What more is there to say about Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, certainly among the most famous and popular Blue Note albums, and especially about its title track? Well, not too much, and that’s why this post is about pieces not called “The Sidewinder”.
But first, a brief recap: recorded in 1963 and released in 1964, it was Lee Morgan’s first Blue Note album since 1960’s Lee-Way, an excellent hard bop album. It was also his first since graduating from The Jazz Messengers, though he did return to the band for part of 1964. It featured the versatile Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, bebopper Barry Harris on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and the ubiquitous Billy Higgins on drums.
Together with Search for the New Land and Tom Cat, both recorded in 1964, The Sidewinder bespoke Morgan’s new-found maturity as a soloist and composer, with each of the albums suggesting a possible direction for his career. While they’re all excellent, I think Search for the New Land is the most interesting, and is much closer to post-bop than the others. Alas, the runaway success of The Sidewinder‘s title track, which was a pop hit for Morgan and even graced a car commercial, stunted the development of these more interesting aspects of his musicianship. Instead, he, along with Blue Note records, had a taste of commercial success and tried to replicate it through much of the rest of the decade.
This is what brings us to the bevy of “The Sidewinder” imitators. From 1965 onwards, many of Blue Note’s hard boppers began opening their albums with tunes trying to recapture the success of “The Sidewinder”. Some of the most egregious examples are almost direct copies, even down to the name. In what follows, I won’t say much about these albums other than the tracks that fit this mould. But many of the them are otherwise fine hard bop albums.
First up is Hank Mobley’s The Turnaround!, mostly recorded in February of 1965. Here’s the title track: “The Turnaround!”. We’re not off to a good start, with Hank Mobley not making any attempt to hide the fact that he’s ripping off Lee Morgan. He even brought back the pianist and drummer from The Sidewinder. While I’m always in the mood for Mobley’s wonderfully lyrical music, he’s strapped for ideas on this kind of tune. At least Freddie Hubbard puts in a good turn on trumpet, and Barry Harris reprises his role on piano well. I’ll have more to say about the drummer, Billy Higgins, later.
Morgan’s first follow-up was The Rumproller (1965). Perhaps feeling the pressure to match “The Sidewinder”, he enlists Andrew Hill to compose “The Rumproller”. (We know Hill is capable of much better.) While not entirely unsuccessful, it fails to capture the relaxed groove of the original, with Morgan trying too hard in his solo. The highlight must be Joe Henderson’s solo.
Next, Mobley enlists Morgan to join him for his album Dippin’ (1965), opening with “The Dip”. The backbeat is starting to get heavier here, especially throughout the solos. There’s not much to say about this one, other than that the formula is wearing thin.
Finally, we have something a bit different. Lee Morgan’s next album is The Gigolo (1965), and it is a step above most of the other albums mentioned here. That includes his opening track, “Yes I Can, No You Can’t”. While Morgan is clearly aiming for a groovy crossover hit, at least it’s not a literal copy of his earlier success. Billy Higgins decides not to hold back on this one and hits that backbeat as hard as he can; no more relaxed groove for Morgan to ride. The three soloists go all-out, with Higgins getting more energetic as each solo progresses. This piece is altogether more fun, partially because it seems as if the musicians are trying to see how far they can take this conceit, almost parodying themselves in the process (mainly Higgins).
Up next, Blue Mitchell’s quintet opened its 1965 album Down With It! with “Hi-Heel Sneakers”, an R&B song arranged to sound like “The Sidewinder”. This time, Al Foster (not Billy Higgins!) is on drums. Also featured is a young Chick Corea. The change of cast does spice things up a bit, but ultimately it’s following the same formula.
For the final Morgan selection, we have “Cornbread”, the title track to another of his 1965 albums, and we have Hank Mobley on tenor sax and Billy Higgins on drums again. This is an improvement on all the previous copies, save perhaps “Yes I Can, No You Can’t”. It’s elevated by Mobley’s best solo among these tunes and the presence of Herbie Hancock on piano and Jackie McLean on alto sax. Maybe the fact that the rest of the album is also a cut above many of the others here helps the title track.
