Downbeat Magazine
Jan. 2005 issue

Savoy Shuffle
by Frank-John Hadley


Stompin’ At The Savoy-The Original Indie Label 1944-1961 (Savoy Jazz 17446;69:23/58:01/54:55/54:32)
Let’s not pull any punches. Herman Lubinsky was an archetype of the money-grubbing white record company mogul who exploited African-American performers even as their singing and playing on his Newark, N.J.-based Savoy Records made the label important in the early years of r&b and rock’n’ roll. Lubinsky had a knack for hiring producers like Lee Magid and Fred Mendelsohn who generally exercised a commercial worth of club entertainers as recording artists. This four-CD box set of 84 songs (29 saw chart action) gives an excellent overview of Savoy, from the label’s beginning up to when gospel took over in the ‘60s.

The first disc, Harlem Nocturne, showcases combos and orchestras fronted by singers or saxophonists forging a new popular dance music, r&b. Big Joe Turner wails about his obsession for bald heads on “S.K. Blues,” Paul Williams has his baritone sax honk to high heaven on “We’re Gonna Rock” and, to single out one more, singer Albinia Jones tangles with Dizzy Gillespie and Don Byas on a pleasing cover of Dinah Washington’s “Evil Gal Blues.” On the aptly titled second disc Red Hot Blues, jumpin’ or rockin’ numbers by the estimable Johnny Otis (with or without Little Esther), pianist T.J. Fowler and the smooth-as-cocoa butter vocal group the Ravens can be heard appreciatively for their party-time spirit on firm arrangements that pack the full power of vintage r&b. Twenty tracks in all come up trumps; the one losing hand belongs to obscure singer Billy Wright for his sour, tedious “Stacked Deck.”

R&B sounds completely realized during the 1951-’55 period are covered on the third disc, Things Have Changed. However, Savoy was now competing with Atlantic and other heavyweight record companies for talent and the 21 songs present are of variable quality. Singer Nappy Brown, flaunting his trademark trill, is killer on two tunes, but cuts by Washington aspirant Varetta Dillard, teenager Earl King in New Orleans and doo-wop sentimentalists the Dreams (supposedly with Charles Mingus on bass) are no great shakes. Fourth volume Hot Rod offers a sampling of what Savoy served up during the rock’n’ roll craze of the late ‘50s, from Hal Singer’s sax meltdown “Hot Rod,” to dynamite vocalist Big Maybelle’s “Candy” and “Blues Early,” to entertaining obscurities from secular gospellers Gay Poppers, Philadelphia band-leader-drummer Billy Hope and blues testifier Little Danny (Kittrell) with ace guitarist Jimmy Spruill