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RCA 20-4348; OCTOBER 1951



On the surface this may make some sense… not lyrical sense exactly with its slightly misogynistic story, but rather it makes a little sense in what it’s not compared to the flip side.

Whereas that one was a ballad, this one is modestly uptempo. The top side painted a dire picture and this one tries (mostly unsuccessfully) for humor. That one had a simple streamlined arrangement, this is exceedingly dated in how it’s framed. Lastly, the other song was really well done and a big hit while this song is rather poorly conceived and a flop.

In other words on this one single you get a little bit of everything for your 89 cents.


Never On Time
There are three aspects to this song. One good, one bad and one slightly ugly. That they coexist on the same record isn’t all that surprising… we’re getting to the point where it’s becoming more rare as rock ‘n’ roll trims away the excess dross, but we’re not quite there yet.

What IS surprising is that unlike a lot of songs where you have such disparate parts causing the record to come apart at the seams, this one actually could’ve been made to work quite well had anybody involved actually realized which elements were dragging it down and done some quick and relatively simple handiwork to fix the problem.

So let’s start with the most glaring – and surely the most expected – drawback to Woman Is A Five Letter Word which is the arrangement centered on horns from a three decades ago.

Big John Greer was a tenor sax player by trade and while he couldn’t very well play that instrument and sing at the same time, he had friends who could pick up the slack for him as he delivered his lines. Instead he appeared to have been saddled with his most spiteful enemy in the horn section as Red Solomon, the trumpeter, is clearly determined to do him in.

The prancing horns at the beginning aren’t the problem, as there’s a good mix of reeds here to do the heavy lifting, but the vaguely Dixieland responses on trumpet most certainly are. You can try to overlook them to a degree while Greer is singing and the rhythm section is doing its best to distract you but it’s not easy because of how the high pitch of the trumpet cuts through the din. Of course this was something all too easy to remedy by giving the same parts to a tenor or baritone sax, one for musical impact, the other for humor.

Of course when the saxophone does get a chance to solo it’s hardly bringing the heat. I’m guessing this is carried off by Greer himself rather than our old friend Joe Thomas who is also sitting in, but whoever is playing it’s sort of treading water and sounding a little asthmatic at first. The idea of having the drummer join him is good, but neither one is putting enough oomph in their playing for that idea to pay off and as a result the musical side of the song teeters on irrelevancy for far too much of the run time.

A Man With A Future, A Woman With A Past
Next we come to the other two intertwined elements of the song, the lyrics and Greer’s vocals delivering those lyrics, the combination of which is sort of a mixed bag in their own right.

Male-female sparring and their associated put-downs is a trope that dates back as far as the Garden Of Eden I’m sure and while a man railing against a woman for her supposed faults with anger and crude spite in his voice is hardly worth hearing, there is something to be said for using existing stereotypes to poke fun at women in a manner that suggests the male is more exasperated by her getting the upper hand than actually mad at her for whatever flaws he thinks he’s uncovered in her.

The problem with Woman Is A Five Letter Word is that these faults he brings up are so hit and miss… and because of that the ones that miss come across as cheap because they’re lacking the humor to offset it.

Even the title itself makes no sense. Saying that “woman” was a FOUR letter word would get a very specific point across, albeit a snarling insecure point from the man’s perspective, but at least it’d make some sense. But a five letter word is utterly meaningless other than to first grade teachers hoping their students learn to spell properly when wasting their time listening to rock records when they should be studying.

So the concept is flawed, the cracks about women always being late are tired and the ones suggesting that they’re too hot and cold in their affections aren’t clever enough in their execution to be very memorable.

The broader views however, especially those coming right after the instrumental, are pretty effective because they’re not taking shots at anyone specifically and just expressing preferences in colorful ways. More of that would’ve made for a much more interesting story, even if it might not have made thematic sense as it related to the title.

The best aspect of this record though is Greer’s performance as he brings plenty of character to his delivery which almost makes up for its shortcomings elsewhere. He’s expressing disgust, but ultimately conveying tolerance, he’s rolling his eyes at times yet also biting his tongue at other points in the story.

There are moments where his singing channels calypso – the parts about time – which is almost the standard example of laid back music, but later on he’s practically growling out the lines in the most dynamic passages, not because of what he’s saying at the time, but because he seems so determined to get something out of his system that isn’t being conveyed by the lyrics.

It’s obvious he was at the top of his game during this recent stretch of recordings and had he been given a song with a lot more focus he may have been able to keep this from drowning in a sea of indifference.


Shy, Bold, Warm And Cold
Any time you have a major hit, as Greer was about to with the A-side of this single, it was almost inevitable the the flip-side was going to get lost in the shadows of it, so you could reasonably say – as could RCA – what did it really matter what was contained on this half of the release? Who was going to buy it for this anyway?

That may give you some leeway if it falls flat, but it shouldn’t give you permission to not try to come up with something meaningful on its own and to that end Greer and company at least offer up a song that differs from Got You On My Mind in all of its surface qualities, thereby allowing audiences to have another kind of listening experience just by turning the record over.

But whichever of those perspectives you take, the final product still has be judged on its own merits, not in comparison to a surefire smash and in that regard Woman Is A Five Letter Word is something of a let down, which is a much different conclusion to reach than calling it an abysmal failure.

This side has enough bright spots to be optimistic about its outcome when encountering each of them individually, yet when taken collectively they don’t come together well enough to fully justify that outlook.

Good enough for a B-side that will barely get spun due to the intoxicating hit on the other side, but something which could’ve been worth playing a lot more on its own with just a few tweaks along the way.


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