiltshire, playing some instrumentals and backing a couple of singers—Pleasure happened to be one of them.

And OK, he may not have known Pleasure was something special going into the session, but he surely knew coming out of it, especially as “Moody’s Mood” began to climb the charts, eventually reaching number two in rhythm and blues. But Weinstock’s next session with him was listed in the session log as the “Charlie Ferguson Quintet,” and it was mostly an instrumental session, with Pleasure called in to do a couple of vocals.

Obviously Weinstock knew he had something good with “Moody’s Mood” (it’s hard not to noice when your record reaches number two on the charts) because he ran into the young Annie Ross at a party and asked her if she could do something like it. She came back the next day with two classics, “Twisted” and “Farmer’s Market,” But that was the only session he ever booked with her. When the LP era came into its own, and jazz labels were re-releasing collections of their old 78s, Prestige did not have enough of either Pleasure or Ross to make a full 12-inch LP.

And what about the two young female vocalists that Pleasure brought in with him to help out—Blossom Dearie on “Moody’s Mood” and Betty Carter on “Red Top”? Didn’t he see the promise there?

This is not really a criticism. If Weinstock had focused on following the hits, Prestige would have been a very different, and likely much less interesting, label.

And how does this connect to Mose Allison? I’m not sure, really. Allison had a long and brilliant career in a field he almost invented for himself: jazz singer/songwriter. He could be called a cult favorite. If that term has negative connotations for you, then he wasn’t. If it has positive connotations, he was. His albums were never huge sellers, and I don’t believe he ever scored very high on Down Beat’s male vocalist poll. But the people who loved him, loved him passionately.

I loved him, and passionately, from the first time I heard Back Country Suite. But the most passionate fandom probably came from the later singer/songwriter work. So why wasn’t he exploring this side of his talent in his early Prestige albums? Or for that matter, in his Columbia albums? He really didn’t become the quirky, funky, literate troubadour until he began with Atlantic in 1962. Was it Weinstock’s limited vision when it came to the possibilities of jazz vocals, or an unwillingness to mess with a formula that was working pretty well? Or did it really take Allison another five years to find that voice? Could be.

  In any event, vocals were always a part of what Allison did on Prestige, and the vocals were the ones that Weinstock released on 45. And Weinstock certainly liked what he was doing enough to bring him back over and over. We have five albums over two years, and people are still listening to them, even though they’ve been somewhat eclipsed by the later work, and the Mose Allison Sings double LP compilation is by far his best seller on Prestige.

There are three vocal tracks on Autumn Song. Two are Chicago blues, one is Ellington. All become Allison.

“That’s Alright” was written by Muddy Waters’ guitar player Jimmy Rogers. Recorded by Rogers in 1950, it became a hit for Little Junior Parker in 1957, and has since become a beloved blues standard. Rogers, who retired from the music business right around the time that Parker’s version of “That’s Alright” was breaking, would mount a comeback in the 1970s, and shortly before he died in 1997 would record his own cover of his own song, with Eric Clapton.

It’s not hard to see the continuing appeal of the song, the bittersweet aching loss of a lover who insists that everything is all right, and forgives his faithless lover. Allison’s wry reserve only deepens the emotion.

Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” is another blues that’s gone on to become a classic, this one with an unusual twist.

Williamson recorded “Eyesight to the Blind” in 1951, and a doowop cover version by the Larks came out the same year on the Apollo label, making a a strong showing on the R&B charts. The Larks put another Williamson song, “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” on the flip side. One can tell just from these two titles how imaginative Williamson was as a songwriter, and that had to appeal to Allison. In his version of “Eyesight,” he picks up the tempo and gives it his own crisp piano styling.

The unusual twist to “Eyesight to the Blind”? The Who’s Pete Townshend, always an Allison fan, took the lyric, created his own melody, and  made the song a part of his rock opera Tommy, about a deaf, dumb and blind kid. He gave Williamson full credit for the composition.

If there was ever a lyric suited to Allison’s fine-tuned sense of irony, it’s Bob Russell’s “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” to a tune by Duke Ellington, in which a lover vows his fidelity to his distant partner while more or less admitting that he’s fooling around on her. From the plaintive melody of Rogers’s betrayed lover to the Ellington sophistication of Bob Russell’s cad, Allison gets an opportunity to show his range.

Allison’s final Prestige album was released as Autumn Song. “Do Nothin’ Till You Heat From Me” was the first single release from the session, as the flip side of “Seventh Son.” It would be followed by “That’s All Right” / “Eyesight to the Blind.”  Then there’d be the three albums for Columbia (the third on Epic) before the long association with Atlantic, where his first album included “I Don’t Worry About a Thing” and “Your Mind is on Vacation.” Whether he had only just started writing this way, or whether the Ertegun brothers saw a side of him that had always been there, and encouraged him to express it, who knows?

But we’re grateful for what we have. Bob Weinstock might not have realized that Miles Davis could be a superstar I f he put together an identifiable quintet and created a brand, but because of that, we have all those fascinating recordings of Miles in different contexts. And the Allison albums on Prestige give us Mose the important composer-piano player, with a little trumpet, a little singing. We can only be grateful.

Order Listening to Prestige Vol 2 


Listening to Prestige Vol. 2, 1954-1956 is here! You can order your signed copy or copies through the link above.

Tad Richards will strike a nerve with all of us who were privileged to have lived thru the beginnings of bebop, and with those who have since fallen under the spell of this American phenomenon…a one-of-a-kind reference book, that will surely take its place in the history of this music.

                                                                                                                                                --Dave Grusin

An important reference book of all the Prestige recordings during the time period. Furthermore, Each song chosen is a brilliant representation of the artist which leaves the listener free to explore further. The stories behind the making of each track are incredibly informative and give a glimpse deeper into the artists at work.
                                                                                                                --Murali Coryell


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