BILL HALEY: BILL HALEY'S CHICKS (1959)
1) Whoa Mabel!; 2) Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider; 3) Eloise; 4) Dinah; 5) Skinny Minnie; 6) Mary, Mary Lou; 7) Sweet Sue, Just You; 8) B. B. Betty; 9) Charmaine; 10) Corrine, Corrina; 11) Marie; 12) Lean Jean.
Had more artists adopted that practice after Bill Haley — namely, building a concept LP around successful hit singles — art-rock would have been born, baptized, graduated, become the basic laughing stock currency of the Addison DeWitts of pop music, and buried six feet under way before the hippie movement even started. So thank you, artists. Which does not, however, mean that all of these «concepts» were equally laughable on their own terms.
Since the concept of Bill Haley's Chicks is, this time around, restricted to song titles and choruses, rather than actual music themes, this suggests that the man's penultimate LP for Decca would sound less «odd» to the common ear, but might have the potential to beat all those other experimental records in terms of sheer entertainment. Which is exactly what it is. The success of 'Skinny Minnie' brings on the idea of an entire suite of songs that namedrop Bill Haley's «chicks» — some of them original ones, some on loan from much older artists.
The bad news is that, whenever Haley went fishing for covers, he'd be delving into the Songbook — so that there is still a lot of overlap here with the spirit of Rockin' The Oldies, not necessarily a good thing, no matter how much rockabilly makeup is slapped on the faces of these old swing numbers and crooner tunes. I mean, 'Charmaine'? The most popular version of that song was recorded in 1951 by The Mantovani Orchestra; need I say anything more?
The good news is that there are many sides to this story. For instance, it gave Bill a pretext to cover Big Joe Turner one more time: his 'Corrine, Corrina' relates to Turner's version the exact same way as 'Shake, Rattle, & Roll', that is, transforms the black teen's R&B into the white teen's rockabilly with the purest of intentions — let 'em shake hands in genuine interracial friendship, especially considering that all four songs were recorded by artists who were, themselves, way out of their teenage years. It also has a spotlight reserved for Billy Williamson, providing a funny, slightly asthmatic-paranoid-sounding lead vocal on the original composition 'B. B. Betty' (but, unfortunately, no solo steel guitar part). And the chorus of 'Whoa Mabel!' may have provided the inspiration for Procol Harum's Keith Reed ten years later.
'Skinny Minnie' is still the key track — Bill's last «gold» classic for Decca, or, in fact, last gold classic ever, since the Warner years would not yield any more proverbial standards for the rock'n'roll hall of fame. Concept-wise, it was probably Bill's attempt to one-up Larry Williams and his 'Bony Moronie', but musically, it's quite original, and its charmingly dated hilariousness is all its own, along with its unforgettable trill-based melody.
Fans of Franny Beecher will have to be disappointed, though: he only gets to shine thoroughly on Irving Berlin's 'Marie' — most of the other songs either do not have solos at all, or all the soloing goes to Rudy on the sax. Whether this, in any way, reflected a rift between Bill and Franny that led to their parting ways in 1960, or was simply an incidental matter, I have no current way of knowing, but that's just the way it is. Almost prevents me from giving the record a thumbs up, but, after all, the bright world of rockabilly does not begin and end with guitar solos. Give it up for brass, too, unless we're talking modern jazz festivals.