Tags

No tags :(

Share it

SAVOY 776; DECEMBER 1950

 
 

 

Though these reviews are probably consumed individually, with readers hopping around from one to another with little rhyme or reason, the chronological unfolding of them is vital to telling rock’s story.

To that end the recent output has been rather mundane with only a few records these past weeks getting even slightly above average marks amidst a stretch of some pretty bad, very forgettable and often woefully misguided creative failures.

While some of that might be due more to random sequencing here than any deeper stylistic trends, the fact is that record companies often used the last month of the calendar year to issue less commercial sides since sales tended to lag around the holidays anyway.

But to break up that run of mediocrity comes one of rock’s brightest stars to remind everybody that this brand of music was never going to be quiet, modest and unassuming for very long.
 

 

I Don’t Care Where You Might Be
Though we’ve talked at length about race, gender and other sociological factors surrounding rock ‘n’ roll’s place in the world, one thing we’ve only touched upon is sexuality.

Sex on the other hand we’ve talked about plenty, especially when Wynonie Harris is involved.

But sexual identity itself is a different matter and while there have always been gay singers and songwriters in all forms of music prior to rock ‘n’ roll, some immensely popular in their fields (Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey in blues; Billy Strayhorn who composed many of jazz’s most indelible pieces working with Duke Ellington; Ralph Burns who was a jazz pianist and writer/arranger with Woody Herman’s band; while both Aaron Copland and Cole Porter were two of pop music’s most acclaimed songwriters) it’s safe to say their music was not accentuating this and thus it wasn’t widely known who they were attracted to just by listening to their work.

Rock ‘n’ roll changed this too. Though the subjects of the songs being sung by artsts like Larry Darnell or Billy Wright were written as female, or left unspecified, their on stage demeanor and their vocal styles were more open as to their real personas. You may not have picked up on it necessarily – and considering Liberace was rising to prominence with a huge adoring female fan base, maybe everybody at the midway point of the Twentieth Century was completely in the dark about such things – but it was certainly evident if you simply looked for it.

But it was Wright who may have ripped that closet door from its hinges with Keep Your Hands On Your Heart, a song that again doesn’t specify who he is singing about or to, but one listen to his flamboyant vocals which don’t just embrace the prevailing stereotypes regarding effeminate men, but shamelessly exploits them, and you shouldn’t have too tough of a time figuring things out. If you still needed convincing, one night at The Dew Drop Inn where Patsy Vadalia, New Orleans’s most beautiful female impersonator, used this song as her show-stopper for years would remove any lingering doubt as to its pedigree.

As such this record is what helped to pave the road for the likes of Little Richard, Freddie Mercury and Lil’ Nas X to be who they were without worrying about the fallout.
 


 

You Told Me, You Told Me… You Told Me That You Loved Me
When it came to vocal projection few artists in rock history could compete with Billy Wright.

He didn’t have a booming voice like Big Joe Turner, or a deep rumble like Jimmy Ricks, or the leather-lunged style of Harris, all of whom shook you with the sheer presence of their voices, but Wright possessed a more tactical weapon in many ways because of how he deployed it.

Though he could go up in volume with the best of them, it wasn’t simply raising the decibel level that made him so impressive, it was the sharp piercing tone with which he did so, that ability to make surgical incisions on your soul with how and when he chose to deliver certain words and phrases.

On Keep Your Hands On Your Heart he breaks out the scalpels right away, stretching the first two words of the title line that kicks this off into two syllables each, loud and declarative, yet still riding their bobbing rhythm as he does so before easing back ever so slightly to close out the first line in a manner that is still as direct and forceful as almost anything we’ve yet encountered.

If songs need to grab you right away to make an impression on listeners, this was akin to forcefully yanking you by the collar until you dropped to your knees to avoid falling flat on your face.

Then once he had your attention he let go for the second line which gets you to focus on WHAT he’s saying rather than how he’s saying it. From there he really goes to work as he rises and falls, pulling you in and pushing you back with equal fervor throughout the song as he… what? Dismisses somebody for not being faithful? Decries them for their duplicity? Begs for their enduring affection? Scolds them for their treatment of him? Implores them to reconsider?

All of the above?

The particulars don’t really matter because this song is not about telling us a story as much as it is about expressing his emotions directly to the one he’s singing to. Whether you think he’s addressing a real person or simply using us as the stand-in, its effect is the same – a mad rush of conflicted feelings that are overwhelming to deal with for anybody, male or female, straight or gay, when they find their desire for someone may not be quite enough to win them over and ensure their own happiness in the bargain.

Wright is so convincing, so intuitive in his vocal choices which run the gamut from anger to sorrow, from being in utter despair to being wearily resigned to his fate, that it almost takes your breath away. Popular music did not reveal things like this in so naked a fashion, yet rock ‘n’ roll was constantly raising the stakes in this regard.

Until now though nobody had quite reached this level of intensity.
 


 

Stroll All Night Long Through The Moonlight
With Wright detonating the record with each and every line he delivers it stands to reason that the backing music might become superfluous by comparison, but you wouldn’t think it would be an intentional decision on the producers part to do so.

Unfortunately they seem to be going on the premise of this being a more traditional performance by Wright, maybe a mournful torch song, and so the parts assigned to the horn section reflect this outlook and give the track a somewhat uneasy balance as a result.

Savoy actually cut Keep Your Hands On Your Heart twice, months apart, with the first take on it coming back in April which went unissued. Then the first week of December they gave it another try and that’s the version that got released.

It’d be interesting to hear the first effort to see what, if anything, changed, because what doesn’t work well here is the trumpet echoing his refrains, a standard practice in sad reflective songs but out of place where someone is singing with this much fervor, simply because the two sounds being produced are diametrically opposed.

Luckily Wright overwhelms your senses to such a degree that the trumpet is rather easily dismissed from your thinking, but then again because it’s not adding anything of value there’s a definite missed opportunity to enhance the record even more.

The tenor sax that closes things out in great style has a sound much more suited for this kind of a performance but remains largely buried in the mix for the bulk of the song with only a few lines standing out. Had they removed the other horns and let the sax be the only responsorial instrument while the piano and drums handled the scant rhythmic requirements it may have sent this song into orbit.

Still, there’s no denying that the musicians are merely window dressing anyway, their primary job is to just stay the hell out of Billy Wright’s way and let him emote any way he wants to and for the most part they mercifully do just that.
 

Keep Your Mind Right On Me
Though it didn’t make the national charts this was a huge hit in New Orleans as well as across Wright’s home state of Georgia and remains one of his defining performances in a career with no shortage of impressive records.

More than that however, in a month with a scarcity of truly great records we’ve seen three now that have had tremendous influence on the way vocals were approached from this point forward. That the other two – I Will Wait by The Four Tunes and The Dominoes’ Do Something For Me – were their respective debuts makes their impact a little easier to fathom, but Wright had already laid his claim for stardom with his earlier releases and yet somehow Keep Your Hands On Your Heart managed to bring things to a new level, at least when it came to his own performance.

Maybe this kind of over-the-top gut wrenching delivery was not quite as widely accessible to the masses, but for those who were seeking some sort of cathartic release through rock ‘n’ roll, Wright was proving to be the master at it and clearly other singers were taking note.

Singing is by nature a very revealing thing, opening yourself up in search of public approval, but usually there was some artifice involved to keep a little distance between their prying eyes and your true self. With this record Billy Wright shattered that wall, laying all of his emotions on the line and used it as a selling point forcing all other artists who wanted to have the same effect on their audiences to try and live up to it.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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