The early 1950s were a pretty amazing time in American music. Hank Williams was still alive and recording songs that are still sung today. Louis Jordan was doing amazing work. Rock Around the Clock had been written but not yet recorded by Bill Haley and the Comets. Chess Records was two years old and had put out Rocket 88 in 1951. Little Walter was revolutionizing how people played the harmonica. Willie Dixon and others were transforming the blues. In 1952, Ray Charles signed with Atlantic and Elvis Presley entered the recording studio for the first time and in 1955, Chuck Berry, who idolized Jordan, flipped the beat and extended his act to rock n’ roll. None of that touches on jazz where Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and others were utterly transforming the form.
And then there was Leon McAuliffe.
McAuliffe was playing steel guitar with Bob Wills, the key figure in Western swing. Wills would call out “take it away, Leon” and McAuliffe would solo.
This became the name of a song he recorded with his own band, the Cimmaron Boys, and it’s a phenomenal track. It’s Western Swing as you might expect, but it’s way more than that. It takes in so many different influences that it sounds years ahead of its time and so fresh that it might have been recorded last week. You can hear blues in it, country, rock n roll, jazz...what it is is a masterful musician at the absolute peak of his powers.
Here’s a live version. It’s quite old and the audio isn’t great but it’s enough to get some insights into his influences and abilities.
Also, here’s a modern interpretation, which demonstrates that music of a particular era is sometimes really hard to move to later eras because the sensibilities have changed so thoroughly. The individual musicians are all skilled but the music lacks the power, intensity and sophisticated unity of McAuliffe’s recording.
That’s not really surprising though. Haley’s cover of Big Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle and Roll lacks the rolling energy of the original and even Rock Around the Clock, if you listen to it, is really just a worked over version of the Williams hit “Move it on over.” Haley’s song is iconic but other than arguably Chuck Berry, Willams’ lyrical imagination would not be matched until Bob Dylan matured into a great songwriter.