Sonny Stitt: It's Magic

Robert R. Calder

One of the great saxophonists at his most easily lyrical, with a sensitive bebop organist. The performance could be called undemanding, but also both unusually relaxed and exceptionally relaxing.

Sonny Stitt

It's Magic

Label: Delmark
US Release Date: 2005-03-22
UK Release Date: 2005-04-11
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The liner notes here recognise, as did reviews of Delmark's previous CD of material from these 1969 sessions, a curiosity. As Clark Terry also did briefly (there was some controversy in jazz magazines of the time), Sonny Stitt makes use of the relatively harmless, then-current gimmick called the varitone. It enabled a horn player to produce not merely his own sound, but (through a speaker) somethng much the same an octave lower (and, for all I remember, maybe an octave higher, or two octaves up or down). Terry actually suggested to Ben Webster that he might try it. Webster's report of this was uncomplimentary, but Clark Terry's a joker and his own use of the item was probably humorous.

The only saxophonist I've spoken to who's used it was Lol Coxhill, not in his usual one-man unaccompanied free-improvising performances, but when, in order to pay bills some years back, he took a job as reed section member in a Glenn Miller ghost band in London. He used the varitone in lieu of a baritone saxophone and its missing player!

Stitt presumably used varitone to add a little variety on paying gigs with his standard trio of the time, featured here in material Delmark acquired from the Chicago company Stitt recorded this stuff for. The empathetic drummer was Bill Pierce, and at the heart of the band was the sometime bebop pianist Don Patterson, who having taken up organ managed to be an excellent bop organist and a partner Stitt was delighted to have found.

Stitt was one of the outstanding saxophonists to appear in the 1940s, but unlike Rudy Williams and Charlie Parker, he wasn't the dedicatee of a composition by Charles Mingus. He outlived both of these masters, Parker the genius and Williams the last major stylist on alto saxophone to appear before Parker took things in another direction.

Williams has been described as the major Parker victim, for between his emergence and his early death in a skin-diving accident, he had suffered something of a confusion of styles. An attempt to incorporate Parker's general innovations rather queered his timing, presumably because that was initially so distinctive and not congenial to the new harmonic approach. .

Later on, Art Pepper suffered a similar problem when John Coltrane's innovations came to preoccupy him. He got out of his confusion and into something outstanding, before the effect of other earlier disasters caught up with him and his ruined health killed him.

Stitt's problem was very different. He was a little younger than Parker, but had started very young and found his way fairly soon into a style not remote from Parker. If he was ever totally in thrall, on record he was no more than amenable to incorporation of elements from Parker's innovative style. All too liable to be mistaken for a Parker imitator, he was himself a towering player and should be recognised as such.

His timing remained distinct from Parker's, and if he took to tenor rather than alto saxophone as a means of avoiding accusations of being an imitator, he did so to stunning effect. Soloing on alto in 1946, he sounded somewhere between John Jackson, an older Kansas City player who supposedly influenced Parker, and Parker himself.

Stitt made a lot of recordings, and acquaintance with his very best (notably one early date on tenor with Bud Powell) can make the listener a little impatient of quite a lot of what he recorded later. The question relevant to a Stitt recording is how distinctive it is. For the sake of variety, on gigs he played both alto and tenor (he also recorded on baritone), and presumably he used the varitone to help please a not exactly specialised jazz audience on gigs. This is presumably also why he fronted an organ trio: to stay in work. However, he could move only in the direction of a wider approachability. Cheap tricks and playing to the gallery just weren't on the agenda.

What's interesting is that the overall context seems to have led him to play in a more laid-back manner. He sounds unusually relaxed; the fast alto playing on "Just Friends" -- a tune with Parker associations -- is especially distinctive. Where Parker merely implied the beat and phrased right across it, Stitt kept to it always, and not least here.

There may have been other, now hardly undiscoverable reasons for Stitt being here more relaxed than at other times, but that hardly matters. The tenor playing on "Body and Soul" here is breathier than usual with him. That gives this particular session something of an edge on other sets with a regular trio and where he dug in more. Perhaps the excellent Patterson was especially congenial, in accompaniment as well as in a solo capacity. Perhaps use of organ rather than piano had further effects on the overall performance. Maybe use of the varitone, which I really don't notice -- Stitt's easier playing takes my attention -- made Stitt pay special attention to his sound.

There's also the fact that this is a set of, by and large, standards, decidedly a conventional choice of tunes, possibly again with approachability in mind. The average track length is about four minutes, and with the choice of material might that be a fault, if it wasn't -- as it is -- another contribution to the relaxation which is this set's big recommendation. He can't have played ballads much better than he does here. On the more birk items he could indeed rely on Patterson to supply heat. A wholly admirable bop organist, and highly simpatico.

This is a very satisfying performance, although with a total playing time of forty minutes, this set isn't the most generous. Maybe the earlier set from the same source sold enough to inspire this, or maybe there was nothing more in the can to increase playing time. It didn't take much of this to make me feel mellow, and stay mellow for quite some time.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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