Tags

No tags :(

Share it

SAVOY 715; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

After examining Billy Wright’s follow up to his two-sided hit debut in yesterday’s review, here’s the actual A-side to his sophomore effort.

Most regulars here know we don’t always follow a strict A-side, B-side rule when it comes the order in which we review two sides of a given record. Often it comes down to what each one has to say to broaden our collective knowledge of the subject. But other times, including in this case, it’s merely our preference to lead with the better cut, to highlight an artist’s strengths before they settle back down to earth, reasoning that since we’re often going months between looks at an act it’s more enjoyable to hit you between the eyes with something great when we meet up with them again.

By choosing this order with Billy Wright it also made his first three entries here all well above average, something which hopefully has the uninitiated a little more anxious to read about him in the future. Unfortunately everything good comes to an end sometime and after Wright had shown almost unerring musical instinct on those first three sides he stumbles on this one.

But therein lies the other reason we chose to cover this one last, and maybe the only reason with actual editorial instinct, for it’s only after really establishing how smart his choices had been leading up to this can we really put into perspective the slight missteps he makes here.

Fear not though because even mediocre Billy Wright at this stage is better than many run-of-the-mill performances by other artists. Besides, maybe it’s even good in a way that he falls short of his previous highs, for as we all know being infallible can get on anybody’s nerves.
 

 

Tried To Treat You Nice And Kind
When Billy Wright was first spotted on stage in Atlanta by Savoy recording star Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams at a show the saxophonist was headlining with fellow rock star Wynonie Harris, the teenager’s vocal talents were plainly obvious. The kid could flat out sing.

Feeling a sense of professional gallantry – and perhaps hoping to wrangle some extra bucks from the notoriously cheap record label he was signed to by acting as a talent scout and earning a finder’s fee – Williams called Savoy producer Teddy Reig in New Jersey and told him to get his fat ass down south and check this unknown singer out.

Reig promptly did so, was equally impressed and had him cut sides on the spot. The impromptu session launched Wright’s career with not one, but two Top Ten hits and gave the label a young singer with a gospelish tenor who might compete with some of the biggest names in rock who possessed similar vocal qualities, such as Roy Brown, Andrew Tibbs and Sonny Til.

The interesting thing however was that Wright hadn’t any material prepared when all of this happened. He was singing other people’s songs as a local warm-up act for the big name national stars and when presented with the opportunity to cut his own records and told he’d need original songs he proceeded to write some… excellent ones at that.

But as anyone who has ever sat down, pen in hand with the desire to come up with something unique and profound, the initial flash of inspiration only carries you so far. In Wright’s case it carried him to one startlingly original composition called You Satisfy which stood out because it ignored so many of the structural rules we take for granted, such as the title itself appearing only once as the coda to the entire song.

He was a little more predictable on the flip side (and bigger hit for what it’s worth) Blues For My Baby, though even here he showed his writing skills were first rate by taking a generic theme and giving it some real depth along with some really memorable lines, but its success probably had just as much to do with scrumptious melody highlighted by a beautiful sax accompaniment and Wright’s emotionally measured reading of it.

By switching things up entirely on the other side of THIS release, Billy’s Boogie Blues, he showed he wasn’t beholden to just downhearted laments and the energy the song displayed, both in the backing music and Wright’s performance, were its obvious highlights. But the story itself was nothing if not stereotypical for that type of uptempo record, borrowing lyrics wholesale from a thousand and one generic boogie-based tunes.

Now let it be stated once again that all three of those sides were excellent. Wright sang the hell out of all three, the band was super sharp and they all did exactly what the compositions called for.

Not so much this time though.

I Keep Drinkin’ finds Wright running dry of originality both in its topic and in its sentiments. Again there are lines that we feel as though we’ve heard before, at least in spirit if not word for word.

But more than that, this side gives the impression that they’re going through the motions to a degree, a creeping overconfidence that his earlier success has ensured a level of interest that they all are banking on to get them a pass on the somewhat second rate material and a rather uninspired arrangement and as we already well know that is a recipe for slipping back to the pack in a hurry.
 


 

Night And Day
Maybe we should step back and be a little less critical and a little more understanding when it comes to Wright’s efforts here. After all this was a kid who’d left home in his mid-teens and gone on the road as part of traveling medicine shows as a female impersonator, in the process having to make his way in the world amidst a highly unusual community of drifters, outcasts, perceived freaks and second tier showbiz hopefuls while enduring the grind of constant travel through a racist country while living in boarding houses, performing in dilapidated theaters, traveling via second hand transportation and receiving little pay for his troubles. That’s hardly the most glamorous of lives. They’d settle back in Atlanta for a few months during the off-season of those tours where he’d then have to hustle for work before doing it all again the next year.

He had dreams as big as anyone else stuck on that monotonous circuit and more talent than most but it’s doubtful he was honing his songwriting skills in preparation of being miraculously discovered by a major recording star with the generosity to give him that one big break.

So we can forgive Wright for reaching back to some fairly strong prototypes in an effort to craft yet another “original” song shortly after catching that break. The miracle is he hadn’t done so right from the very start.

