Charles and I picked an unusual pair of short films to watch last night: Rock and Roll Revue and Basin Street Revue, both released in the mid-1950’s by an outfit called “Studio Films,” shot rather crudely in a New York studio that supposedly represented the Apollo Theatre and both actually pieced together from the episodes of a syndicated TV series from 1952 called Harlem Variety Revue. Alas, Rock and Roll Revue was not the elusive Harlem Variety Revue episode featuring Duke Ellington, The Clovers, Larry Darnell and Dinah Washington (the Duke does “Sophisticated Lady” and “Mood Indigo,” the Clovers do “Hey Now, Miss Fanny,” Larry Darnell does “Don’t Go,” Herb Jeffries does “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home,” Dinah Washington does an electrifying version of “Such a Night” that’s better than her Mercury record of the same song, and Amos Milburn does “Down the Road Apiece”), though it was clearly from the same session since it featured the same artists doing different (mostly inferior) songs: Ellington does “The Mooche” (in the same arrangement he used in the 1952 album Ellington Uptown even though it was a song he’d written and first recorded in 1928!) and one of Louis Bellson’s drum features (Bellson replaced longtime Ellington drummer Sonny Greer in 1951 and was the first white musician the Duke ever hired; he was a spectacular drummer but it was Ellington’s next drummer, Sam Woodyard, who I think was the best Duke ever had; he had a stronger sense of rhythm than Greer and was more laid-back than Bellson, which was better for Duke’s music). Darnell did a song called “What Do You Want Me to Do?” right after “The Mooche,” and it was followed by a quite good dance number by Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins, who (at least as a duo) eschewed virtuoso tap steps in favor of a closely rehearsed act in which their total synchronization is a wonder to behold. Then the Clovers came up and did a number called “You Can’t Say Nothin’ but Trash” that in some ways is better than the big hits they had on Atlantic (they were one of the Atlantic label’s first big acts). After a comedy routine between Coles, Atkins, show MC Willie Bryant (who’d actually been a Harlem bandleader in the early 1930’s) and Leonard Reed, Dinah Washington came on with “Only a Moment Ago,” one of her great ballad performances and an indication of her skill (like Billie Holiday) at being able to take a pretty mediocre song and turn it into something wrenchingly beautiful and soulful.
Then Nat “King” Cole (who, as I noted when we saw the companion show Rhythm and Blues Revue, was considerably darker than everyone else in the dramatis personae even though all the performers except Bellson were African-American) came on for a jive song called “The Trouble with Me Is You” that blessedly showed off his piano chops — by then the King Cole Trio had become a quartet with the addition of Jack Costanza on Latin percussion (still no regular drummer — the other instruments were electric guitar and bass) but the overall mood was still jazz rather than easy listening, and Cole was still one of the finest jazz pianists and got to show off his keyboard chops. Then Ellington came back for Bellson’s drum feature (either “Skin Deep” or “The Hawk Talks” — I don’t know either that well but both were hits) and the show closed with its closest encounter to rock ’n’ roll: Joe Turner’s great blues “Oke-She-Moke-She-Pop.” The Atlantic record of this (backed by a song called “TV Mama” — the tag line was, “She’s my TV mama, the one with the big wide screen”!) benefited from the great electric slide guitar of Elmore James, but the version here — with Paul Williams’ orchestra (he’s the mysterious “PW” whose initials we saw on the bandstands in the Rhythm and Blues Revue backing the performers who didn’t have their own regular bands) steering the song more towards Turner’s Kansas City blues and jazz roots than rock ’n’ roll — is just about as good and Turner’s shouting, forthright vocal indicates not only why Bill Haley covered his big song “Shake, Rattle and Roll” two years later but how Turner himself was able to sell records to white rock fans who “heard it through the grapevine” that there was a version of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” out there that was even better than Haley’s.