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MERCURY 8176; MARCH 1950



If one thing’s become clear in rock music’s first couple of years it’s that New Orleans was like a magnet for record companies looking to cash in on the phenomenon.

DeLuxe Records of New Jersey had been first in that regard, then when its owners, the Braun Brothers, were forcibly jettisoned in a hostile takeover of the label they turned around and started Regal Records grabbing another batch of New Orleans artists to stock their roster and score their biggest hits.

Meanwhile on the other side of the continent, Imperial Records from Los Angeles was getting nowhere with their meager output in a variety of fields until they headed to New Orleans, signed Dave Bartholomew to head up their operations and he brought in a wide array of local acts who in just four months have already notched multiple hits with plenty more to come.

Mercury Records were not quite in the same boat as those other companies. For starters they had higher aspirations in more “respectable” types of music, but unlike most aspiring major labels they seemed willing to do more than merely pay lip service to rock ‘n’ roll.

To do so effectively meant going to New Orleans and recruiting some artists the other labels had somehow overlooked.


Try, Try Baby
Alma Mondy was not your typical rock act to say the least. She was already in her forties (if not older) when she made her debut on record after a long career on stage as part of a husband-wife team which is where she got her rather provocative nickname “Lollypop Mama”.

But that moniker wasn’t quite as lascivious in intent as it sounds, for her husband was known as Lollypop Jones and so it was just playing off that rather than vaguely implying some sexually deviant meaning… not that such a misinterpretation would’ve hurt her standing among rock fans!

Yet as that background attests Mondy was hardly the most likely candidate for success in a field skewing ever younger like rock ‘n’ roll.

Mercury seemed to understand this as well and their interest in signing her appeared to be two-fold, the first was to take advantage of the current rock “craze” which they were hoping to address with the recent additions they got from New Orleans headed up by Professor Longhair but also including Joe Gaines, Theard Johnson and Hosie Dwine Craven (whose best sides, absolutely tremendous really, sadly and inexplicably went unreleased at the time).

But their other reason for signing Alma Mondy was because they were having problems with the notoriously prickly Dinah Washington and they felt that Mondy might just be a suitable replacement should The Queen decide to abdicate her throne.

Yet on Baby Get Wise there’s no indication that Mondy would even be suitable for Washington’s more traditional style, as this is clearly a modern rock anthem in every way, from its rousing rhythmic backing to her no-holds-barred declarative shouting… age and experience be damned.


The Best Of Everything
With no previous records from Mondy to compare and contrast, we have a blank slate with which to assess both her intent and her aptitude for rock, and on that account she’s not in any way an awkward fit here, someone being artificially dragged into the genre to meet the label’s shortsighted goals.

Part of this is surely due to the high quality sidemen she’s paired with, not classy studio ringers far removed from rock circles as you might expect from such a company, but rather they include some of the cream of the crop from New Orleans hottest bands.

They’re being billed as George Miller’s Mid-Driffs, perhaps to give some promotional muscle to Miller, a bassist who will get his own single out of these sessions, but they’re less a self-contained band led by Miller and more an aggregation of New Orleans hot-shots.

Some of the names need no introduction, guitarist Jack Scott of Paul Gayten’s band and Lee Allen and Batman Rankins on sax, but their presence shows that Mercury was astute enough to realize that it wasn’t just the singer that was required for authenticity, but those providing the musical support were vital as well.

Duke Burrell’s piano that kicks off Baby Get Wise is locked into your hips from the first notes, delivering a heavy rolling rhythm that demands instant gyration from anyone not suffering from arthritis or lumbago, a call to move and groove that is quickly seconded by the horns that storm in with equal determination and power.

The concept itself is so basic that it could be called simplistic by critics, but the fact remains the reason it’s effective is because it understands rock’s basic premise is to get you moving as soon as you hear it. The durability of these methods over the years is simply evidence that it continues to work better than almost all of the alternatives.

Straighten Up Baby
Mondy herself doesn’t need convincing, she’s on board from the start, her voice is supple, her delivery energetic and her enthusiasm genuine. She may not quite have the deeper skill set of other female singers who’ve tried their hand at rock but she’s got the attitude down pat and that more than makes up for any perceived shortcomings in range or purity of tone.