Speaking of Herbie Hancock, in 1962 he recorded a funky and popular tune called “Watermelon Man” on his debut album, Takin’ Off. Is anyone surprised that Billy Higgins was on drums? Incidentally, Hancock’s better at copying himself than many of the other musicians mentioned in this post. Although his first follow-up, “Blind Man, Blind Man”, was mediocre (and it happened to have Mobley on sax), his second, “Cantaloupe Island”, could contend with the original. (In case that sounds familiar, here’s a popular song that sampled it: US3’s “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”.)
None of this is that relevant, except to say that Hank Mobley had a trick up his sleeve for the title track of his next album, “A Caddy for Daddy”, recorded in 1965. Instead of copying “The Sidewinder”, he imitated “Watermelon Man”! As always, Mobley’s version is much worse than the original.
In January of 1966, Blue Mitchell recorded “Bring It Home To Me” on his album of the same name. I guess his quintet’s last single wasn’t successful enough, so this time he enlisted Billy Higgins to play drums. The formula is getting pretty stale after the rash of “Sidewinder” copies in 1965, but Blue Note and their artists were dogged in their pursuit of a hit single, despite being incredibly uncreative.
A month later, Wayne Shorter recorded “Adam’s Apple”. Shorter has too much self-respect as a composer to rip off “The Sidewinder” like the others, but the piece does serve the same purpose. What’s interesting here is that Shorter, unlike Morgan, Mobley, and Mitchell, is firmly ensconced in the post-bop school of jazz during this period. He had been with Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet for at least a year and a half, and had recorded his most avant-garde album of his Blue Note period four months earlier. Somehow, this trend was not exclusive to the hard bop musicians; whether under pressure from the producers, or pursuing the glimmer of success, many musicians in the Blue Note stable were resorting to this sad strategy.
I know I have provided way too many examples of these pieces already, but I guess that’s the point. Let me give a couple more from 1967 just to show that this trend didn’t completely peter out, even if Lee Morgan had abandoned it by that point. By now, they had stopped copying “The Sidewinder” directly. First is Donald Byrd’s “Blackjack” from the album of the same name, again with Hank Mobley and Billy Higgins. Next is Wayne Shorter’s “Tom Thumb” from Schizophrenia. Third, we have Mobley’s “Hi Voltage”, featuring none other than Higgins. Even Jackie McLean fails to deliver anything interesting with such lacklustre material. While I may be stretching to fit at least the first couple into the “Sidewinder” mould, I think they are ultimately in the spirit of the tune, and probably owe their existence to its success.
What conclusions can we draw from these pieces? First, if you want a hit, you’d better get Billy Higgins in your band. Of the “Sidewinder” imitators recorded before 1969 mentioned in this post, the only ones on which he didn’t play were the two Shorter tracks and the earlier one by Mitchell. (Higgins seemed to play on only one album in 1969 and 1970, so maybe he wasn’t available for Mobley’s albums in those years, mentioned below.). I’d like to think this whole endeavour was his idea, and he becomes increasingly dominant as he participates in more of these recordings.
Hard bop musicians such as Morgan and Mobley were struggling to remain relevant as classic hard bop waned during the 60s. This went hand in hand with the ascendancy of post-bop, which incorporated modal jazz and some developments of the avant-garde into the mainstream. As the decade progressed, bereft of ideas and desperate, these staid hard boppers began to adopt some modal elements or to increasingly make use of simpler pop forms. Lee Morgan ultimately took the former course before his untimely demise in 1970.
Meanwhile, Hank Mobley was spiralling towards utter inanity. Hear, for example, the title track “Reach Out” to his 1968 album. He reverted to the tried and true on his 1969 album, “The Flip” but came up with a brilliant way to surprise listeners on his 1970 album, Thinking of Home: you get almost to the end of the album relieved that there’s been no “Sidewinder” copy, but then the last track hits and Hank disappoints you with “Talk About Gittin’ It”.
By the end of the decade, fusion had emerged and Blue Note had folded, so this is the end of the “Sidewinder” story. Let me end with what may, at first blush, seem to be a “Sidewinder” copy, Kenny Dorham’s “Una Mas” from his album of the same name. But it was recorded before “The Sidewinder”, so is surely not a copy of Morgan’s hit. Una Mas is the first of a series of five excellent albums with a frontline of Dorham and Joe Henderson and is the latter’s first recording. Since Dorham is a relatively obscure but important hard bop trumpeter, consider “Una Mas” a hipper version of “The Sidewinder”.