No tags :(

Share it




After detailing how Billy Wright took a two decade old blues standard about adultery done by a female star of the 1920’s and without changing the lyrics transformed it into a more humorous rock song that painted Wright as a paranoid suitor in 1950, we now get to see the roles reversed as this otherwise forgotten B-side will itself get re-worked as one of rock’s first pop-leaning standards the next year.

How it all ties together with various backing band personnel sharing past connections with the singer who’d bring it to prominence is typically muddled, but if nothing else it makes this something that’s more than just a footnote in the career of Wright and rock ‘n’ roll itself.


Headin’ Where The Sun Shines
The music world of the 1930’s and 40’s was much different than later decades as the dominant styles of the day, jazz and pop, as well as the smaller markets of blues and country, all had songs that were universally played… standards they were called because every working band, famous or not, had them in their repertoire.

The hits of the day reflected this as there was often a half dozen or more versions of one tune on the charts at a given time with audiences caring far more about the song itself than who performed it, something that rock ‘n’ roll by in large changed.

Jazz and its many derivatives in particular were prone to the liberal re-use of songs and since many of rock’s early musicians were jazz vets who’d switch styles to earn money after jazz began to fall off commercially, it was inevitable that certain licks, riffs and grooves would be adapted for rock.

Two of credited songwriters for this song (along with Billy Wright who undoubtedly contributed lyrics) were band-members John Peck, trumpeter and trombonist, and alto sax player Neil James, under the (possibly mistakenly transcribed) James Neal credit.

Peck had played with Lucky Millinder’s band for a few years in the late 1940’s and it would be Milinder in a roundabout way who provided the connecting thread to this saga. For a non-rock act we’ve talked a lot about him on these pages since his group was a breeding ground for some of rock’s most crucial early figures, among them Wynonie Harris, Henry Glover, Bill Doggett, Panama Francis and Big John Greer, the latter of whom would make this song famous under the title Got You On My Mind just over a year from now.

Technically speaking it’s not the same song, but for all intent and purpose it is. The key’s been changed, the pace slightly modified, but the melody is identical. That song was credited to Howard Biggs and Joe Thomas, two veteran rock songwriters for The Ravens and others who “adapted” Empty Hand and gave it to Greer who scored the biggest hit of his career with it.

Or did Greer bring it to them? He and Peck had played together with Millinder’s outfit after all and it seems possible, if not likely, that he was the true link between these versions and Biggs and Thomas the beneficiaries.

Lost in all of this however is Billy Wright who showed that while far from a perfect record, the familiar melody – which may have had an even earlier genesis for all we know – was a durable one no matter what words were attached to give it an identity.

My Friends All Forsake Me
This record has got a much more sparse arrangement than its more famous offspring, hearkening back to the pre-rock styles where Peck had been raised. With his distant trumpet providing the melodic counterpoint to Wright’s vocals and an equally faint piano that’s as delicate as glass, this song almost seems like an apparition.

Except for that Wright that is.

He’s not singing in his usual vibrant manner because of the song’s downcast content, yet he’s selling the misery of the story with a much more tender delivery than we’re used to hearing, sounding at times as if he’s choking up without overdoing it. It’s a tricky balance that he maintains fairly well throughout his performance, carrying that internal anguish through to the final notes, but Empty Hand still suffers from the entire production just being a little bit off in every way.

For starters there’s that bare bones accompaniment which is clearly designed to keep Wright as isolated musically as he is emotionally, a solid concept that doesn’t bear fruit here because the instruments are so far removed from our senses, offering just a stark outline rather than a tightly honed production.

You could’ve easily stuck with the same idea, the same parts being played by the same musicians in the same way but just brought them to the forefront to give this some much needed balance. Sam Cooke did that really well on some of the cuts on his brilliant concept album Night Beat in 1963 where you had the stand-up bass and piano pushed up in the mix giving it a much fuller sound without the need for playing more notes.

By comparison this puts almost the entire weight of the arrangement on Wright’s vocals and because the lyrics of the song are so spaced out it needs something more to fill in the blanks. Maybe all this would be solved with modern technology, a remix of the existing track might shore up those deficiencies without anything else needing to be done, but as it exists on record this is too skeletal to be as compelling as they want it to sound.

The other issue here is that while the the story itself is good with Wright portraying somebody who’s been wronged in every way imaginable and is resigned to his despair, the lyrical choices are not always as sharp as they could be for maximum impact.

It’s as if he’s telling the story conversationally rather than looking for a line that’s memorable unto itself, something seen the first time he tries awkwardly using the title phrase to describe his predicament, clearly having come up with the title before the song was fully written and as a result it sticks out too much when they try and tie it in. In the hands of someone like a Smokey Robinson the corresponding imagery would’ve been poetic enough to stand on its own, whereas here we get the gloom without the descriptive brightness to offset it.

Of course as great a singer as Billy Wright was we’ve just criticized him for not living up to the standards set by two of the Top Thirty artists in rock history, so it could be we’re setting our aims too high for anyone to reasonably match.


If My Love Don’t Change
Then again, we DO have a comparison that’s much more equitable, done not a dozen or more years down the road when technology and attention to detail in sessions had both demonstrably improved, but rather just a year from now when John Greer would enter the studios and refashion this into a song that’s much more durable.

That tune was not just a hit unto itself, but an oft-covered standard for rock thanks to much better lyrics and a more focused track that showed future artists how powerful the melody was for whatever ways they wanted to re-imagine it.

Yet they got that melody, the lyrical mindset and the despondent delivery from Empty Hand, which must mean this record was good for something, even if that something wasn’t maintaining Billy Wright’s hot streak, as this came and went with nobody outside of Greer, Biggs and Thomas seemingly being aware of it at the time.

Maybe the best way to think of this record then is treating it as if it were a demo. It sure SOUNDS like one because it’s devoid of a full arsenal of sidemen, but it also acted like one, giving someone else the rough blueprint to run with, upgrading the essential components enough so that even with a singer who was much weaker from a technical standpoint than Wright, he still managed to do more with it than Billy was able to do.

That’s not a knock on Wright by any means, he sings it well in a style that gives us another wrinkle to consider, but as a record this one is far more interesting for its future incarnations than it is compelling in its own right.


(Visit the Artist page of Billy Wright for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)