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PEACOCK 1502; DECEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

Welcome to the second – and last – meeting with a fairly anonymous female vocalist whose main distinction was being among the first artists recorded by the long-lived Peacock Records label out of Houston, Texas back in the waning days of 1949, an interesting historical curio maybe but hardly a notable event unto itself.

Yet as with the top side of the release Bea Johnson shows that she had what it took to at least carve a living out of the hardscrabble world of rock ‘n’ roll back when there was no long term guarantee as to the music’s commercial potency, something which, for Johnson at least, is meaningful because it was an era where female artists in the field were as common to see as snowmen on those sweltering Houston streets in mid-July.

It may not be worth much seventy years in the future to say that she was a welcome presence during her all too brief time on the scene but since we can’t go back in time to try and wrangle another recording opportunity for her then this review highlighting her efforts is about all we can do to ensure the hopes and dreams she had when she walked into that studio weren’t completely in vain.
 

 

Maybe By Tomorrow…
Because we really don’t know Bea Johnson’s backstory – who she was, where she came from, what her career prospects were shaping up to be before her lone appearance on record – we can’t quite say for certain that her solitary release was symbolic of the struggles for equal representation in rock ‘n’ roll for female artists or just a random quirk.

But we’ll say it anyway because the disparity between men and women artists is definitely a trend we have to acknowledge. The fact is there not only were fewer opportunities for women to make records in this field – Johnson is but the fourteenth to do so in the first two plus years compared to over a hundred men during that time – but also the percentage of females who did get a chance to do a session but didn’t get another is alarmingly high.

Sheba Griffin had two sides come out on Aristocrat and was never heard from again… Tina Dixon cut one session for King and went twenty-five years before she was back in the studio, and then it was to cut comedy records, not music… Even someone as talented as Big Maybelle went six years between her first shot in late 1947 and her reappearance on OKeh in 1952.

It’s hard to establish your musical persona and build a following when you’re gone in the blink of an eye and that’s the sad reality for women thus far in rock.

No Letter Blues provides the perfect example of this dichotomy between the sexes. Bea Johnson shows once again that she’s a solid vocalist who knows how to put a song across. No, she doesn’t set the world on fire and no, she might not have had it in her to ever be a star, but she’s more than serviceable in what she’s asked to do, yet she never got asked to do it again.

Backing her on both sides is Big Jim Wynn, a saxophonist who has been a nagging disappointment when it comes to his own recording career, consistently unable to have his output on record equal his reputation on stage, yet he’s now recording for his fourth record label despite not scoring any hits and delivering nothing above average at any of his stops along the way.

The opportunities the two of them did and did not receive might not be solely because of gender but it’s hard not to look at the results and find another reason that makes any sense.
 

I Cried As I Watched Him Go
This is another slow song but one more appropriate than the top side considering the subject, as Johnson finds herself unwillingly incommunicado with her boyfriend and is pining away for him with poignant conviction in her voice.

We know how these stories go, her guy’s probably a cad and has found another girl to scramble his eggs as it were, and he hasn’t thought twice of Johnson whom he was seeing regularly before this or maybe even had shacked up with for a spell. For her part Bea should know better than to waste her time and pin her hopes on such a disreputable character but love is a funny thing, even when it’s unjustified by the actions of the offending party it can be awfully hard to shake free of completely.

Johnson sells this internal conflict well throughout No Letter Blues. There’s a hint of self-flagellation in her voice as she lets on that she realizes he’s no good and she’s making a mistake in longing for him but in spite of that she isn’t quite ready to give up on the parts about him that she still finds appealing. You might not like the decisions her character is making but you like the dimensions she brings to her telling of it which makes the whole situation far more realistic.

As she clings to each fleeting possibility that he’ll reconnect with her Johnson becomes a more sympathetic figure and a more pitiful one as well. That’s a tough thing to balance but she manages to pull it off all the same. The story requires her not to exude any tangible glimmer of hope in order for it to remain authentic yet SHE has to retain some faith that’s believable even as it becomes increasingly delusional the longer he stays away, not even leaving her his address for her to track him down.

