JAZZ CLASSIC: LEE MORGAN-THE SIDEWINDER.

Jazz Classic: Lee Morgan-The Sidewinder.

On the 21st’ December 1963, Lee Morgan and his quintet travelled to the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, to record what was the fourteenth album of his career. He had signed to Blue Note Records in 1956 and in the Spring of 1957 had released his debut album Lee Morgan Indeed!

Since then, he had released albums on Savoy, Speciality, Vee-Jay and Jazzland. However, he had released seven albums on Blue Note Records and the album he was about to record would take the total to eight. That album was The Sidewinder, which became a jazz classic and at the time was the most important album that Blue Note Records released.

Very few artists signed to Blue Note Records were aware of the label’s perilous financial situation. Things were so bad that the label was almost insolvent and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. What it needed was a successful album, and even better one that featured a successful single that would be used in adverts and as the theme for television shows. This was a long shot, and even Alfred Lion who co-owned Blue Note Records and was about to produce The Sidewinder knew that. It was beyond his wildest dreams.

When Lee Morgan and his quintet arrived at the studio, he had written five new compositions. This included The Sidewinder, Totem Pole, Gary’s Notebook, Boy, What A Night and Hocus Pocus. They would be recorded by a talented and versatile quintet.

This included drummer Billy Higgins, double bassist Bob Cranshaw and pianist Barry Harris. Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson joined bandleader and trumpeter Lee Morgan in the quintet’s front line. Taking charge of engineering duties was Rudy Van Gelder while Alfred Lion produced The Sidewinder. Just like so many Blue Note Records’ sessions, the album was recorded in a day which saved the label money. And given the label’s perilous financial state, it needed to save money.

With The Sidewinder recorded, Lee Morgan and his band could enjoy the festive season and then concentrate on playing live. That was where jazz musicians made most of their income. For some, including Lee Morgan, session work was lucrative. Especially when they weren’t selling huge amounts of albums.

When staff at Blue Note Records were preparing for the release of The Sidewinder they only ordered 4,000 LPs. Going by previous releases, this they thought would be plenty.

Blue Note Records scheduled the release of The Sidewinder for July 1964. Just a few days earlier, on the ‘10th’ of July, Lee Morgan turned twenty-six. When The Sidewinder was released he would be celebrating again.

When The Sidewinder was released to widespread critical acclaim it was hailed as the finest of Lee Morgan’s career. The album opened with the unmistakable title-track and future classic, The Sidewinder. Lee Morgan had written a soul-jazz boogaloo inspired track which also tried to capture a hard bop style which was an instant classic. This was quite different from Lee Morgan’s previous work and the rest of the album. The rest of The Sidewinder was heavily blues-based but revealed what was Lee Morgan’s more traditional hard bop sound. 

Playing a leading role in the sound and success of The Sidewinder was tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson who Lee Morgan was mentoring. He unleashes a series of stunning solos throughout the album. However, each and every member of the band plays their part in tis future classic album that is alive and bristling with energy. It’s a snapshot in time that showcases as this talented and versatile quintet on an almost flawless album that transformed Lee Morgan’s career.

 

Having shipped the 4,000 copies of The Sidewinder the album sold out within three or four days. More copies were ordered and pressed and shipped out to shops by the label’s distributor. By January 1965, the album reached number twenty-five in the US Billboard 200 and became Blue Note Records biggest selling album. The label hadn’t expected this and The Sidewinder was an unexpected success.

This wasn’t the end of the success for Lee Morgan and Blue Note Records. They decided to release The Sidewinder as a single and it gave the twenty-six year old trumpeter a hit single when it entered the upper reaches of the US Billboard 100. It was an instantly recognisable track and one that the caught the imagination of the public.

During the 1965 World Series, which took place between the ‘6th’ and ‘14th’ of October, Chrysler were running a new advert and decided to use The Sidewinder. However, there was a problem, they hadn’t asked Lee Morgan. 

The first he knew was when he was sitting at home watching the World Series and he saw the advert and heard his now famous composition. Lee Morgan wasn’t happy with the unauthorised use of The Sidewinder and threatened to sue Chrysler. They agreed not to show the advert again and settled the case.

For Lee Morgan, The Sidewinder was the most successful and lucrative album of his career. It was also the most successful album that Blue Note Records had released and saved the company. The Sidewinder would play an important part in the company’s history. 

Having saved Blue Note Records from near bankruptcy, label executives wanted Lee Morgan to record Sidewinder II. Jazz’s premier label was now taking the Motown approach. This wasn’t the way that Lee Morgan worked. However, to focus his mind label executives postponed some of his future releases. Others were shelved entirely. All they wanted was  Sidewinder II.

Lee Morgan recorded three albums where he tried to replicate The Sidewinder sound. This included The Rumproller which was released in January 1966. Sadly, the album failed to build upon the success of The Sidewinder. For Lee Morgan and executives at Blue Note Records this was a disappointment.

Things improved when Lee Morgan released his Cornbread album in January 1967. The title-track was released as a single and brought further commercial success his way.

More success followed in June 1968 when The Gigolo album was released by Blue Note Records. They decided to release Yes I Can, No You Can’t as a single and it gave Lee Morgan another hit single. However, it must have been frustrating trying to replicate the success of The Sidewinder rather than trying to move forward musically and ensure that his music evolved.

After the release of The Sidewinder, every album that Lee Morgan released was compared to his career-defining classic. It was the proudest moment of his musical career but in a way, was also one of the worst things  that happened to him. He spent the rest of his career trying to scale the same heights but sadly, always came up short. 

That might not have been the case if Lee Morgan’s carer hadn’t been cut tragically short. On February the ‘19th’ 1972 he was booked to play two sets at a jazz club in New York’s East Village. There was an altercation between the sets at Slug’s Saloon and Lee Morgan’s common law wife Helen Moore him. Initially, Lady Luck was smiling on him as it wasn’t a fatal shot. However, that night, it was snowing heavily and the driving conditions were treacherous and the ambulance took so long to arrive that one of jazz’s great trumpeters bled to death. Lee Morgan was just thirty-eight.

Lee Morgan was a prodigiously talented trumpeter whose star shines the brightest on his career-defining album and hard bop classic The Sidewinder, which is a reminder of one the greatest trumpeters in the history of jazz.

Jazz Classic: Lee Morgan-The Sidewinder.

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