Most recorded music is of its time. Pick a year and any music lover will conjur a mental soundtrack. If we were to pick 1944, most people would think of pop tunes like The Andrews Sisters’ Shoo-Shoo Baby or Mairsey Doates by the Merrimacs or maybe the crooning of Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby. If we stick to jazz, the players who might pop into our heads are The (Nat) King Cole Trio, Louis Jordan, Coleman Hawkins or Stan Kenton – all of whom were pushing jazz in new directions at that time.
But sometimes we hear a record and realize that it is not at all “of its time”. We may come back to some examples of things whose time is long past (though not likely soon), but for today let’s look at something that was way out in advance of things to come.
Pvt. Cecil Gant is as enigmatic a figure in music as we are likely to find. After some time spent in Cleveland as a boy, he returned to his native Tennessee playing and even leading a local band before joining the Army during WWII. He somehow found himself playing at a War Bond rally in Los Angeles in 1944 and made an impression there for his abilities on the piano.
This local notariety led him, in June of 1944, to a teeny little black-owned record company (The Bronze Record And Recording Company) a few blocks from LA’s Venice Beach where he recorded what might be the most unusual record of 1944 – I Wonder. The record picked up some steam locally which led him about 15 miles inland to the slightly less-teeny Gilt-Edge Records where he re-recorded it for national distribution.
Actually, according to some comments on 45World.com’s page devoted to this record, it may actually have been recorded in the garage of producer Cliff McDonald who sold it to Gilt-Edge. With the record being given the number of Gilt-Edge 500 CG1, this might have been the first disc that Gilt-Edge released.
Whereupon it jumped to No. 1 on the Billboard Harlem Hit Parade (the precursor to Billboard’s R&B chart) and even made a respectable showing on the pop charts as a whole.
This effort was a genuine one-man show with Gant having written the music and lyrics, and also playing the (slightly out-of-tune) piano as he sang. Gant put out a number of other records which were either soulful ballads like this or up-tempo boogie-woogie piano pieces that were much more in tune with current styles. His popularity seemed to ebb a bit with each new release until his untimely death in 1951.
There are a couple of sources where I get regular exposure to new-old jazz and hats off here to the 78Prof who blew me away with this one.
What is so unusual about it? Take a listen and you will hear it. First, note the complete absense of any kind of swing rhythm. This could have just as easily come from 1954 or 1964. The chord progressions and the almost gospel flavor make this unlike anything being done at that time, something truly new.
A brief review in Billboard magazine (January 6, 1945 at p. 69) was singularly unimpressed with the disc’s sound quality (“sounds more like something picked up with a machine hidden under a table in a smoky back room.”) and not bowled over with Gant’s singing (which was described as “groaning”). The reviewer was, however, impressed with the song itself which had by then spent weeks on the magazine’s charts.
According to Larry Birnbaum in his 2013 book on the pre-history of rock & roll, music writer Arnold Shaw (who spent over fifty years chronicling jazz) identified this record as the one that “ignited the postwar blues explosion”.
For myself, I was not looking forward to much when I hit “play” for the first time on this one, but by the time it was over I was compelled to hit that “play” button again and again. I have never been much of a postwar blues guy (or a prewar blues guy, for that matter) but this record has a haunting, melancholy quality to it that separates it from the time and place and circumstances of its making and ever so clearly influenced scores of musicians who would usher in the sounds that would replace those that everyone was listening to in 1944.
This little quotation from Nick Tosches’ Unsung History of Rock and Roll (found via Wikipedia) was too good to leave out. Jim Bulleit, co-founder of Bullit Records which recorded Gant later in the 40’s, said of him:
“He drank too much… He would say, “I want to do a session” when he ran out of money. We would get a bass player and a guitarist and get him a piano, and I’d go sit in the control room, and he’d tinkle around on it, and then he’d say “I’m ready,” and tap that bottle; and if we didn’t get it the first time, we didn’t get it, ’cause he couldn’t remember what he did. He’d dream up and write a song while he sat there, and he’d give me the title of it. And the uniqueness of the thing is that all of them sold.”
As noted earlier, Gant died in 1951, apparently of a heart attack, possibly brought on by years of heavy drinking. It is funny how one can go from being a household name (at least in some circles) with some top-selling records to his credit to being a guy virtually wiped from our collective memories. By all accounts, he is by now well along in a terminal slide down the memory hole, at least as far as most of us are concerned. But this fascinating recording and its unique place in history seemed like a good excuse to extend a hand and arrest that slide, if only for about three minutes.
Gilt-Edge 1944 recording of I Wonder by Pvt. Cecil Gant from the youTube page of the78Prof.
Undated publicity photo from Wikipedia
Both Bronze and Gilt-Edge record labels – from RateYourMusic.com
1945 Trade advertisement from Gilt-Edge Records from 45worlds.com
Rare mailing sleeve from Gilt-Edge Records – for sale at Popsike.com
Ad for an undated show, possibly in New Orleans – on pinterest