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The Band That Swings The Blues

Buddy Johnson and His Orchestra

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The Band That Swings The Blues, a compilation of ‘40s recorded highlights by the popular bandleader, isn't any undiscovered Holy Grail of swing or jump blues. Buddy Johnson's band produced a couple of semi-important singers in his sister Ella Johnson and Arthur Prysock, no instrumental sideman of any note, and only "Fine Brown Frame" and "Since I Fell For You" among its big R&B chart hits have been redone regularly. But the disc is certainly a representative example of professional big band music-making from an artist who owed his longevity to live appeal to with black audiences from the Savoy Ballroom to the one-nighter chitlin' circuit.

Johnson definitely leans towards the smooth, arranged big band side of jump blues more than the rompin' stomping precursor of R&B and rock ‘n' roll. The arrangements are curtailed (even for the mandatory 3-minute track era), the solos are few and the riffs mostly built on simple call-and-response between orchestra sections. Prysock is a ballad crooner, Buddy low-key and conversational, and Ella's no belter so any uptempo sparks are reserved for numerous instrumentals like "Boogie-Woogie's Mother-In-Law," "One Of Them Good Ones" and "Down Yonder."

Which leaves the highlights in little details like the believability of Ella's vocals on the 1942 wartime "When My Man Comes Home," or following the vibrato-laden alto opening to "Since I Fell For You." Or the blowsy answering riff on "That's The Stuff You Gotta Watch," and piano classicisms and bring-that-drum-backbeat-on-home foreshadowing of R&B on "Opus Two."

Johnson's prime focus was always on connecting with his audience. The liner notes quote him as writing "Walk ‘Em" as a simple dance vehicle because he felt sorry for everyone who couldn't jitterbug spectacularly. "South Main" is easy to imagine as a lively instrumental ode to stylin' up and steppin' out on Saturday night on the main drag of Anytown, USA. And "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" is a pretty good indicator of how important that color line break was within the African-African community then.

That attitude of looking to give the audience what it wants and value for their entertainment dollar in the pre-TV ‘40s and ‘50s isn't something to sneer at now, even if means Buddy Johnson didn't wind up creating deathless art. Not everyone can or has to. The capsule liner notes don't go to collector maniac extremes and The Band That Swings The Blues is a good collection for satisfying the curious, the history-minded, or fans of the swing/jump blues sound.

The Band That Swings The Blues, Buddy Johnson and His Orchestra
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