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CHESS 1516; AUGUST 1952



The curtailed recording career of Billy Love is one of rock’s earliest examples of the industry chewing up and spitting out artists with no regard for their livelihood or personal well-being.

Esteemed names like Sam Phillips and Leonard Chess deemed Love good enough as a songwriter, singer and pianist to use him to initially impersonate Jackie Brenston before granting him singles under his own name, but that outlet quickly dried up as this is the last of them… as in, last of just two releases.

No wonder Love was already bitching about being poor… with friends like these, who needs enemies?


The Thing I Can’t Understand
Though Sam Phillips recorded Billy “Red” Love again for Chess Records in 1952, he was simultaneously starting his own Sun Records label that spring which kinda makes you wonder why he just didn’t keep Love’s output for himself. After all, it’s not like either Phillips or Chess were exactly sticklers for fulfilling the fine print of recording contracts.

But apparently there was at least a little honor among thieves at this point and so Phillips deferred to Chess and let him get another release on Love.

A lot of good it did any of them.

Truthfully, while Love’s first release, Drop Top, was definitely worthy of being a hit, it died a quick death in the spring thanks to Chess doing next to nothing to promote it.

This time around they’re not doing “next to nothing” because in the case of Poor Man they’ve graduated to doing nothing whatsoever.

Ahh, the big time!

Truthfully, even if Chess had poured money into pushing this record it probably wouldn’t have accomplished much commercially. It’s a competent atmospheric record but while at their best it might be begrudgingly admired for the craftsmanship and striking an appropriate mood for the downhearted topic, those kinds of releases are rarely hits.


I Work Hard All The Time
These are the kind of tunes that are best utilized to flesh out an artist’s catalog… provided that artist has more than just a handful of songs that will see the light of day.

In other words it’s more of an off-beat selection, maybe something to show some diversity in his approach, as opposed to a song that was going to be used to draw attention to himself as a potential star.

To that end it works alright. The record – like the Poor Man in the story – may not have much to show for himself in terms of flashy attributes, but what’s there has some integrity to it if nothing else, locking in on a mournful feeling and holding onto it with stubborn insistence.

He’s helped inordinately by the unusual band configuration. Unlike the more standard unit he used in the past, this time around he’s got no stringed instruments at all, just himself and the drummer comprising what has to be called the rhythm section, while three horns (two tenor saxes and a trumpet) round out the sound.

That’s actually what makes this stand out a little, even if the way in which they play isn’t all that commercial, playing a stark arrangement and then holding some of the few notes that have some prominence in a moaning fashion to give the sense of despair which relieves pressure from Love to match that outlook by overloading his own vocals with sorrow.

Instead he’s allowed to stretch out and sing with a bit more vibrancy than the lyrics might suggest and still have it work because the horns pick up the right ambiance to get the point across. Love manages to get a lot of a rather pedestrian voice, sounding fully invested with really good projection that doesn’t skimp on the emotional context of his lines.

Chances are, considering he probably got all of a dollar twelve for the record session and then had to put that in with what he had in his pocket to pay a parking ticket outside the studio, he’s got every right to be distraught here. Unfortunately the effectiveness of Poor Man is undercut just a little by the mundane aspects found in the lyrics.

While it certainly comes across as an accurate tabulation of his expenses, there’s not quite a sing-along quality to bitching about rent, groceries and I.O.U.’s even if you never doubt he means every word of it.

Those horns though, almost atonal at certain moments, have the ability to convey the feelings that gets lost in the literal descriptions Love offers up. Harvey Simmons lets his sax solo meander along the avenue, almost asking for a loitering charge by the oppressive gendarmes that are lurking behind every lamppost and in every alley, waiting to further keep him from ever becoming financially solvent.

Since the record won’t earn Love any bucks, nor even a renewed contact, it’s a story that rang all too true in the final analysis.

When The Collector Knocks On My Door
Let’s close this otherwise inconsequential review of a fairly insignificant record out by presenting twin realities that, in each case, go unheeded by those with the power to stop them from happening.

In the broader cultural landscape of modern times, the income structure in America is badly flawed. CEO income has increased almost 1500% in forty-five years, while pay increase for workers in that time has gone up a whopping 18%.

Now while it’s true that in many cases a janitor might not be qualified to be a CEO, the same is actually true in reverse, most CEO’s can’t clean up their OWN messes, let alone other people’s. As a result this out of whack pay scale means you pay more to support those who can’t properly throw away a soiled paper towel, while the janitor who does so now can’t afford the very things the company is producing, leaving a very top heavy unstable economy in their wake.

In music terms, companies like Chess – and later Sun – will rob their own employees blind when it comes to royalties, copyrights and even charge them for making the very thing they, the record labels, sell… IE. the session costs for the music, yet they discard the musicians and singers at a moment’s notice with no severance pay or letter of recommendation for future employers.

No wonder Billy “Red” Love is singing about being a Poor Man while Chess Records remained thriving for decades and Sun was sold in 1969 at a hefty profit for Phillips who had utterly failed to record anything of value – or sign a single notable artist – since Charlie Rich in the early 1960’s.

Yet the anything but self-effacing Phillips disparaged Love for “not having the gut desire to succeed”.

The artist in question died of alcoholism in 1975, surely brought about in part because he got screwed by the record label Svengali who was feted as some kind of genius for more than a half century.


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