But, as we probably could have expected, he finally succumbs to predictability this time around. I doubt Savoy, whose owner Herman Lubinsky once demanded his employees write letters rather than make telelphone calls because it was cheaper, was hiring someone to school the teenaged Wright on songwriting technique. As for Teddy Reig’s name on the credits of most of these songs, well… Reig was a really good producer and one of the things really good producers were really good at in these days was knowing how to attach their names to other people’s songs as writers.

As a result we’re left with Billy Wright’s rather ordinary composition I Keep Drinkin’ having to stand or fall on Wright’s performance alone… I say “alone” because the band was hardly in top form as they were still smarting from having to dig up their spare change in order to access the pay toilets Lubinsky had probably installed in the studio.*

(* = I’m joking. Though I’m sure Herman would’ve done so had he thought of it, this session was held in Atlanta in September and I don’t think even ol’ Herm would hitch a ride down there to try and earn 65 cents in nickels from his own musicians simply because they needed to relieve themselves. Or maybe he would but he knew they’d hold it in until their bladders exploded rather than give him the satisfaction, so he stayed in Jersey with the lights off to save electricity and read all those letters from his distributors and salesmen by candlelight instead).

 


 
 

Sleepin’ All By Yourself
The piano that opens the song sounds like a safe fall back position for those short of ideas. It doesn’t do anything wrong per say but it also doesn’t offer up something to make you sit up and take notice. Rather than come across as invigorating it seems a lackluster choice to make even if technically it’s one that’s still reasonably appropriate for what follows.

Appropriate maybe, but hardly inspiring. Kind of like the horns that join it soon, playing a droning riff with no energy, no personality, no spark. They’re also flat sounding, not their notes but their presence. Horns are supposed to jump out at you, to grab you by the lapels and shake you up. Even outdated big band charts, as out of place as they always are in rock, still have that aim in mind. But these are just sort of lifeless… or at best on life support.

Worse still is nothing comes along to kick this up a gear. The drummer is probably the most vigorous of the instruments but he’s given little to do. We get a bass solo in the close, which is always interesting if nothing else, but in this case “nothing else” is the overriding theme for the entire backing.

All of that only puts more pressure on Wright himself to salvage I Keep Drinkin’. For starters it’s a despondent theme he’s tackling – this is no celebratory drinking he’s describing, but rather he’s drinking to forget the (married) woman he loves who wants nothing to do with him – and so that doesn’t give him much room to really stretch out and inject some vitality in the song.

Yes, he’s down in the dumps, and yes, we might even sympathize with him to a degree. I’m sure most people have, at one time or another, fallen for someone already taken and that can make for a lot of misery knowing you don’t even have a chance to win them for yourself. He’s not really imploring her to cheat on her old man so we can’t find fault with his ethics. But while he lets this information slowly unfold over the course of the song there’s no real build-up/payoff to it either.

It’s fairly well told, the little details are nice, but without anything for the performance to hinge on, an emotional middle eight to shift the drama (both musical and thematic) or escalating despair that is finally released in the end, all we’re doing is acting as the casually disinterested third party. We can’t just tell him to shut up and get over it because it’s obvious he’s broken up over something that’s not exactly anybody’s fault, but we also don’t want to have to suffer along with him as he goes on and on about how much he loves her and how unfair life is to want someone out of reach.

But let’s not forget, this is still is Billy Wright we’re talking about, someone possessing one of the better natural voices we’ve encountered in rock so far, who also just happened to be able to mine the emotional nuances of these types of performances better than most. If the material wasn’t great he was still capable of extracting from it as much as anybody and for the most part he does so here.

Unlike some singers with impressive pipes or a go-to vocal approach Wright doesn’t rely on gimmicks or showboating to try and (over)sell this. Instead he mines the emotional turmoil he’s written about for all its worth, keeping his composure even as he becomes more internally distraught.

It’s a fine line but he walks it well, holding some notes, bearing down hard on others, deftly altering cadences, occasionally tossing in a different word or two in order to keep it fresh when repeating a line, and even though we can’t fully recommend the final product, we can’t find much fault in Wright’s handling of it.
 


 

If You Can’t Get It When You Want It
Wright had cut multiple songs on this date and the only real question worth asking is why Savoy felt this was the best choice for a follow-up to his stunning debut. I’ll venture a guess to say it was a fair approximation of the mood those other songs showcased, but when those songs are still riding territorial charts then something like I Keep Drinkin can only pale in comparison and it might be better for everyone involved to hold off on issuing anything that might derail his momentum and give pause for those worried his first efforts were something of a fluke.

They weren’t of course, but in a singles era it was all the more important to follow-up strength with strength. The other side of this more than suffices, and we’ll say with conviction that song should’ve been a hit thereby rendering this side merely an afterthought, but Savoy wasn’t pushing that side, they had their hopes pinned on this. But even so they didn’t run one ad in the trades to even announce this record was available, another baffling decision in an industry where “baffling” was about the nicest thing you can say about some of their moves.

I suppose you can look at it being just one missed shot creatively in four attempts and obviously that’s hardly a bad success rate, but with high hopes inevitably come bigger disappointments and so we’re left to keep looking for someone whose solid showings and good fortunes seem to have no end in sight.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 

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