Tornado!

The Jiants

Members:

  • Jerry Hedges (guitar)
  • Andy “Russell” Anderson (vocals)
  • Bill Lee Balsbaugh (piano)
  • Ron Wolfe (drums)
  • Ray Umbarger (bass; not shown in the picture of four)

From: Marion, Indiana, U.S.A.

Song: ‘Tornado’

Released: 1959

First heard: while previous songs featured were played at various record hops with no specific memory of where, exactly, they were heard initially, ‘Tornado’ can be pinpointed to a function hall located somewhere around Mitcham common—and feeling in the middle of nowhere for it—on a weeknight in 1985.

Impossible to have got to otherwise, I’d managed to get a lift/ride to the opening night, wondering on the way how I might in future get to what was—while in a isolated place and on a weird night of the week—apparently going to be the next big thing on London’s rockin’ scene . . .


The place was deserted


It had capacity for a couple of hundred easy, but only about twelve had turned up.

It’s a night that might well have been thoroughly forgotten, but for the shimmering opening of ‘Tornado’ reaching crescendo and a bloke, quiffed to the nines, walking out onto the large empty dance floor alone to dance like something out of a Tarantino movie a near ten years before Pulp Fiction hit screens.

Weird possibility moment: Tarantino first appeared on screen in 1988 as an Elvis impersonator on The Golden Girls; if he was to reveal being there that night to research Elvis, only to get the idea for cool and groovy dancing too, my reaction would probably be something like, I suspected as much . . .

There’s something incredible about the sound of ‘Tornado’. It’s not rockabilly per se, and thanks to that guitar, is often talked of as ahead of its time; but I hear something going further back: Bluegrass, Appalachian, Cajun—even though not strictly associated with Indiana—an almost disjointed folk-music-like beat, loose; while in places the guitar sounds as though played with a bow, even to the point of being just like the fiddle synonymous with the genres mentioned.

I really needed to hear more of this band, but it was a fair while before getting hold of a copy of just ‘Tornado’ on a compilation CD. Then I discovered the Jiants—who took their name from James Dean’s first initial, as he was also from Marion, and combined it with the name of the high school sports team the Marion Giants—only ever recorded two songs in the same number of years that they were together.


How could this horror have happened?


With The Echo Valley Boys, the simple explanation for a mere two songs is their appearance as the backing band on other recordings.

This isn’t the case with the Jiants, in fact I’ve been unable to find anything offering the slightest hint as to why they didn’t go on to record plenty more, and find it hard to believe, horrible as it might be, it wasn’t something in the realms of the untimely demise of that very same James Dean or other rock ‘n’ roll greats gone too soon, such as Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, that had put a stop to such music excellence in its tracks, except that surely would be known; a findable news report.

Most people when faced with the social media question ‘name your favourite ten songs’ can reel them off bish-bash-bosh; though whether from just saying the first ten that spring to mind, and that being their measure of these things, or not really liking music much so only liking twelve songs tops anyway, I only know it would take me weeks—no, months—to answer the question with any sense of truth, meaning and justice, and even then it would likely be an impossible task.


But I do know for sure ‘Tornado’ would be there, so of course I hunted down the other track long before it was widely available to hear on YouTube.


Before, if wanting obscure music, it was a case of working out how it had been released, finding somewhere that sold it, then waiting for it to arrive in the post before knowing what the first note sounded like . . .

Today, ‘Tornado’ with B-side (the Jiants other recorded track) ‘She’s My Woman’ is available as a reissue 7” vinyl in a varying choice of colours on eBay (not an endorsement or otherwise of seller/product). The seller—James Dean Vinyl, no less—lists the band as being four piece (no bassist), names the producer as Claude Nash; and calls the song a classic for its pioneering use of a Kalamazoo tremolo by guitarist Jerry Hedges.

They also say that at time of release ‘Tornado’ ‘was just a local hit in central Indiana but received global popularity in the 1980s when it was released in the UK on the Northwood label and on DeeJay Jamboree in Germany’ which might well explain why it was heard so infrequently at the time even at authentic rock ‘n’ roll record hops (btw: I’m not sure the above mentioned release equalled ‘global popularity’ given it was only in two countries).

But that’s now, and this was then, when waiting was excruciating; another song as good as the other could be on the way, the job of contemplating the soon-to-be plethora of social media best ofs made even harder . . .

(Image: the Jiants with bassist)

Alas, if there is a plausible explanation for the Jiants only ever recording two songs, my wild conjecture is that internally the band pulled in two very different artistic directions; so-much-so that ‘She’s My Woman’ doesn’t even sound like the same band. In fact, given the excellent ‘Tornado’ was made without one, the only justifiable reason for getting a bassist would be in attempt—failed as it evidently turned out—to solve the problem by creating a casting vote.

This hypothesis—if I may use a long word to add more credibility where there is none—certainly explains the thoroughly awful aspects found on the B-side, and some of the better on the A.

Consider:

The guitarist and vocalist want to do ‘Tornado’ (they’re the names credited on the label, after all) while the drummer and piano player want to do ‘She’s My Woman’.

At the same time, neither pair wants to do the others’ song with a passion, so explaining the—fantastic as it turns out—petulantly heavy drum and piano playing on ‘Tornado’; while on ‘She’s My Woman’ . . . well, don’t just take my word for it:

Finally, and for the record, going back to the grandiose claim of music released in the UK and Germany alone equalling global popularity, I also found it said that the Jiants gained more attention after being featured in the 2017 film The Last Word, starring Shirley MacLaine.

How much more attention they gained is ‘debatable’ given the film received poor reviews—average approval rating 40%—while equally fairing badly at the box office, being perceived by critics as beneath MacLaine’s clear and abundant talent.

A quick watch of the trailer and it was easy to see why; that mere three minutes full of enough clichéd dialogue alone. While the Jiants didn’t feature in the trailer, the IMDb page for the film’s soundtrack does list them, and I really shouldn’t need to say which of the two songs was used.

Once again so that for the love of God you don’t go away with ‘She’s My Woman’ as a final memory of the Jiants, the incredible, ‘Tornado’: 

More groovy (mostly punk) tunes both new and old can be found on the latest Kult DIY show with AJ, Meg and Vic; it can be listened to directly from here (below) or click/tap the flyer to go to the Mixcloud page!

More on Music from me:

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

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