Here tone is remarkably similar to Annie Laurie and considering the close proximity of Houston to New Orleans you have a mind to think that maybe, just maybe, it was Laurie under a pseudonym or something, but since Johnson’s voice is pitched a little lower it’d probably only be possible if they slowed the tape down when transferring it to wax and no matter how unsavory Don Robey’s reputation may be we can pretty much rule that out if only because he hasn’t been making records long enough to know about such things.

But the Laurie comparison should by all rights have been something to build on for Peacock Records going forward. After all, Laurie was one of the few females in rock to have certifiable success and since she was especially popular in the Gulf Coast region then it would make sense for Robey to stick with Johnson for a few more sides to see if he could stir even local action, which for new labels was generally where they were most apt to get their initial sales. Instead Johnson never gets to show whether she had any more tricks up her sleeve, nor does she even stick around long enough for us to know if this wandering Lothario she fell for ever makes a reappearance in her life.

Somehow we doubt it.
 

If I Could Hear From My Baby Then I’d Be Feelin’ Fine
As for the guy who IS in her life, or at least on her record, Jim Wynn, he’s mostly nondescript in his support here once again. Even Billboard magazine in their review noted this by saying, “Thrush shows a big voice and feeling but combo doesn’t make much of a backing for her”.

The piano is actually the strongest instrument found on No Letter Blues as following the quasi-dramatic, almost Dragnet styled horn intro meant to build suspense the pace slows and the keyboard fills are the most distinctive sounds to be heard, playing discreet fills that sounds alternately like rain on a widow at midnight and that same rain flowing down the drainpipe into the gutter along with her relationship as 2 AM rolls around without him knocking on her door.

The horns though, which obviously include Wynn himself, are doing little more than taking up space with tedious whining in the background during her lines and non-essential muted blasts in the spaces between those vocal lines.

When Johnson holds her note on the question where she asks herself “I sit and wonder if he loves me anymorrrrrrrrre” it puts the horns to shame.

Now once again you can call into question the arrangement rather than the band, though they may be one in the same. You can also try and figure out how they could’ve played this much differently without upsetting the contemplative reflective mood her vocals and the lyrics set.

Fair points.

But if Wynn is getting label credit here it has to be justified somehow and while it’s likely his name recognition is the official reason for his appearing on the label it’s not as if he’s got a string of hits to his credit that would make a curious listener drop a nickel in the jukebox or plunk down sixteen nickels to buy it in the store based on his name alone.

So that means space has to be carved out somewhere for him to add something tangible to the record. If not on the intro, where Wynn’s merely riding alongside the other horns and offering nothing of note, then he has to be given the chance for a mournful solo in the break.

Wait a minute… In the break?… What break? There IS no break here, not in the traditional sense anyway. All we get is two bars of the horns and piano trading off between the verses just past the midway point and later a trumpet playing a muted transition leading into the bridge. That’s it.

Though it doesn’t take the veteran Wynn off the hook for not suggesting it, we can probably chalk this up to a novice company not having the wherewithal to make adjustments on the fly when it comes to improving the song from one take to the next in the studio. Oh well, at least Peacock Records figured out how to hit the “record” button while they were there.
 


 

The Postman Walked By Me
Truthfully neither of these sides had any chance to really make an impression on a wider audience because they were both allowed to under-cook their ingredients, but the most distinctive taste in each dish was Bea Johnson.

She may not have been re-inventing the wheel with either performance but she keeps both songs on track with understated grace and shows she could handle the lead and keep you focused as a listener.

No Letter Blues had less potential of the two, took less chances (thematically at least), but probably was slightly more effective because of it. You come away modestly impressed by Johnson’s voice, her technique and her judgement and the overall quality of both compositions and thus, all things being equal, you could reasonably expect to hear from her again.

But since we won’t get that chance – for whatever reason – this is all we’re left with to gauge her potential and to assess her standing in the rock market and because of that it’s sort of sad to say, “Bea, we hardly knew ye“, but that’s life in the independent record jungle I guess.

Average may not seem like a compliment on the surface, but when so many records being released can’t even make that grade then for Bea Johnson to get two sides that wind up with those scores it tells us that there was a lot of companies, not just Peacock, who cost themselves by not writing her a letter and asking for her to stop by their offices for an interview at the very least.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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