The one technical area she excels at – really as much as anyone, male or female, we’ve seen to date, is her absolute mastery of singing in rhythm, which is a harder skill than it’d first appear.

On Baby Get Wise her role is to ride in tight formation with the band, but if you let them lead you too much chances are you’ll sound stiff and unnatural. Mondy instead lets them set the initial pace and then she improvises over them, giving the band enough of a lead to keep them feeling no restraint, but then gently nudging them when she wants to rein them in slightly. Her arsenal of subtle pauses, quick turns, and varying amounts of acceleration and deceleration at crucial junctures is akin to watching an expert driver navigate their way through an automobile race… you get to where you almost forget they’re making these adjustments while hurtling along at 200 miles per hour.

It’s such a masterful performance, one dripping with confidence and irrepressible enthusiasm, that you’re also at risk for overlooking the other crucial aspect of the record – the actual lyrics Mondy is tasked with singing! But here too the song takes no wrong turns and proves that even major companies could release legitimate rock songs if only they agree to get the hell out of the artists way and let them go to work.

Haven’t You Had Enough?
Mondy herself gets the writing credit for this song and it goes to show that there must’ve been something in the air down in New Orleans at the time that seeped into everyone’s pores because if you were to draw up a blueprint of what a rock song should contain then this checks off every box.

For starters there’s the overall theme, admittedly not a major secret by now in rock circles but still noteworthy considering how many artists have missed the mark completely at times in this regard.

Mondy though seems to have absolutely no inhibitions about the kind of hellacious attitude she needs to project, something which is all the more remarkable considering Baby Get Wise was her first attempt and she was presumably old enough to be many rock artists mother and so her comfort level when it comes to delivering a story about no-account boyfriend is most welcome.

But while the premise itself might be solid, that doesn’t necessarily mean the end results will live up to expectations if the individual lines don’t have some bite of their own and here too Mondy doesn’t let us down, reeling off the failings of her man, cutting him to the bone with targeted criticism while still leaving open the possibility that she’ll take him back if he shapes up.

Yet in spite of that suggestion of reconciliation that could be perceived as weakness by some, there’s absolutely no question that if they do get back together it will be Alma Mondy who’s fully in control of the relationship. The linguistic dexterity she shows on lines such as “Why don’t you straighten up baby and come back home/And let the prodigal son acknowledge you done wrong” is a sight to behold, removing any trace of yearning by instilling it with a dismissive scolding tone that still manages to come across as saucy rather than imperious. Female empowerment at its finest!

But she’s certainly not being disdainful of ALL men here, as her effortless give and take with the band suggests. In total running time they actually come out slightly ahead, but wisely they aren’t competing with Mondy, just aiding and abetting her in a jointly ferocious sonic attack.

Lee Allen gets the requisite fire breathing sax solo, a perfectly judged combination of power and precision that never attempts to go over the top and attempt to unseat the star of the show, but which also steadfastly avoids any hint of jazz-like moderation in its restraint.

Not only is this thoroughly modern sounding, with a thumping backbeat, muscular horn charts and that unrelenting rhythm, but if anything this is the sound of the next five years of rock distilled into one explosive track.


Come On Back Home
It goes without saying that neither Alma Mondy or Mercury Records made much of a lasting imprint on rock ‘n’ roll… or even a fleeting imprint on rock for that matter… but listening to this you have to believe that it was the lack of name recognition for both entities which hurt this in the marketplace.

Mondy was fully equipped to help even up the gender disparities by out-slugging the men on the bandstand if necessary with her aggressive technique while Mercury Records certainly had the financial means to at least make some inroads into the rock market if they put their mind to it.

As unlikely as the pairing of artist and label may be, the results speak for themselves. Baby Get Wise has to stand among the most impressive debuts on record of any rock act to date, a thunderous reaffirmation that while rock ‘n’ roll may now be the province of America at large, its heart and soul was still located in New Orleans.

Who would have ever thought that a record by a complete unknown on a dignified label would need to come with a warning telling people to be careful handling it because the contents are hot enough to scorch your hands.


(Visit the Artist page of Alma “Lollypop Mama” Mondy for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)