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Since expectations vary depending on the artist what do you get if you simply meet those expectations?

Praise? Criticism? Or a casual shrug of the shoulders before moving on to somebody else who will shake things up by surpassing their expectations or failing to meet them altogether thereby giving you more to talk about.

This is a record that meets the expectations Billy Wright has established for himself over the past year and change, which means it’s pretty damn good.

But it’s also comes across as “nothing special” because it’s merely what we’ve come to expect out of somebody so talented.

In this way you’re almost damned if you do live up those expectations, damned if you don’t.


So Cool, So Fine
All worthwhile artists have tracks in their catalog that get overlooked despite their overall quality and though not quite stellar enough to rank among their absolutely best work, they still give a pretty good snapshot of their talent… of their style… and of the time and musical context they recorded them in.

Mean Old Wine is just such a song. It’s got all the hallmarks of an average rock record of the year – this is not an insult at all, but rather an assessment of where rock ‘n’ roll was at this time. It’s an uptempo song built around the fairly common topic of booze fueled by an arsenal of riffing horns. It’s a made to order rocker suitable for virtually any artist worth their union membership card.

What sets it apart from “average” are the performances themselves starting with Billy Wright’s ability to deliver it with flair. His supple tenor toys with the song, treating the catchy melody as something he’s only taking half-serious yet never fully betrays. He’s riding that throbbing pattern the horns lay down with such nonchalant ease that it fools you into thinking there’s nothing special about any of it, but that voice itself contains such character that it adds a smirking undercurrent to the simple story of a souse who would probably take off his shirt after spilling some wine on it, wring it into a glass and drink it down, lint and all.

But of course the song as written IS simple… simplistic even.

The credited writers are producer Lee Magid (who actually could write some) and “Luby”, which was Savoy’s owner Herman Lubinsky, who wouldn’t know a clef note from a cleft chin, cutting himself in on the action.

In this case the two of them probably could’ve come up with most of this on their own as there’s no twist to the story, if you can even call it a story, more like a brief descriptive scenario, and no point to it all. A guy likes wine so much he’ll compose a ditty about the subject that goes round in circles… your average four year old does the same thing twice a week I’m guessing… hopefully on slightly different subjects than this.

In other words it’s something to annoy your parents with in the car and while the stop-time sections are at least fairly humorous as he tells of the lengths he’d go to get some of this liquid refreshment, it’s Wright’s self-assured delivery that makes it go down so easy… like a bottle of wine.

Easy On The Draw
Because we have a fairly rote subject with paint-by-numbers lyrics it’s got an uphill climb for earning respect and in normal circumstances we might only see fit to elevate this a notch above average thanks to that insistent melody, Wright’s stellar vocal chords and the way he inhabits the shallow character despite few props to work with.

But then again we haven’t really touched upon the backing music which at times, including on the dynamic melodramatic top-side, Keep Your Hands On Your Heart, his studio sidemen have run the risk of holding something incredible back with some questionable musical choices.

Yet on Mean Old Wine they come through with a perfect arrangement for such a song, bolstering the strong melody with aggressive riffs and accentuating the somewhat lurid subject matter with their choices of instruments to feature.

Whereas the other side gave too much sway to trumpet and trombone, here the tenor sax gets all of the heavy lifting and responds with a near perfect display of its credentials for the job. The choppy patterns behind the vocals are a group effort but the saxes are what propel this and the hesitation move at the end of each line gives it a hook to stick in your mind.

The solo however is where it really stands out, with its gritty full-bodied tone conveying a veil of casual toughness that adds punch to the record that even the image of a guy on a bender can’t muster on its own. Whoever was responsible for it knew what he was doing, the solo is economical – there’s no crude lows or helium-filled squeals and no repetitive honking to whip a crowd into a frenzy – but it hits every mark required, from melodic to rhythmic to nailing the right attitude. You could cut and paste this performance into seemingly half of the rock tracks released over the next half dozen years and not go wrong, as this is precisely what the tenor sax was designed to bring to the table as rock’s main instrumental weapon.

With the piano and drums doubling down on the rhythm – with help early on from the baritone sax – there’s no weak point in the arrangement. Like the song itself, it may be simple but it’s effective in every way and has the basic sound of a hit from front to back. Play this at a New Year’s Even party heading into 1951 and it’ll keep the energy up no matter how close you are to passing out and that was – and is – always a major requirement of rock ‘n’ roll.


Neat And Sweet
Though reviewers at the time were often basing their assessments on the artist’s commercial viability accrued from past successes rather than what the current release sounded like, on this one Cash Box got it right… and in a lot fewer words it took me to come to the same conclusion.

“A good beat and a better instrumental. It has a pushing sax in it which is something to hear and of course Billy’s vocal is the highlight”.

Which brings us back to expectations. Mean Old Wine meets the ones we have for Wright and because of that it’s rather easy to overlook because it doesn’t go beyond that… we’re reasonably impressed but not knocked out by it. Yet when you study this a little closer and see what a stock composition it was on paper that’s when it becomes easier to appreciate just what Wright – and a tight band with a great sax – contributed.

Maybe it’s still average, but it’s no longer average for rock as a whole, but rather for Billy Wright who, at least when it came to talent, has long since proven he’s well above average in every conceivable way as an artist. That comes with higher expectations yet once again he has no trouble meeting them.


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