The Lost Art of Harassing Your Sidemen

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Great names in the history of sideman harassment: Sidney Bechet, Bob Wills, Robbie Fulks, and Thelonious Monk

One day in the 1920s, Sidney Bechet took his clarinet out of his mouth and swung it like a baseball bat against the head of vocalist Billy Banks, splattering blood and brain matter over the instruments and faces of his bandmates in Noble Sissle's Swingsters.

The only reason this didn't actually happen is that Mr. Bechet was a gentleman. Any normal human being would have cracked under Banks' relentless harassment during the recording of "Characteristic Blues." The singer barks "Yeah man, yeah man, yeah yeah yeah!" over the opening notes of Bechet's solo, and continues to offer non-stop exhortations and observations, including:

"Play that thing, boss!"

"Yeah brother! Yeah!"

"Get yourself some black coffee!"

"Now you got me in the mood!"

Even if this a rehearsed bit of malarkey, it surely ranks as the most relentless and obnoxious example of musical harassment in recorded history. Not to say that Banks is anything but a footnote compared to the true master of this art.

Bob Wills was not only the King of Western Swing, he was also the King of Harassing the Soloist. It's almost impossible to find a recording in which he doesn't repeatedly let out his trademark falsetto "uh-ha!" and keep up a stream of commentary on the proceedings. "The blues swing if you swing 'em," he would tell no one in particular, or repeat a phrase the singer had just sung with mock amazement.

It all sounds a bit odd now, but good-natured hassling of your bandmates didn't used to be all that uncommon, often taking the form of lead-ins to solos. "Play it for me one time, low and lonesome," Blind Willie McTell would sometimes say if he was playing with a second guitarist. But McTell was such a mind-bendingly deft picker that it's sometimes hard to tell if there's one guitarist or two on his records; he may be talking to himself.

There's a famous moment from a Thelonious Monk-John Coltrane session when Monk calls out, "Coltrane, Coltrane!" before the latter's solo on "Well, You Needn't." Coltrane had missed his cue, possibly because he was on a heroin nod.

Johnnnie Morisette, AKA The Singing Pimp, was an artist on Sam Cooke's SAR label. On "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong," a hard-driving blues from the early sixties, he instructs the guitarist to "take it to the alley!" Morisette was a throw-back even then. As music of all genres became more self-consciously artistic, jive-talking, wisecracking, and all other types of commentary became far less common.

Smartass country songwriter extraordinaire Robbie Fulks has done his part to revive the art, often directly addressing the audience, guest singers, and other band members. "Rip 'em a new ear hole, Grant," he tells guitarist Grant Tye at one point on the 2007 live album "Revenge."

Where else can you hear this kind of thing nowadays? I guess everyone thinks it's corny. And anyway, what would a low-fi indie rocker even say to another one? "Warble indistinctly one time for me right now"?

 
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