Our seventy-first feature for Blue Note 75 for 75 is one of the most successful releases in Blue Note’s long history: Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder. If you haven’t heard it in awhile, its time to get reacquainted:
The legends behind this tune are all true: at the session, Morgan and co. (Joe Henderson on tenor, Barry Harris on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, & Billy Higgins on drums) had four solid tunes but Al Lion felt the album lacked a hook and requested one more piece. With nothing ready, Morgan locked himself in the bathroom and wrote out a scrap of melody on toilet tissue, this melody became the vamp intro to “The Sidewinder” and the band quickly ran through a rehearsal before banging out a master take. Here bassist Bob Cranshaw expounds on what happened:
Needless to say, the tune exploded, sending the album up the Billboard charts, peaking at #35. The single did well too, reaching #81 on the Billboard Hot 100 (though that doesn’t include jukebox plays which some experts figure were triple that of radio). It was a huge, huge tune and the royalties alone made Blue Note and Morgan rich. As well, the song entered the zeitgeist, being used in commercials and radio jingles. Once James Brown covered it though, the crossover was complete:
As with anything the crosses over into mainstream appeal, the legacy of The Sidewinder became a complicated one. For Lee Morgan in particular, and Blue Note in general, its success ensured the health of the label through the turbulent sixties, though Al Lion’s quest for a successful sequel started to cramp the label’s artistic ambitions, particularly for Morgan who seemed obsessed with crafting similar tunes for awhile. As well, flush with cash, Morgan’s heroin habit escalated dangerously and he struggled to work regularly at a time when he was in high demand as a performer.
In hindsight too, the other four songs seem like after-thoughts but a serious re-listen reveals the slinky, sinuous pleasures of “Totem Pole”:
Unlike the title track, which Morgan dominates thoroughly, the other musicians particularly stand-out on this number. Joe Henderson delivers a corker of a solo and Barry Harris kicks out another funky jam. The spirit of all the tunes hinges on Billy Higgins bright, expressive drumming. I dig these other tracks a lot.
A Blue Note classic, The Sidewinder is a great hook for anyone new to jazz or looking to understand how music now so niche was once entirely populist.
Stay tuned for more Blue Note 75 for 75… (only four more to go!)
EDIT~: Here is the listing for a class I recently taught on Morgan: