The Fabulous ’50s: Discover the roots of the immortal 12-bar blues

By  Hank Davis

Daryl Britt and the Blue Jeans. Photo courtesy of Dee-Jay Records.

Daryl Britt and the Blue Jeans. Photo courtesy of Dee-Jay Records.
Recently, I talked to a woman in her 20s who played bass in a rock band when she was in high school. As we chatted, I mentioned something about 12-bar blues, and she stopped to ask me what I meant. This struck me about as odd as a NASCAR driver asking what a carburetor was.

She was serious. She had apparently fumbled around on the bass following her boyfriend’s instructions (he was the lead guitarist) making sure she 1) Played loud, and 2) hit the E and A strings a lot. After two years of weekend gigs, nobody had called her on it. If something sounded bad, she simply avoided hitting that fret again. Not a lick of music theory in her head, and yet a steady gig. Or at least, a steady boyfriend. Actually, she lost both when they went their separate ways after high school.

I played her a few of my favorite ’50s-era instrumentals, including Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk — Part I” (King 4950). The stack may also have included “Raunchy” by Bill Justis (Phillips International 3519), “Hold It” by Lelan Rogers (Lynn 502), “Itchy” by Billy Riley & Sonny Burgess (Sun 304) and “Green Onions” by Booker T. & The MGs (Stax 127).

She liked them but commented that they sounded very much alike.

“They’re all 12-bar blues,” I pointed out. (Technically speaking, “Raunchy” is not a 12-bar blues. The first four bars in the 1-chord are repeated, thus producing a 16-bar blues. For the purposes of this tutorial, however, the structure is close enough to include the song. And while we’re splitting hairs, “Green Onions” was released just after the 1950s, in August 1962.)

“Oh, that’s what it sounds like,” she said.

Yeah. That’s what it sounds like. At least she was musical enough to hear similarities in the underlying chords, even though the tracks were in different keys, different tempos and featured different instruments. They were all built around that same, basic 12-bar chord sequence. A grand total of three chords, strung together in this sequence: 1/1/1/1/4/4/1/1/5/4/1/1. Sometimes a 5-chord replaces that last bar of 1 to ease you into the next 12-bar verse. If the band featured nothing but guitar, bass and drums, you could be damn sure that most of the songs were performed in the key of E or A. If there was a piano player, he might push for a few tunes in C or G. If you had a sax in the group, he’d beg for some workouts in F or B-flat. Sax players, at least in the company of entry-level musicians, hated keys like E and A as much as guitar players hated F and B-flat.

It took me about 10 minutes to explain chord theory to my friend at the level of basic rock. My mini-lecture wouldn’t have impressed Beethoven or Coltrane, but it worked just fine in this setting. Her reaction is best summarized in one word: “Wow.” She also said something about suddenly seeing a street map of the city you grew up in. You could get around fine without the map but, with it, you saw relationships between things you had never put together before. You got the big picture.

Strictly Instrumental, Vol. 9
Various Artists
Buffalo Bop Bb CD 55183

This little lesson in musicology is a preface to examining a CD reissue of 1950s instrumental music issued by the German Buffalo Bop label.

Consistent with previous releases by this company, you know in advance that 1) There will be 30 tracks on the disc, 2) The sound will verge on the vibrant (amazing when you consider the sources), and 3) You will be listening to nothing but obscurities here — not a trace of a hit record in sight. These artists were barely household names in their own households. The bands are typically small town, as are the labels they recorded for. Originality will be in short supply, but enthusiasm will be in abundance. In all fairness, if you found any of these original 45s at a yard sale for a quarter or 50 cents, you’d brag about it for a month. You might even write a letter to Goldmine describing your find. But hearing 30 of these tracks in a row can be a somewhat different experience.

When I first saw these CD collections I made a thoughtless comment like, “I can’t believe there are that many ’50s records (or bands or labels) that I didn’t know about.” That may have been in response to Volume 1. The more general Buffalo Bop series (mostly rockabilly vocals) is pushing 100 releases, and the Strictly Instrumentals series is up to Volume 9. There seems to be no end in sight. That’s 270 instrumental obscurities and counting.

