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In sports when a team doesn’t live up to expectations it’s usually the head coach or manager who takes the fall and is fired, the reasoning being it’s easier to get rid of one person than to dump the whole underperforming team.

In music however, the reverse tends to be true. The producers are like the coaches, the ones whose job it is to bring out the best in the players… err… the artists that is, who are clearly the players. But in the early 1950’s producers rarely get fired, or even just swapped out in favor of somebody else on the staff.

No matter how many questionable choices they make when it comes to material, sidemen and arrangements, the labels never seem to consider their choices to be faulty. It’s like they’re immune from blame and thus it’s the artists who wind up not getting their contracts renewed if they go too long without hits.

But ask yourself this… if you’re Savoy Records who are down to maybe three viable rock acts, why side with a mediocre producer who would be easy to replace rather than a talented artist who isn’t?


Maybe Some Day
We’re not quite there yet. Billy Wright still has a ways to go on his Savoy contract but he’s getting fewer releases and less promotion without anybody in the pipeline to take over his position on the artist roster.

Lee Magid, the producer overseeing him, has hardly distinguished himself with the company. He’s forced Varetta Dillard, their lone female star, to blatantly imitate Ruth Brown and while it got them a hit this summer it pissed off Dillard and prevented her from establishing her own persona that would be far easier to sell long term after audiences got wise she was just mimicking a more renowned artist on a better label, hoping people were fooled each time out.

As for Billy Wright, his two biggest hits came before the producer joined the label and though he scored two more hits with Magid, his output has stagnated with him in charge thanks to a poor choice of material, such as the blues comp Goin’ Down Slow on the top side of this single which Billy sings well enough but the style is too far outside of rock’s main thoroughfare to draw any interest from the fan base.

The other area where the producer was falling short was in the arrangements, which is what hampers If I Didn’t Love You, an interesting song with a funky rhythmic bent that may have been a little too far outside the mainstream rock style, or perhaps just too far ahead of the curve, to be a candidate for chart action, but certainly would’ve had an easier path to getting some attention had it not been bogged down with outdated horns and an atrociously weak instrumental break that robs it of the power it needs to connect.

Billy Wright may have written the song, but he wasn’t playing an instrument, he didn’t hire the musicians, didn’t formally write out the arrangement and he sure as hell wasn’t allowed in the control booth to tell the stuffed shirts what to do. That was Lee Magid.

As a result this is another review with dual focus. The first is on the performance and the song itself, where Billy Wright excels. The other part of the review focuses on how the record wasn’t all it could be, which was attributable to the guy behind the glass.

Get Me Somebody Else
When we think of early proto-funk artists we tend to focus on those who weren’t blessed with the best of voices and assume that they adopted a less melodic delivery to compensate for their technical shortcomings.

For instance Professor Longhair was funky as hell but had a voice that sounded like a drunken mental patient off his meds.

But Billy Wright’s voice was sublime… strong, supple and smooth, and he’s proven he could wail or croon, shout or cry effectively and connect with audiences in every manner.

Yet he also wasn’t afraid to show its rougher edges and on If I Didn’t Love You he uses a decidedly choppy delivery, almost semi-spoken at times, but never loses the rhythmic pattern as he continually emphasizes that aspect over the faint thread of the melody. It’s hardly typical for rock in 1952 so it’s understandable how this might not have been a commercial threat no matter how it was framed, but there’s no question it was a unique offering that couldn’t help but catch your ear which is the key to spreading any experimental effort to a wider audience.

It’s not just the quirky beat that causes you to take notice, but without the typical melodic delivery the funkiness of the record draws even more attention to Wright’s lyrics where he’s turning the accusations made against him by the girl he’s with back onto her, at one point calling her “so darn rotten” before insisting that he does in fact love her otherwise he wouldn’t stick around.

His indignant attitude towards her is certainly not the blueprint for navigating a successful relationship but as a colorful story this is pretty good. What makes it better is how that vocal patter meshes with the percussion to keep your head bobbing, shoulders grooving and foot tapping throughout the song.

You may be inclined to give credit to Lee Magid for that if he indeed had some say in the arrangement, but it’s far more likely he based it on the vocal run-through by Wright, as usually musicians adapted to the singer in head arrangements, not the other way around. But even if we let Magid get some accolades for Bobby Donaldson’s drum work and the quirky piano fills of Skip Hall to bolster that effect, where we have to take those accolades back is in how the horns are used.

Not only does he have an equal number of brass as he does reeds on If I Didn’t Love You, which is a red flag, but he then lets the trumpet and trombone play too big a role in augmenting the track. Because the horns are being relied on to give us the slim melody it’s vital their role compensate for what’s lacking and yet here it does the opposite by detracting from the best aspects while adding nothing to the worst.

Had they swapped trumpet and trombone out for a baritone sax and let the two tenors play the riff we’re given with the baritone capping it off with a huffing line underneath, not only does it accentuate the funk but it offsets Wright’s higher pitched voice and everybody wins.

The instrumental break that follows is even more problematic because it gives Hall the responsibility of creating excitement with a simple piano solo and it’s too lightweight to handle it. Furthermore because the song has no vocal bridge it almost risks making the groove sound like a detriment rather than a positive. A raunchy sax solo in its stead, maybe with some electric guitar stabs for added color and intensity, would shift the song in a different direction so that when Wright returns you’d slide back into the groove naturally.

For such a creative idea the execution continually lets us down, but when it comes to assessing responsibility for both, the points for creation belong to the artist and the blame for the execution goes to everybody else.


The Things You’ve Been Doing You Know It’s Wrong
Circling back to the opening premise means we’re looking once again at Savoy Records and how they went from vying with King Records in 1949-1950 for the top rock label to suddenly at risk for dropping out of the Top Ten just two years later… and remember there’s not many more than ten labels with consistent releases in the rock field out there yet!

Obviously the loss of both Teddy Reig, who oversaw Wright’s best sides, and Ralph Bass as the label’s top producers was a huge blow for Savoy, as was the subsequent loss of Johnny Otis and his retinue of artists. But considering the talent they still have on their roster – The Four Buddies, Hal Singer, T.J. Fowler, H-Bomb Ferguson, Varetta Dillard along with Billy Wright – their fall from grace comes down to the cheapskate running the label and the less skilled producers like Magid now overseeing the sessions.

Not only has Wright gotten only two releases this year, but when he comes up with something interesting in If I Didn’t Love You they approached it with the uninspired casualness of a company who had six dozen acts and enough hits to not even need to make each release count.

It’ll take a few years for them to officially dump Billy Wright, but while his skills are intact his heyday is over in large part because the company he’s recording for is fast becoming irrelevant.

It was clear he believed in this song, as he’ll actually record it again in ten years time on the tiny Chris label while accompanied by a female vocalist harmonizing on the chorus (the only version available on Spotify as we speak). While it’s better suited for that era and features a stronger arrangement with a strong undertow bass (but still hampered by a wayward horn in the solo), it fell on deaf ears, as by that time nobody in the rock audience even knew who Wright was any more.

We started off by saying in music, unlike sports, the reaction to disappointing results is to let go of the talent while keeping the management in place. Does anybody at Savoy want to rethink that strategy about now?


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