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SAVOY 781; MARCH 1951



The primary topic of the review for the top side of this release was the lyrics and how Billy Wright had crafted a song that was more akin to a one-act dramatic play than your typical melodic verse/chorus/verse record.

In that piece we stated that those who tend not to pay any attention to lyrics would likely find it to be a cut below his more traditional output even though the record was a huge hit and a work of art when it came to building tension and providing a cathartic release when Wright turns the narrative on its head.

Because he returns to a normally structured song with a more prominent musical arrangement on this side of the single you might think it’d be safe for the lyric-averse members of the audience to quietly slip back into the room, take their seats and appreciate the performance without needing to actually think about what an artist has to say.

Sorry, no can do, for as usual Billy Wright’s got more on his mind than just humming a nice melody and so, whether like it or not, you gotta pay attention to lyrics yet again if you want to get the most out of this record.

But hey, if it bothers you just come back tomorrow when we’ll be reviewing an instrumental instead.


If It’s What I’m Thinking
In more than 1,300 rock songs that have been released to date from late summer in 1947 through late winter of 1951 a disproportionate number of them have focused on a rather small array of topics.

There are love songs, both those which are blissful over falling in love and distraught over being spurned, dumped or otherwise lied to in a relationship. There are also an inordinate amount of songs about traveling, particularly train travel for some reason, though I suppose if you’re a musician on the road for months on end it’s only natural this would be on your mind when sitting down to write some material.

Then there are the countless party anthems designed to serve as a raucous backdrop to the drinking, dancing and cavorting that so many rock fans looked forward to at the end of their week.

What this tells you is that far from being limited in their perspectives there are a few universal experiences that bind people together and are therefore relatable to a broad cross section of an audience and as long as you’re able to mine the different facets about them it can always provide a fresh take on most of these subjects.

The latter may not always be apparent, but while the generic looks at any situation are undoubtedly more plentiful, it’s the innovative and transcendent attempts that become memorable and ensure that others will try and plow the same field in the future when looking for what to write about.

Billy Wright has covered a lot of that territory himself over the past two years but what sets him apart is the introspection in his songs, the way he analyzes his own feelings in real time and provides disarmingly honest critiques of his own failings – and the failings of others around him – along the way. He may not be quite to the level of Percy Mayfield in this regard, but as he shows with Mercy Mercy he’s got a lot more on his mind than simply hopping a train to hook up with someone at a party.


Being Down Is Alright
All songs require the singer to embody the right frame of mind for the content. It would do no good for somebody to sound like they were in agony if they were singing about the happiest day of their life, nor to come across as angry if they were telling someone they loved them and if they seemed cheerful while detailing a painful breakup there’d be a disconnect that no amount of musical trickeration could conceal.

Basic stuff, really.

But what separates the merely good artists from the great is how deeply the singer seems to be inhabiting the mindset the story lays out. In some cases where the mood is rather broad – ebullient joy, exaggerated despair – the mask is somewhat easy to slip on and off, but for emotions that require more nuance and a defter touch the effect is much harder to accurately produce.

Looking inward as an actor to the feelings behind the dialogue you’re asked to deliver is one of the biggest hurdles you have to overcome when learning your craft because it’s an internal process rather than an external one and the same holds true for singers.

On Mercy Mercy the job of Billy Wright is to convey the painful moments of self-realization when he discovers that he does not have the support system around him of friends, neighbors and loved ones that he thought he had. People intentionally lie to themselves all the time about the closeness of their circle of acquaintances, believing this menagerie of people who all know you by name and stop to say hello when they run into you are somehow more connected to you, and supportive OF you, than they really are.

For many it’s a sobering reality in life is to discover they’re living in a transient world of familiar faces who have no real investment in one another. They say you find out who your friends really are when the chips are down and most people are shaken to learn that number is far fewer than they led themselves to believe.

But while this is common in life it’s not the easiest thing to accurately put on display in a song and yet Wright manages to successfully portray all of the conflicting – and constantly shifting – emotions that come with confronting this realization. It helps he’s given himself lyrics that are attacking this truism from all different angles, from providing specific examples of how he’s been let down by those he counted on, to the more esoteric feelings he has in response to this.

Though on the surface he’s expressing pain for his circumstances, it’s actually much deeper than that, for he’s not nearly as devastated by by his so-called friends avoiding him in his time of need as he is disappointed in himself for ever believing he meant more to them than he does.


Always Wishing To Be Free
Because this is framed in a much more conventional manner – jittery piano, steady drums, diverse horn lines that are used to change the tempo behind Wright even as he remains locked in a slower more direct vocal melody plus a brief searing tenor sax solo for those on the dance floor – it’s probably easier to overlook the lyrical revelations and their subtext which is at the heart of the song as it was written.

Whereas Stacked Deck was laser-focused on the plot at the expense of a fuller arrangement, with this song there’s enough of the traditional aspects of a record present to let the overall feel make an impression on you without necessarily having to scrutinize the topical content every time out.

Yet in spite of that Mercy Mercy probably still is going to suffer if you try and sidestep what he’s saying altogether and in particular if you don’t understand – or care – why he’s struggling to get a handle on that inner turmoil while he’s delivering it.

Putting two such lyrically weighty songs together on one single might’ve been a risky gamble, forcing listeners to have to deal with deeper topics than your usual rock releases presented. That Billy Wright pulled it off so well meant we might very well be getting more of these in the future which is bad news for those who just wanted to forget their troubles and groove to the latest beats.

But that’s okay, for while these kinds of darker psychological songs definitely have their place in rock, if there’s one thing that’s certain with this music it’s that they’ll never run short of mindless hedonistic rockers either.

As always there’s something on the musical menu to suit everybody’s taste.


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