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CHESS 1508; APRIL 1952



When you do something wrong, the impact is rarely easily contained… there’s always fallout.

In the case of singer/songwriter Billy Love, the fallout from having his initial effort intentionally put out under another singer’s name was that it curtailed the momentum of that other singer – Jackie Brenston whose follow-up to his smash hit wasn’t even him – but it also had consequences for the guy who wrote and sang it.

But now that this same singer is getting his just due with a release under his own name, on the very same label and cut by the same conniving producer who perpetrated this duplicitous switch in the first place, you might think all’s well that ends well.

You’d be wrong, because instead of being seen as a new artist that Chess Records should celebrate, he was a recycled fill-in whose creative potential was largely left untapped by all involved.


‘Til Late At Night
The sordid story has been covered here in depth and so we don’t need to devote a lot of space to re-hash it again, other than to say that Sam Phillips in Memphis – as celebrated a name in fifties rock lore as there is – managed to lie to and cheat both his de facto employers, Chess Records, by sending them Billy Love masquerading as Jackie Brenston on Juiced, but also he cheated both Brenston and Love in the process by denying both of them their right to be heard in a way that did them justice.

He then, for good measure, used charged Brenston with the Love recording session costs, just to make sure that we’ll forever call Sam Phillips a bunch of vile names to all those who defend him.

But this is the fallout of that decision, remember, and so Phillips decided that Billy Love himself had potential, and indeed he probably had more talent than Brenston did, but now what was he to do? Pass Love off to Chess as a entirely new artist… who sounded remarkably similar vocally to who they thought was Jackie Brenston… or were the Chess Brothers in on the scam from the start, or found out about it along the way?

Whatever the case, we can now turn our attention to Leonard Chess and criticize him for his role in Love’s failed career, because with Drop Top he got himself a first rate song and performance and then didn’t even promote it.

He’d get just one more release on Chess and then down the road cut more songs for Phillips who now had his own label called Sun… which promptly got shelved when some kid named Presley showed up on his doorstep and caused Phillips to turn his back entirely on black artists.

Okay, so maybe Billy Love didn’t have it in him to rival Presley, or even to get a hit as potent as Jackie Brenston’s chart topper, but one listen to this record and it becomes clear he had more than enough to be a star for awhile, or at the very least to be treated better by the industry who far too often viewed all artists like they were disposable afterthoughts.


You Can Ride If You Please
The rollicking piano, drums and subtle guitar fills kick this off in rousing fashion and if the subject – and indeed the overall vibe – is obviously designed to be reminiscent of Brenston’s Rocket 88, this hardly qualifies as an unimaginative rip-off.

In fact, if you didn’t know the circumstances of when and where it was recorded, not to mention the behind the scenes figures involved, you’d be hard pressed to see more than a faint connection. There are lots of songs about freewheeling adventure in rock that increasingly were centered around cars as they became ever more a symbol of leisure time fun rather than merely a mode of transportation.

The fact that Drop Top also avoids any specific reference to make or model, using only the fact it’s a convertible as a descriptive device, means that you’re more focused on the broader activity anyway rather than the particulars.

Love’s voice is strong, if somewhat indistinct, but he’s got the kind of confident authoritative command of the tune that it needs to get you to go along with the after hours mayhem he’s suggesting. Maybe the details of their impending hijinks is kept purposefully vague to not unwittingly admit to any crimes that may be used against them in a court of law, but it doesn’t take long for their intentions to be made a little more clear.

Read what you want into the line “when I get to ridin’ I don’t know how to stop”, but keep in mind that what he’s got in mind might work just as well in the back seat of the automobile as behind the wheel and I’m guessing it’s not coincidence that he tells us this right after exclaiming “Baby let me drop this top” which may just have other implications altogether.

But whether riding with a girl or having the girl riding you, the energy, excitement and enthusiasm Love’s displays here remains the same and with the band firing on all cylinders that excitement is easily transferred to the listener thanks to a ramshackle arrangement that leaves absolutely nothing out.

A barrelhouse piano? Check. A thumping beat? Absolutely A wild sax solo? Naturally. An even more over-the-top distorted guitar solo? Yup, it’s even got that. What else could you possibly want?

Okay… maybe it does owe much of its appeal to the uninhibited attitude rather than a more lyrically inventive scenario, but then again, how many of the great nights on the town – or in the sack – when you were a kid on the prowl were tightly scripted? Probably not many. So while this may fail as high art, it succeeds as a blueprint for the kind of wild escapades – or wild record – for anyone in need of instruction in those areas.

Rock fans probably don’t need a refresher course on the subject, but it never hurts to study a successful game plan just to stay sharp.


Set My Heart At Ease
Though it’s hard to argue with the long term success of Chess Records, we’re seeing a few early examples of missed opportunities and bad decisions that tend to get obscured by the lasting impact of their biggest stars.

Right now that consists mainly of their blues roster, particularly Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and in time it’ll be some equally monumental rock acts, but at a glance in the Nineteen Fifties they seem to be a rather top heavy label, huge stars but not as many second tier acts who stuck around awhile and turned out some great records that flew under the radar.

That can change of course, but Billy Love is one of those who seems eminently qualified for that role as Drop Top is a storming rocker that even if it wasn’t a hit makes for a pretty good calling card for the kind of vibrant music that any rock label should want to promote.

While Sam Phillips and the Chess Brothers did alright with the music they put out, they fell considerably short of that high standard when it came to how they treated the people making that music in the first place.

Though it surely may have cost them all a few hits, or at least even deeper catalogs of great recordings, it wound up costing those cast aside like Billy Love even more and that’s the real tragedy that shouldn’t be forgotten just because you want to celebrate a few more recognizable names along the road.


(Visit the Artist pages of Billy “Red” Love for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)