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They say success changes a person, but that’s a misnomer.

It changes behavior perhaps, but it doesn’t change their thinking… at least not without a lot more evidence that such a change is for the best.

With Atlantic Records having had a year for the ages it stands to reason that their mindset going forward should be more ambitious than it was, but as both sides of this release shows, they were still being far too conservative when it came to capitalizing on the success that got them to this point.


A Long, Long Ways To Go
We’re gonna break from tradition here and get this out of the way to start in order to better try and showcase the larger theme we touched upon in the opening when it comes to a record label’s approach.

This side of Big Joe Turner’s latest single is going to receive the same score as the top side, the one that was the hit, and both of those scores are slightly below par.

Yet that being said the other side, Don’t You Cry, is indeed slightly better, certainly easier to get into on first listen (probably because it so blatantly steals from even greater sides of Turner) and as such sounds more in line with the current rock scene.

But it’s also specifically designed to do those things without any evidence that those making the record were enthusiastic about those decisions in a creative sense. Atlantic Records was simply hedging their bets, aiming for a proven hit formula rather than trying to raise the bar and doing so quite successfully at that, garnering a Top Five hit with their efforts.

My guess is they were quite pleased with themselves – certainly pleased with the results – and if the proceeds from it paid for their silk ties and nights on the town, they definitely weren’t going to feel guilty that the record itself was so uninspired.

Remember what we said about success not changing people’s thinking… that’s why so many companies convinced themselves that if it worked before they should just do it again.

The problem with that line of thinking is eventually you’re forced to change because the audience changes for you. They want something new and if you’re simply content to repeat yourself forever eventually you’ll face diminishing returns and have to play catch-u or throw in the towel. The way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to always try and stay ahead of the curve.

Which is why the failings of Poor Lover’s Blues is so disheartening.

It’s a song written by Turner, which means it’s going to be far less calculating in its attempts to duplicate previous hits, but that also SHOULD mean that it’s the perfect opportunity to try something more ambitious in the process.

After all, this was a B-side… an afterthought… the designated spot for experimentation. Instead Atlantic Records, as befitting their long-held mindset, got even more conservative and wasted this chance to put more distance between them and their competitors without actually having to risk much in the process.


All The Things I Wanna Do
As written, this song has infinitely more possibilities going for it than the hit side.

Let me clarify… the composition itself has more possibilities, but those are admittedly hard to see when it’s presented in such a run-of-the-mill fashion.

Historically the biggest drawback to the four song session over three hours standard that all record companies abided by in the 1950’s was how you had to cram in so much work that should have rightly been done at other times when you weren’t “on the clock”.

What I mean is, Turner wrote this song himself and since he was illiterate he couldn’t send a copy of the words and music to Jesse Stone a week or two in advance to work up an arrangement before the recording date. Instead Joe had to sing it to them on the studio floor and they’d all then hastily work up a head arrangement, something that undoubtedly fit into the overall sound they were getting from other songs on the session that were better planned because they were either outside contributions or came from somebody within the company.

The unfortunate result of this is Poor Lover’s Blues takes a very interesting narrative and gives it an uninteresting frame which doesn’t add anything to the record other than coloring in the canvas with largely indistinguishable sounds that tie it in with so much generic music of the past few years.

We have blobs of horn notes, rising and falling with predictable routine, swelling in volume when it seems appropriate, then fading back into the shadows when Turner heads in that direction vocally. We get piano fills that lend no sense of mystery, or intrigue, sadness or humor or any other human emotion to embellish the story being told. It’s almost as if they merely lifted this arrangement wholesale from countless boring records of the past five years. The whole thing veers into cocktail lounge jazz combo territory at times which if you actually pay attention to what Turner is singing, is about as wrong as can be for what he’s trying to get across.

The plot itself may be fairly standard – Joe is bemoaning his lot in life brought about by a history of aimless wandering which not surprisingly has caused him to lose his girl along the way – but it’s the little details and his underlying big dreams that he still clings to which mark this as different.

That resilient attitude he embodies in the face of dejection allows Poor Lover’s Blues to sparkle with optimism, even as we know full well this is just the kind of random daydreams that all men in his position use to get through the week. He talks about what he’ll do when he sees that woman again but deep down he knows she’s long gone and they’ll never cross paths again… or if they did he wouldn’t have the courage to approach her anyway… which makes what he’s saying both happy and sad at the same time.

It’s a balance that Turner knew how to deliver better than anyone and he constantly imbues the song with lines that are vivid as can be, all while the arrangement is as bland as can be… if not blander… all because Atlantic Records was merely content to churn this out and rest on their laurels figuring nobody would complain.


Trouble Never Forgets Me
Though in the final analysis this cut is one that is bound to be overlooked and forgotten, and rightly so for the reasons laid out above, it does provide you with a way to stretch your creative muscles if you’re so inclined and don’t mind doing a little homework on your own now that you’ve gotten through today’s class.

Big Joe Turner has given you a pretty decent song on paper to work with and we all know what he’s capable of as a vocalist when it comes to delivering any conceivable mood with all sorts of nuances depending on the arrangement.

Heck, we’ve seen him do it countless times before as he revisited songs in vastly different ways over the years.

So here’s your assignment… come up with something far better than Atlantic’s conventional approach to Poor Lover’s Blues using whatever instruments or style you want. You don’t even need to be able to write music, all you need to do is to be able to imagine it.

Maybe you’ll strip it down, toss out all of those horns early on and hand it over to piano, guitar and faint drums and let them wallow in Joe’s despair before instructing the drummer to let loose, pull in a few romping tenors and a pulsating bass to coincide with him seeing his fantasy unfold in his mind.

Or perhaps you’ll want to switch out the horns for those from a different land by hauling it across the Caribbean Sea and pairing their droning higher tones with a throbbing riddim, letting Turner simplify the melody, turning it into something resembling a ska track which would be an ideal reinvention.

Then again you can bring it up to date and give it a thrumming electronica beat as Big Joe modifies the vocals into something more syncopated in order to make it a dance record where the sadness inherent in the story releases itself quite naturally in a way that allows him to get out all of his hurt, regrets and shattered dreams on the floor.

The point is the possibilities are endless. Yet in 1952 Atlantic chose to go with the simplest, most banal possibility and treat this like it didn’t matter one way or another.

Success doesn’t change you after all, it’s failure that does because that’s what leads to trying something new. But the smart ones treat success like failure and head in new directions all the same.


(Visit the Artist page of Big Joe Turner for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)