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PEACOCK 1502; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Normally when we encounter an artist who will be releasing just one lone record before fading into oblivion there’s no guarantee that we’ll deem it worthy of covering. When that artist has absolutely no biographic information on them available, just one grainy picture to see who we’re dealing with and when that record came out on a brand new label to boot, the chances become slimmer still.

After all we have thousands of artists still to get to, hundreds of thousands of records and not an eternity with which to do it, so if someone isn’t going to make the cut you don’t need three guesses to figure out the type of artists and records that will fall by the wayside.

Yet here she is anyway, in fact both sides of her debut will be covered, and so either we’re softies when it comes to giving everybody their shot or there must be a good reason for her inclusion.
 

 

I Believe You Ought To Know
Let’s start with the fact that Peacock Records story is a vital one in the annals of rock history and so the more we can delve into their early days, the musical directions they chose, the artists they found and the quality of those first few recordings the better off we are when it comes to understanding how they rose so quickly in the ranks of the indie label boom.

We already know the basics of the story, how Don Robey’s attempts at securing a recording contract for his client, singer/guitarist Gatemouth Brown, whom he represented ever since Brown stole the show at Robey’s popular Houston nightclub The Bronze Peacock a few years earlier, hadn’t been too fruitful and so Robey decided to launch his label and settle matters that way.

Normally that type of move has fairly predictable results. They go into the endeavor full of optimism and wind up losing their shirt and filing for bankruptcy within a few months. We’ve already seen another Houston entrepreneur, Eddie Henry, a record shop owner, start the ingeniously named Eddie’s Records to showcase hometown teenage piano whiz Little Willie Littlefield. While it wound up working out well for Littlefield, who parlayed that into a contract with the far more powerful indie label Modern Records of Los Angeles less than a year later, Eddie Henry shut down his company within six months of starting it, even going so far as to license his last Littlefield side to another Houston start-up company, Freedom, presumably for a couple bucks to pay his creditors who may have been threatening bodily harm.

Robey reputedly was well-connected and wasn’t afraid to trade shots in a dispute so he might not have been worried about the same fate befalling his company, but even so the chances that they’d succeed enough to still be issuing records two or three years later were pretty slim. But not only were they still in business then, they were notching #1 hits by that point.

Maybe it wasn’t Bea Johnson, perhaps just a local club singer, who helped put Peacock Records on the map, but even being just a footnote in a success story is still worth more than a lot of would-be recording artists can say.

Then there’s another interesting aspect of these two sides of Johnson’s that’s worth examining and that’s the fact that they’re co-credited to a familiar name around these parts, namely Big Jim Wynn, a saxophonist who has yet to live up to the reputation he built in the pre-rock era for his wild live act that laid the groundwork for a lot of the stars who followed with his flamboyant antics on stage.

On his own records however Wynn has vacillated between reasonably competent and fairly underwhelming and so maybe if he gets to work behind somebody else – aside from his own singing drummer, Snake Sims, that is – it might do him some good as he’ll be free to inject a little life into a track without having to handle the entire load of responsibility.

Lastly, Bea Johnson probably didn’t get much out of this at the time, when Robey might’ve slipped twenty or thirty bucks in her hand and told her to be grateful she got that much, or in the years to come when most looking through the discography of Peacock Records skimmed over her name without so much as a glimmer of curiosity as to who she was, or what she sounded like.

This then is our attempts to correct that in some small way…

Okay, we ARE softies, I admit it, but luckily for us Bea Johnson is just good enough that this is no charity case.
 

Found Just What I Wanted
Even though it’s a subject that’s hardly been lacking in rock thus far, Glad You Let Me Go adds a somewhat unique perspective to what we’re used to as Johnson takes the standard archetype of lamenting over a romantic loss and turns it on its head.

The song is slow and mournful sounding and thus we expect her to be in despair after her man walked out on her. Maybe that’s even the reason he left, hoping that she’ll be so shaken by the prospects of being alone that if he returns to her she’ll promise to do whatever he asks – breakfast in bed, letting him go out each night to party with his friends followed by dutifully acquiescing to whatever acrobatic sex acts he dreams up when he gets home at three in the morning.

But no, he’s not so lucky as that, because she’s calling his bluff, or if it wasn’t an empty threat to leave her, she’s used his departure to take stock of the situation and decided that she’s better off on her own.

