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KING 4227; MAY, 1948

 
 

 

Rock’s slow-down due to the ongoing recording ban reaches its apex in May and June and as there was no trade papers at the time who paid much attention to black rhythm music we don’t have any way of knowing whether or not this was too noticeable to the average consumer who’d gotten interested in the Devil’s music in the preceding nine months.

Sometimes it’s hard looking back from a point in the future where rock became omnipresent in the decades since, a dominant commercial and creative force that seemed all but indestructible once the juggernaut got rolling, but it’s important to understand that this was not a forgone conclusion when rock ‘n’ roll was starting out in the late 1940’s.

There had been many a short-lived musical fad over the years that came and went with undue haste, soon to be forgotten by one and all, and at the time there probably was no reason to think this style would be any different.

Radio played little, if any, of this type of music, while buying records was still something of a luxury, not in terms of the financial means to do so as much as the priority an individual placed on owning them and the means with which to play them, so for most it was the jukebox which provided the outlet for their musical cravings and with only 20 or so spots available on each, popular songs remained “current” for much longer periods of time than would happen later on. In fact, most of the Race Top Ten charts were taken up with records from the previous fall, showing that indeed, time moved slowly back then. Hell, the May 15th issue of Billboard was only just getting around to mentioning Dave Bartholomew’s Dave’s Boogie Woogie as an advance release, even though it was out since the previous December!

That’s also where we first see mention of Mabel Smith, as she was still being billed (though for consistency’s sake we’ll refer to her as Big Maybelle, the name she’d go down in history under), on her second release for King records, Too Tight Mama, a promising title for the future star who definitely knew how to deliver the vocal goods on such potentially salacious material.

Sad to say that the title is the best thing about the record.
 

Don’t Shortchange Me, Pretty Daddy
What ultimately “did-in” Maybelle’s last record, Sad And Disappointed Jill, was the lack of a unified stylistic direction. King Records clearly had no idea how to position her – a blues artist, jazz, pop, rock? So instead of choosing one and hoping it met with a strong response they chose all of the above, combining a jazzy horn arrangement and a country blues guitar within a song that was too spry for a ballad, yet not rockin’ enough to grab you that way, and promptly sank it. That the record wasn’t a complete disaster in spite of those conflicts was a credit to the prodigious vocal talents of Maybelle herself, who had gotten all she could – and then some – from the somewhat trite composition.

This time out, accompanied by the same stellar crew of musicians led by trumpeter Hot Lips Page and featuring the same dynamic horns of Hal Singer and Tom Archia (whom we just were reintroduced to on our last reviewBlow Your Brains Outwhere they were prominently featured), and abetted by blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, they try something a little different.

Downplaying Johnson’s role – he plays jazzier fills and little else throughout – and focusing on Page’s trumpet as the counterpoint to Maybelle’s vocal lines, the song seems to want to qualify as a jazzier rock ballad.

Maybelle’s voice – though capable of delivering that exact thing, as evidenced on her late 50’s Savoy sides – doesn’t shed its bluesier qualities however, showing another split in intent from the very beginning. As the vocalist she’s certainly entitled to sing it the manner she envisions it, yet they arranged it the way they saw fit and the twain didn’t meet, pulling it in opposite directions until its fabric tore at the seams.
 

 
It’s not without some merits though. As suggested by the intriguing title, Too Tight Mama, uses good metaphors throughout and allows the plot to build slowly. The storyline is effective, Maybelle sells it convincingly and there’s a smoldering burn to her delivery that shows why she would go on to be one of the greatest female rock vocalists of all-time, even if her modern recognition for such falls woefully short of what she’s deserving of.

The musical highlight comes with the sax solo, whether by Singer or Archia, which is beautifully mellow and classy – not honkin’ at all – but which works to good effect. The problem though is that it seems imported from another session entirely, stylistically it just doesn’t fit the nature of the rest of the song. Sure enough, when Maybelle returns she ratchets up her delivery which runs in contrast to the mood just laid down. Each part works well in isolation but when taken together it inevitably clashes and drags the record down with it.

