Saturday, August 22, 2009

Roy Lee Brown on Swing 101

Roy Lee Brown and His Musical Brownies - Ice Man Song / Weeping Willow (Swing 101)

"Ice Man Song" (Swing 101-A)

If this record is any guide, the free and easy spirit of 1930s western swing didn't begin to fade in Fort Worth until the war -- the Korean war, not WWII. For all intents, "Ice Man Song" sounds like something straight out of 1937, helped by a plethora of crude sexual metaphors and hot solos (though nobody present here would be mistaken for Cecil Brower or Bob Dunn). It being 1947, it hadn't quite dawned on the band that they need to only record songs that are "safe" for radio play -- this was done for the jukebox trade only, so anything goes. If the Musical Brownies had tried this just a few years later, they probably would have been subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities for the crime of corrupting Texan youth. 

The song comes from a highly unlikely source: Fred Waring, the ultra-square orchestra leader who specialized in nice waltz music for great-grandmothers. In 1926, Waring recorded an innocent, dumb song about an ice man (a common sight in those pre-refrigerator days) called "Any Ice Today, Lady?" whose first verse Roy Lee follows closely:

Any ice today, lady? It's nice today, lady; 
How about a little piece today? 
Oh, it's only a quarter,
You know that you oughter 
Get a little before it melts away
But then it veers swiftly off-course, with a couplet found nowhere in Waring's original:

We wouldn't try to fool you, you're smart as a fox
If you want a bigger piece, well, how big is your box?

The rest of the song is merely an excuse to use "box" and "piece" as double-entendres as many times as possible. This is pretty hot stuff for 1947. Take that, Fred Waring! 

The band recorded four songs which were pressed on their own, very cool "Cow Town" label. A picture of the label design for the other Cow Town release can be seen here.

But, with or without the band's knowledge, it was also pressed on the Swing label. Swing (usually misidentified as "Swing With The Stars," which was its slogan, not the actual label name) was a record company/pressing plant run out of Paris, Texas, by disc jockey/songwriter/entrepreneur Jimmy Mercer. The Swing label lasted a couple of years, but since Mercer was pressing on highly fragile shallac (perhaps recycled from old discs in some cases), not much on this label has survived these 60+ years later. There were a couple of releases by Homer Clemons (more on him later), a few blues items bought from Gold Star, and a few miscellaneous country releases like this one. Mercer had better luck with his Royalty label, which do turn up occasionally ("Benzedrine Blues" on Royalty is singled out for praise in Nick Tosches' Country), but he couldn't sustain his shoestring operation past 1950, when he shut his doors and moved to Illinois. 

Roy Lee's band continued playing for several years, but he didn't record again until the 1980s. He is best known for assisting Cary Ginell with his essential book, Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing. And no, by that time, Roy Lee certainly didn't want to be reminded of the "blue" material he'd recorded a lifetime before.

* Fred Waring's original version can be heard on this YouTube video here.

1 comment:

  1. Roy Lee told me that they weren't aware of the Swing version being issued until later -- it certainly wasn't something that Mercer cleared with them before doing it. He also was very irritated that the flip side of "Ice Man" was the maudlin song about mother sung by Earl Milliorn. He thought that coupling the risque song with the ballad of home & hearth was stupid and commercial suicide...not that the record would have sold much, anyway -- To me, though this recording has some of the spirit of the earlier bands (a lot of that owing to Cliff Kendrick's drumming and his urging Roy Lee on -- Roy Lee said that "Cliff really sold my band"), it sounds very much of it's time rather than something from earlier. I know you have long been annoyed by the separation of the music and the band into "prewar" and "postwar" categories, and in some ways you have a strong case. But to me there is a fairly marked difference in sounds from before the war and after, and that hiatus in recording (among other things that came with the war) is more than just a convenience of categorization -- a lot of things changed.