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Music Review: Harry “The Hipster” Gibson – Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?

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When it comes right down to it, what do we expect from music: to have our emotions stirred, to be inspired, to be entertained, or some combination of all three? Of the three I'd say only the latter, to be entertained, is usually a conscious choice on the part of the listener, but it's a performer's ability to accomplish the first two that guarantees their success.

Think about all the one hit wonders that have come and gone over the years. A performer produces some fluke combination of elements that makes a piece attractive for a short period of time, and then both the song and the performer disappear without a trace.

The expression flash in the pan, with its implication of sparks without anything to sustain a fire, used in this context makes perfect sense. The song has all the technical ingredients required to make it enjoyable, just like a spark will temporarily provide light, but it has no substance to burn so it quickly fades away to nothingness.

The music that stays with us is not only entertaining in some form or another, but also has the elements required to stir our emotions and inspire us on a subconscious level. It's the difference that separates the songs of bands like The Rolling Stones and the Beatles from groups like the Monkees and the Osmonds. They all had hit records in and around the same time period, but whose music has stood the test of time?
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Harry "The Hipster" Gibson was born in 1915 and lived until 1991. He is a prime example of a performer who not only could entertain his audience, no matter what era he played, but also had the gifts necessary to make an indelible impression.

He made his first recordings in the 1930s and his last in 1989 for Delmark Records of Chicago. Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine? contains studio recordings of some of Harry's favourite songs drawn from the length and breadth of his infamous career, and also contains six tracks from a live recording he did with an anonymous blues rock band in bar from the seventies.

Harry grew up in the South Bronx borough of New York City and learned the jive talking of his black neighbours as naturally as he did the rest of his vocabulary. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, and far too many pop musicians today, it never sounded like an affectation when Harry jived. Not only did he have the patter, his accent was far too South Bronx to ever question his "street credibility".

But what really set Harry apart from the majority of his more formal white brethren who were playing jazz and blues in the thirties and forties, was his full tilt Boogie style of playing piano and his disregard for convention when it came to lyrics. It was songs like the title track from this CD, "Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?" (an updating of an old Irish folk song "Who Put The Overalls In Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?") that ended up getting him black listed from radio play and put his career on a downward slope it wouldn't recover from until the seventies. "She never ever wants to go to sleep/She says that everything is solid all reet" may not sound so off to us, but for the far stiffer morality of 1944 that was taking things just a little too far.

Scroll back up the page for a second and look at the picture on the cover of the disc, remind you of someone? I don't about you but when I see a picture like that Jerry Lee Lewis springs to mind. Harry was barreling his way through barrelhouse, ragtime, jive, and boogie-woogie, doing things that no one had ever done before while playing the piano long before Little Richard and Jerry Lee came along in the fifties. He was an outlaw in an era where it was still dangerous to be one, and long before it became fashionable.

Fast forward to the seventies where Harry made a second career for himself by playing up tempo/rag-time/blues – rock music all the while still writing the types of outrageous lyrics he had been famous for. He wasn't going to get much airtime on the radio with lyrics like "I'm the kinda of guy, always high/ on reefer, hash, and snow" but his style of music wasn't exactly top ten anymore either.
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Which isn't to say it wasn't great stuff because it was. Listening to Harry singing and playing on Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine? is a great treat. He can put more expression into a phrase with his raspy, Louis Armstrong sounding, voice then any emotionally overwrought pop singer you'd care to match up against him.

He wasn't only writing songs about the joys of recreational drug use either, which in the "Just Say No" era of Regan's United States took some nerve; he had a wonderful sense of humour that was put to good use as well. "Get Hip To Shirley MacLaine" is a part mocking, part respectful take on her New Age proclamations of the 1980s.

"Dig what I'm saying/It's all in the brain/When you don't have nobody else/You always got your higher self" is delivered in a tone of voice that invites you to laugh, but at the same you're not quite sure if the old "Hipster" isn't quite taken with the idea of never being alone again, or the fact that he could have been here before and loved you since 1448.

The live cuts on the disc aren't of the greatest sound quality, but what they're really good for is giving you a glimpse of the easy rapport he enjoyed with audiences throughout his career, and his amazing abilities on the piano. He is able to seamlessly blend his ragtime piano to fit into a rock band format so that when they do the old standards "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer" it sounds like that's the way those songs were always played.

Harry "The Hipster" Gibson never failed to entertain his audiences, whether a contemporary one that was thrilled by his references to drug use, or his original audience back in pre-war New York City with his wit and barrelhouse piano. But he was more than just another novelty song singer; he was an exemplary piano player with a passion for his music and life that shines through on all his songs.

You might listen to his songs for amusement's sake initially, but almost in spite of your self you'll come away inspired and moved. Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine? is more then just a piece of nostalgic fluff, its a fitting tribute to a consummate artist.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.