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Risque Rhythm

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(Note: the following piece was inspired by jumpin’ jivemeister Kevin Parrott‘s regular salute to top-notch jazz and blues tracks; it was written as part of my ongoing consideration of great releases from the Rhino reissue label.)

And now for something completely smutty. A collection of tracks from the late forties and early fifties, Risque Rhythm tracks an era when rhythm-and-blues – and its cousin rock ‘n’ roll – were yet to be reined in to meet the demands of youth-centric pop AM radio. Jukebox music, to be played in clubs where hard-drinkin’ daddies put the eye on babes in tight dresses, this music traffics in double-entendre lyrics and ultra-suggestive singing. In an era where even teenpoppers sing about standing naked in front of their lover, most (with a few notable exceptions) of it sounds pretty restrained today. But for those of us attracted to blues or early jazz for its sexual tones, it’s still a potent collection.

Some of this stuff has been remade (often less successfully) by later rock ‘n’ rollers: Bullmoose Jackson’s “Big Ten-Inch Record,” for instance, was covered by Aerosmith early its career (y’know, you just don’t hear groups tryin’ to wrest sexual innuendo out of CD size), while the Bees’ “Toy Bell” was a leering hit for Chuck Berry in the early 70’s as “My Dingaling.” A few of these cuts (the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man” and the Royals’ “Work with Me Annie”) have become well-known established oldies, while many of the others’ll show up on modern blues discs whenever the artist wants to lighten up the tone. Over the past few years, for instance, I’ve heard remakes of Dinah Washington’s “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” (it’s about a trombone player – suurrre, it is!) and the jump classic “Walk Right In/Walk Right Out.” That last cut is a personal fave: like earlier jump blues songs that built a rockin’ band number over nursery rhyme lyrics – see Louis Jordan – this takes from fill-in-the-blank rhymes that for most of us were some of the first “dirty jokes” we’d ever heard.

And then there are some true oddities: Roy Brown’s “Butcher Pete,” which has to be the first song to lyrically meld cannibalism and cunnilingus (a two-part single, this collection only contains the first side of the story: for optimal impact, check out Rhino’s Roy Brown anthology Good Rockin’ Tonight, which contains all the highlights of this seminal New Orleans belter’s career); Eddie Davis’ “Mountain Oysters,” which is exactly about what you think it’s about and “Laundromat Blues,” which shows that you can pull a good innuendo out of even the most mundane setting. Listening to Wynonie Harris tell his lover to “keep on churnin’ ’til the butter comes,” you can’t help grinning at the way singer and band make this fairly crass metaphor (“Look out, heifer! Here comes your bull!”) so happily rollicking.

Some of the disc’s other highlights come from woman vocalists: Dinah Washington gets two tracks – her ode to a dentist, “Long John Blues,” is a masterwork of sultry songwork; Kansas City jazz pianist Julia Lee isn’t repped by her bigger hit smut tunes (“Snatch It And Grab It” or “King-Size Papa”) but a lesser-known-but-still-potent track entitled “My Man Stands Out;” while the relatively unknown Myra Johnson gets to shout-and-boast about an anthropomorphic dick in Lucky Millander’s “Silent George.” Mainstream radio avoided most of this stuff like it was venereal disease, but you just know it was a hit in juke joints across the country.

Risque Rhythm was a, err, seminal collection for me, as my purchasing it back in the early 90’s spurred me to more fully investigate early rhythm-and-blues. Prior to this release, I always assumed that the fifties era revulsion to that dirty rock ‘n’ roll music was just so much hot air. Listening to this stuff – which I bet was being quoted in pulpits more than it was actually being broadcast on the airwaves – you can hear what so fired the blue-noses. “It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion,” but definitely. . .

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.