Of the 30 tracks on Volume 9, 23 of them are basically 12-bar blues. That’s actually not as high as I expected. My recollection is that some of the previous Volumes came a lot closer to 100 percent. Some of these tracks are actually rather memorable little excursions into teenage musical enthusiasm, circa a half-century ago. Remember, these are the same kids who probably were given violin or piano lessons when they were 11 or 12 years old in the hopes that some “culture” could be pounded into their pre-pubescent heads. By the time they were 15 or 16, the violin or the Bach sheet music was safely packed away in the hall closet, and that former student of classical music was wailing away in somebody’s basement or garage.

A few of the musical highlights in store for you: “Big Beat Boogie” by Sammy Berk is one of the rare piano-led forays on this collection. Most feature guitars. Another piano rocker is “Cool Martini” by The Blue Jeans, which owes a debt to Rusty Isabel’s wonderful rocker “Firewater.” Several of these records begin with a memorable non-rock riff (e.g., “Ireland Express” by The Shufflers or “Yankee Doodle Rock” by Lennie And The Continentals) but soon degenerate into undistinguished 12-bar rockers. “Percision” (which I assume is a spelling mistake) by The Royals features a “Tequila”-based two-chord guitar figure in the background but otherwise goes its merry way for two-and-a-half minutes in one chord. If John Lee Hooker was King of the one-chord boogie, The Royals must have been his court jesters. “Slumber” by The Shufflers is the only track played in a slow tempo. Like most slow, guitar-led instrumentals of the era, it showed the influence of Link Wray’s “Rumble.”

My favorite track on the collection is “Cocklebur” by Tiny Fuller on the Memphis-based Tap label (Tap 1000 — probably their first and last release). The song is an almost note-for-note clone of Carl Perkins’ “Restless,” which didn’t appear until the mid-’60s. So which came first? Or, is there a common ancestor to both songs? In any case, this is a fine record, marred only by a couple of ill-advised harp breaks.

The award for Most Amateurish sound goes to The Vanguards playing “Wild.” Really, this group sounds like the third-best band in your high school. Near as I can tell, it’s a guitar, a sax and drums — no bass in sight. A look at the original Seattle-based Mecca label shows composer credit to Bonnie Dee and Annie Laurie Sloan. Could this have been a… gasp… girl band? The Vanguards just barely edged out another amateurish delight by Ray McArthur’s Hill Stoppers (a pun on Hilltoppers?) playing “Raymond’s Beat.”

The obscurity quotient is predictably high on this CD: The only label most mortals will have heard of before is Amy. In fact, I recorded for its sister label Mala back in 1960, so I’ve seen my share of those little Amy and Mala 45s sitting in boxes.

Believe me, the other labels will be new to you as well, even if you think you’re a real ’50s historian. I doubt you’ve seen or heard of releases on labels like Kay-Gee, Arjay, White Star or V-Lee. As for artists, unless you’re versed in the charms of acts like Kurt and The Kapers or The Penetrators (no jokes, please), about the only name on this collection you’re likely to know is Jody Reynolds — he of “Endless Sleep” fame. Jody appears with his tremolo guitar on Tarantula.

As with most compilations issued by Buffalo Bop, you’ll hear the influence of big hits of the day hanging over many of these obscure amateur efforts. Since these are Strictly Instrumentals, expect to hear more than your share of Duane Eddy’s style (one group is even named after his hit, “Ramrod”). You’ll also hear traces of The Ventures, the afore-mentioned “Rumble,” “Tequila” and Ray Charles’ famous riff from “What’d I Say.”

There is no telling how many of these kids back the late ’50s knew that they were playing 12-bar blues. They may have been as clueless as my bass-playing friend from today. I’d like to think they weren’t.

I still have too much sentimental attachment to ’50s music to believe that such cluelessness was possible. In any case, these kids were into cars and named their bands after them (T-Birds, Corvairs and Continentals). They also liked their music loud and chose song titles to match (“Thunder Rock,” “Wild,” “Riot,” “Blitzkrieg,” “Wild Fire,” “War Cry,” “Warpath” and “Concussion”).

In that sense, little has changed in 50 years.

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