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OKEH 6931; NOVEMBER 1952



You know you have an artist of rare quality on your hands when on her first release in almost four years the song chosen as the A-side, a titanic production that finds Big Maybelle matching the enormity of the presentation stride for stride, winds up being overshadowed by a much different type of performance on the flip side.

Truth be told however, it almost didn’t matter which of these struck paydirt commercially, because what they both showed, albeit in different ways, was that all female rock singers on the scene had better run for cover if they don’t want to be mortally wounded by the vocal fusillade she’s now unleashing.

Come to think of it, the men better duck too.


Don’t Care About Muddy Ground
Though he got credit as the co-writer on the other side, the Top Ten hit Gabbin’ Blues, the fact is Rose Marie McCoy had worked out a deal with Leroy Kirkland wherein she’d give him co-writing credit on all of her songs he produced on promising artists… a quid pro quo that at least was initiated by the one who actually got something beneficial for her sacrifice of sole credit, unlike all of those record label execs who swooped in and stole credit without asking.

Whether or not Kirkland co-wrote THIS side or not, we can’t be sure. The other credited name, Lincoln Chase, who we just criticized for the underwhelming Chuck Willis single, Salty Tears, also on OKeh Records, did have some legitimate writing talent, so it’s certainly possible he was the sole contributor here as well.

But even if that is the case, Kirkland deserves the kudos for the epochal arrangement he gave to Rain Down Rain, which brings to bear the kind of cinematic productions that OKeh’s major label parent company, Columbia Records under Mitch Miller, were prone to do. Except here it hardly seems gimmicky… maybe because no matter how much the instruments simulate thunder, lightning and monsoon type storms to set the scene, it can’t possibly drown out Big Maybelle who acts like Moses parting the Red Sea.

Sure, we can criticize the label for thinking something so dramatic had the potential for more casual appeal than the sassy humor of the other half, but what nobody can question is that as a measuring stick for the vocal abilities of their new budding star, this was a definitive statement that was hard to beat.


Flash With The Bright Lights
With an intro like this, you’re taking an awful big risk that the singer will be either sonically overwhelmed, or made to look utterly pretentious for thinking that such a build-up is appropriate for a mere rock ‘n’ roll song.

Oh how wrong you’d be!

Yes, it is pretty ostentatious, we’ll grant you that, as the percussion is ratcheted up well past ten to paint an imposing storm drenched picture, Mother Nature’s version of fire and brimstone type reckoning, but in the midst of the swirling hurricane force winds is Big Maybelle and she’s not giving an inch to any of it.

Her drawn out cries of anguish meet this torrent head on and its Mother Nature who is brought to her knees first as Leroy Kirkland wisely shifts away from trying to compete with her now that he’s used that opening to prove just how good she is and instead gives this a prancing gait that allows the drama to have a release valve of sorts as it goes along.

From there on in the saxophone becomes the duet partner/rival of Maybelle, answering her lines with its serpent-like presence, ominously swaying and slithering around the melodic thread which presents a different type of musical threat to her vocal dominance… lurking in the underbrush waiting to strike at any moment.

But Maybelle is undeterred by any danger – reptilian, meteorological or otherwise – as she navigates Rain Down Rain like Chief Phillips going up river in Apocalypse Now as it’s not hard to envision Martin Sheen declaring without the least bit of hyperbole, “It might’ve been Kirkland’s mission, but it sure as shit was Maybelle’s boat”.

Her intensity throughout the song is astonishing, as she bears down so hard at times that you sense the speakers quaking in fright, but then she eases up and reveals a delicacy that’s touching.

Of course none of this would mean nearly as much without the composition living up to the performance, and while you can certainly argue that it goes a little too hard on the weather-related imagery in depicting a relationship on the brink of disaster, especially if it wants to connect with rock fans who’ve yet to reach this stage of any romance, you can’t fault the artistry of how it’s done.

With lines as polished as her defiant challenge to the heavens for the rain to “soak me through and through… I’ll either drown and learn my lesson, or come crawling on home to you”, how can you not feel the impact?


Let The Whole World See
This is as impressive a performance as we’re likely to see, yet at the same time it remains just that – something we’re sitting back observing in hushed silence rather than a record we’re actively participating in.

In many ways this is almost like a precursor to the albums of the 1970’s, the point where a lot of rock music removed itself from the give and take between artist and audience as prior to that records had been meant to dance to, make out to and cruise around with your friends while listening to, as well as to act as a form of encouragement for romantic longing, but also as a way to console you after that longing ended in heartbreak.

By contrast long playing albums of the seventies, as well as a handful of much earlier singles like Rain Down Rain, seemed better appreciated when there was a certain remove between the ones making the music and those merely listening at home.

With that in mind it’s easy to see how, despite its brilliance as a vibrantly staged scene, rock fans of 1952 would be a little uncertain about how to respond to something this emotionally overpowering. Those looking for some music to study by, or to provide the appropriate atmosphere for flirting with the one you like while hanging out after school, would be taken aback by what they heard, to say nothing of the one person in the room undergoing a private romantic crisis of their own who might need to be taken out on a stretcher after hearing something so unremitting in its emotional turmoil.

So while we can cherish its existence for the sheer display of Big Maybelle’s vocal talent and the arranging skills of Leroy Kirkland, it remains a song that’s only suitable for certain situations… surely the best of which would be for annihilating any and all competition at a talent contest where there’s little doubt that no matter who else was on stage with her, Maybelle would be the last one standing.


(Visit the Artist page of Big Maybelle for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)