We see this a lot in this first year, where the intent of the two entities in the studio (band and singer) seem to clash, either because the backgrounds of the sessionists were too different from what they were being called on to do (probably not the case here, as most of these guys had already shown for others they grasped the rock concept pretty well from the start), or because they simply weren’t given a lot of time to work anything out, or allowed multiple takes to hone their ideas.

Too often the people in charge of these sessions, the producers, A&R guys, engineers, whoever was counting off takes and deciding when they “got it” and told them to move on to the next track, were just utterly clueless and might not have figured ANY of this crap was going to sell, or if it did that it’d be forgotten six months later and people like us (who me?, he asks defensively) wouldn’t be crazy enough to write a few thousand words about each of these songs nearly a century later.

Whatever the case may be, the frustration listening to the competing ideas is most apparent on things like this, where both sides of the equation, musicians and vocalist, are talented and emminently capable of complimenting one another for the benefit of the song and yet, for whatever reason, were unable to do so.

As for me, I agree with Maybelle’s decision when it comes to the direction of the song, giving the perspective of a woman throwing out a man who’s merely coming to her for sex and money, something she had enjoyed at one point by the sounds of it but came to realize that was all he was using her for and as a result she had enough of his alley cat ways. It’s a put-down record, pure and simple, and she rightly approaches it as such. By the end she’s delivering her lines with more vitriol as Page growls his trumpet behind her in an effective stop-time bridge.

THAT’S the attitude it needs to convey throughout in order to work, but it would seem nobody bothered to inform the rest of the band that they were taking this approach for they inexplicably revert back to more mannered support for the last verses before the horns finally rise to the occasion and match her growing intensity on the coda.

By then it’s too late.
 

You Better Get What You Left Behind
For the second time with Maybelle we have all of the ingredients for a pot of some tasty musical gumbo and are served a lukewarm pot luck dish instead.

The musicians were among the best in the business and as they’ve proven already, and would prove again with others, were perfectly capable AND willing to cut loose and get down and dirty when called upon.

The label itself was among the most forward thinking on the late 40’s music scene, conversant in multiple styles, all of which they treated with true respect, and on top of it – unlike most of their competitors at the time – they had the promotional and distributional means to get their records heard (when this came out five of the top eight songs on the Race Charts were on King as were three of the Top Ten on the Folk Charts, the early term for Country & Western).

To top it all off they had in Maybelle herself one of the most talented, versatile and convincing vocalists who’ll ever step to a microphone. Though still young and fairly inexperienced in a studio she’d been singing professionally for years and knew how to craft a song to suit her skills and was in no way a timid sit-quietly-and-do-as-you’re-told shrinking violet. She had musical ideas and contributions of her own to make and her future decisions would show her to be an astute judge of how to present herself on record, artistically as well as commercially.

Yet for the second time those ingredients were measured wrong, misused and under cooked by whoever oversaw the session. In this case they didn’t crank the heat up enough to get the pot simmering. In fact, it’s not even quite as strong a dish as the last offering by her, despite some good individual moments from all involved. What could’ve been a sinewy torch ballad, or a romping clarion call for female liberation instead is stuck in the middle, its participants pulling in opposite directions most of the time. You won’t get sick from it, certainly it’s tolerable, but it’s hardly anything that would have you thinking was worth coming back to try again.
 


 

Sadly the indifferent response commercially to these records, one more of which was to follow the next year, but all coming from the same late 1947 sessions, would result in a long (five years long!) hiatus from the recording studio for Maybelle, something few artists with such a skimpy track record and virtually no name recognition could be expected to wait out and come roaring back with a vengence when finally given the opportunity again. That we know she WILL overcome all of that and eventually fulfill her promise is something to look forward to, but in the spring of 1948 it was a future that seemed completely unlikely.

Had she failed to make another record and disappeared forever a historian looking back on these sides would probably lay the blame at her feet, thinking her vocal decisions were to blame amidst the star-wattage of the label and sessionists, but a more reasoned evaluation with future evidence to the contrary about her abilities clearly show that the powers-that-be in the studio dropped the ball on her early career.

Maybe then it’s fitting that when she scored big it was for a label other than King, leaving this as just an early career curio for future explorers like us to study like a butterfly pinned to a board.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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