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There’s always a tricky balance when it comes to releasing singles where the commercial considerations of the record label and the artistic aspirations of the artists inevitably clash.

When the artist is going well, their choices tend to help shape the larger rock market and so the company benefits from letting them alone to pursue their ideas. But things get messy when the artist hits a dry patch commercially as both the parties stop trusting their instincts as they scramble to get back on solid ground.

Normally we can tell which side pushed hardest for the material… the closer it sounds to past hits, or in some cases when it’s clearly aiming for crossover appeal, the more we tend to lay the blame at the feet of the company who hates taking risks and wants something conservative just to regain their footing. When it’s more experimental in nature that’s when we think the artist is asserting their will over the protests of the executives, hoping their talent alone wins back fans.

This one though… I can’t imagine either side thinking this was going to get them back on track. Yet here it is all the same.


Out In This World Somewhere
Yesterday we looked at a blues song reworked for rock ‘n’ roll by Peppermint Harris and though on the whole we’d prefer original material with all artists, at least with Harris he was somebody who regularly kept one eye on the blues market anyway and so you could make the case he was merely appeasing that audience for once.

Besides, Maxwell Davis’s arrangements for the song helped to bring it closer to rock ‘n’ roll than the blues, no matter their source.

Today however with Billy Wright we get a blues song that hasn’t been drastically overhauled for the rock market and though Wright’s nickname was The Prince Of The Blues, that was a generic term that referred more to his skin pigmentation than the style of music he performed, which was always rock ‘n’ roll.

Well, at least until this one anyway.

Not that his take on Goin’ Down Slow is purely blues either, but it is definitely closer in its approach to the St. Louis Jimmy original from 1941 than it is to a re-worked model that someone like Maxwell Davis would’ve come up with for him had Wright been associated with a West Coast label rather than Savoy.

In fact this was the first time that they’d brought Wright to New York to record, hoping that the change of scenery might help him get back on track commercially. But then why did Lee Magid saddle him with a song and an arrangement that had little chance for commercial appeal, following the lead of the original version when it comes to how the song is framed, adding some horns to the piano backing but otherwise sticking with the same somber reading and draggy tempo that made it a downbeat blues standard.

You might be asking just what did we expect them to do with a song like this, one whose entire outlook is that of depression. Were they supposed to turn it into a jumping rave-up song?

No, that’d be silly. But maybe that was a sign they should’ve left this to somebody else rather than think it was the right song for Billy Wright to tackle in an attempt to revive his dormant fan base.


It’s All My Fault, I Didn’t Do The Things I Should
When it comes to emoting Billy Wright was pretty high on the list of rock stars in the early 1950’s, as his tightly-strung tenor always seemed on the verge of snapping the more he “worried” over a song.

There’s a well-known private recording of Wright in concert from June 1952 where he’s singing The Dominoes’ Do Something For Me in an intense performance which shows the kind of material he specialized in. While it would be a dubious choice to cut a fairly recent hit by a rival as a single, that’s at least the type of song they should’ve been seeking out… not a decade old blues record with an arrangement that keeps it tethered to that genre rather than aiming at the one Wright was a headliner in.

The addition of the trumpet was their one big decision in this regard and that instrument does have an end-of-your-rope kind of feel to it that is suitable for the despair of Goin’ Down Slow. But that doesn’t mean it’s a compelling sound, let alone an appealing one, even if it’s an appropriate one for the material.

So now Wright is left to navigate both the song and arrangement and figure out just what setting this works best in. The trumpet suggests a half empty club in the city at 2AM while the composition itself is still located somewhere in a juke joint off some country back road in the sticks.

To his credit Wright manages to split the difference admirably, using all of the tricks in his arsenal to pull it off, throwing in plenty of pauses, then bearing down hard on a few words before easing back again, losing himself in the emotional turmoil he’s trying to create. He’s exaggerating the Southern inflections in his voice at certain junctures for added effect and though the pace of the song never changes, he manages to bring some faint rhythm to the proceedings somehow by how he delivers it.

Of course it does help that the song as written is good, telling the story of someone beset with problems because every decision in life turned out wrong for them. He’s bemoaning his fate but still accepting responsibility for it, apologizing to his mother for his shortcomings as he heads out into the abyss, unsure of where he’s going but grimly determined not to be a burden to those who had faith in him.

You can see why blues artists from Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King to Jimmy Witherspoon and Little Walter all took cracks at this and in their hands it was a good vehicle for the type of music they specialized in and what their audience came to hear.

But you can also see why it was so unsuited for rock acts whose work generally, even when they’re slowing down tempos and singing self-critical lyrics, have more melodic foundations beneath their feet than this song does.

Consequently, while Billy Wright does all he can with it there’s absolutely no way he can come out on top with a song like this and so he has to be content with the moral victory of just battling it to a draw and not letting it get the best of him altogether.


The Shape I’m In
We should point out – because if we don’t someone else will – that there WERE a few rock acts that tried this over time… though not many, and not very convincingly either.

Ray Charles cut it twice, once when starting out in a cocktail blues style and then again in the 1960’s. The latter was actually interesting, building the arrangement up from piano until horns, organ and guitar give it a much broader palette to draw from. It’s more meditative than mournful though and while it’s definitely worth hearing it’s still not all that close to the rock DNA of the time it came out.

The Animals cut the song in the mid-sixties, which isn’t surprising seeing as how they were always one of the more blues-based rock acts and this was a way to confirm that connection with a focus on guitar and organ to give it the feel they needed. It’s a little over the top and we doubt it would’ve had much legs as a single even as they were still a hot act at the time.

A year later Aretha Franklin, at the absolute peak of her powers, became the first to radically reimagine it for rock, upping the tempo by giving it more of a gospel-styled vocal which works wonders. Released as a B-side it sounds freshly contemporary, if not hit material, but even she had blues guitar on it to tie it back to the source in some way. Though far from the definitive take on it, she’s the only one to make it truly her own.

Billy Wright’s Goin’ Down Slow doesn’t have the lofty ambitions of Franklin, but I don’t think it would have mattered if he had come up with something entirely new because as impassioned as he sings it, there are just some songs that aren’t suitable for certain genres of music and when it comes to rock, this is one of them that doesn’t ever seem to be a good fit.


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