In this way the song is almost like a Trojan Horse, taking a downcast framework and using it to slip in a story about rejoicing over her finally being unshackled from a man who she’s best rid of. Her lines in the second half cut to the bone, telling him that she’s already found a new man and is having more fun with him than she ever had with whatshisname.

Just in case you were wondering the lines are too well conceived for it to be posturing in the hopes of making her ex jealous. No, Bea makes it clear that she expected to be sad but in one of the many creative flourishes informs us – and him – that “blues looked in my window, baby and saw my pleasure there!/Sadness was unwelcome, darling, cause joy had filled the air”

OUCH! If you’re the guy who thought you had the upper hand after your break up, think again. It’s such an insidious form of gloating that Johnson pulls off that you have a mind to check the obituaries the next morning to see if her old boyfriend stepped in front of a moving train after hearing her revelations.
 

You Left Me Lonesome
Johnson’s voice is somewhat reminiscent of a few female rock artists from neighboring New Orleans, Annie Laurie and to a lesser extent Chubby Newsom, all of whom have a slight high pitched nasal whine, but like them Johnson’s delivery makes up for any lack of a more alluring tone. She is in full command of the song throughout, using a dirge-like tempo to draw out the tension and holding notes to their breaking point at times to really hammer home her meaning.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of Big Jim Wynn, though here we’ll admit it’s not exactly his fault. He’s doing what the record calls for anyway, as unorthodox as that might be, as he frames this as a sorrowful tune rather than a euphoric one to match the sentiments. That’s probably its most distinctive trait, a devious bait and switch technique in theory, but in practice it doesn’t quite hold up well because of the growing disconnect once the plot twist occurs midway through.

Wynn’s slow, droning accompaniment has no chance to stand out, no moment to let him shine, no attributes to highlight that will do Wynn’s career prospects, sinking lower with each failed single of his own, much good. He plays it well enough, but “well enough” in an unexciting manner is not going to be drawing any praise.

Here’s where we’ll take to task the arranger, whether it was Wynn himself or maybe even Johnson, or whoever was manning the controls and fancied themselves a producer. What Glad You Let Me Go needed to do was to SHOW how glad she was with an abrupt change in the presentation, something to symbolize her freedom but also something to give Wynn and company the freedom to improvise.

It’s an easy enough solution to come up with. Keep the first half the same and cast a gloomy mood over the proceedings with the funereal tempo and moaning horns, but then when she pulls the rabbit out of the hat and tells us that she’s actually HAPPY, that’s when you need to let them cut loose. Start honking, bashing the drums and cymbals, pounding the hell out of the treble keys on the piano and whooping it up vocally in the background.

Yes, there’s a chance it’ll come off as hokey and contrived if they aren’t genuinely enthusiastic or are simply bad actors, but if done competently then it would have the power to transform the listening experience by letting Johnson match them in their revelry. If she steps it up down the stretch, delivering the same exact lines as she does now but with a plainly obvious smile on her face, then it’d be like twisting the knife even more into the guy who cast her aside.

If you were to then give Wynn a raunchy solo as a stand-in for the bedroom activities she’s professing to be enjoying you’d have yourself a hit record, or at least one worthy of being a hit. Furthermore you’d have shown that Peacock Records was creative and inventive in their approach to making records, even if that inventiveness simply boiled down to taking it to a 4/4 beat with a key change thrown in for the sharp-eared critics.
 

I Found Some Company
As it stands though, while not likely to be a hit due to the lack of name recognition for both artist and label and the more pedestrian sound it’s wrapped up in, the record definitely shows that Peacock Records were not just stumbling around in the dark aimlessly.

Nor can you say that Bea Johnson was someone who was just brought in as a favor to a friend or to merely fill out the release schedule as the label got off the ground so that every single record wasn’t another Gatemouth Brown special. She’s got some skills that are plainly evident and you only wish they gave her an even better platform to show them off with.

Glad You Let Me Go might not sound like much in passing, a decent slow ballad with a somber gait to it and an unexpected plot twist thrown in, but upon closer examination there’s a lot more to like and to be impressed by. This isn’t a record that deserved to be a one-off release for the artist, something that would wind up being the first and last word on her career. But as we know the independent record business wasn’t known for being all too generous when it comes to doling out chances and so before the dust even settled for Bea Johnson she was gone.

She might not have hung around long and been quickly forgotten if anyone had bothered to notice her in that brief window of opportunity she had, but if nothing else we’re glad we were able to shine some belated light on her efforts so that they weren’t entirely in vain.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Bea Johnson for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)