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SAVOY 781; MARCH 1951

 
 

 

Believe it or not there are some music fans over the years who insist that they could care less about lyrics. That it doesn’t matter what the singer is telling you, as long as the manner in which they’re telling you is appealing.

Though it seems rather limiting to ignore half of the written song, especially the part that determines what type of vocal performance is required and which often is representative of the entire social construct rock ‘n’ roll was reflecting and designed to appeal to… well, to each their own I guess. Whatever you like – or don’t like – about a record is your own business.

That being said however if you are one of those who falls into that unfortunate category we probably should provide fair warning that THIS record is definitely not for you.
 

 

The Ace Is For The First Time That I Met You
In a year and a half on the scene Billy Wright has become one of rock’s most reliable stars, commanding the spotlight right out of the gate with a two-sided national hit back in 1949 and then following it up with a succession of regional hits ever since.

What grabs you right away of course is his voice and dynamic vocal delivery, ratcheting up the emotional stakes to the extreme, but the reason why that technique is so effective for him is because of the stories he’s telling.

Whether tackling somebody else’s song – often effectively re-writing them to a degree in the process – or with his own self-penned work, Wright never holds back anything when it comes to expressing himself, burrowing deep into the meaning of every word, squeezing them until he’s wrung the life out of them before moving on to the next line, relishing the way he’s manipulating your reaction with the tales he’s spinning.

Usually when discussing songwriting and the use of allegories, metaphors and symbolism in rock songs the 1940’s and 50’s are often skipped over entirely, as if such devices only came into play in the 1960’s with Smokey Robinson and Bob Dylan. But on Stacked Deck, a brutal indictment of an ex-lover framed as dramatically as if it were a one-act play, Billy Wright shows that a deeper introspective writing style was flourishing from the start.
 


 
 

You Got To Deal Sometime
Looking back it’s somewhat surprising this record became Wright’s third national hit because it’s so structurally unique that there was bound to be people who couldn’t get used to it deviating so much from the more melodic verse/chorus/verse standard that most songs used.

That’s not to say there isn’t a melodic component to Stacked Deck but it’s definitely not the dominant attribute of the song, merely a peripheral factor, especially after the swaying horns, piano and drums that are prominent during the lead-in as Wright sets the scene fades away 45 seconds into the record when the mood shifts to the accusatory semi-spoken tone that he adopts to plead his case as if in front of a jury.

He’s using a deck of cards as his method of unveiling his former lover’s misdeeds, each card sequenced from low to high adding another charge against her, such as “the trey that’s the third party and darling you know his name”.

Though this device has the potential to be rather limiting due to the need to find something to correspond with each number, he manages to spring some nice lines in there such as calling her other man “your sheik”, which is either envy or mockery, but it works brilliantly either way.

Throughout this countdown he’s acting as though he’s been grievously wounded by her deception and romantic cruelty, eliciting your sympathy and giving off the appearance that he was emotionally devastated to the point of being virtually powerless to prevent the love he has for her from being destroyed by her callous disregard for him and his feelings.

But when he gets to the face cards he turns it around in a stunning coup de grâce that packs a surprising wallop, the first line delivered with a remarkable combination of eroticism and venom before ramping things up for the eventual pay-off complete with an absolutely devastating dramatic pause midway through to let you know the tables have turned before he lets loose with the final blow.

”Well the jack he’s your LUH-VER
And you’re using me for a goat
The queen, that’s you pretty mama
And you’re trying to cut my throat

But the King that’s ME!…
And I’m BOUND to wear my crown
So be careful pretty baby
You ain’t dead when the deal goes down!”

He won you over so effectively the deeper down he sunk in his grief that when he unleashes this retaliatory broadside against her you practically want to leap up and cheer him for his audacity. Granted making such a thinly veiled threat in public will surely backfire on him if he follows through on his vow, but damn it had to feel good to spring that on her – and us – in such a theatrical way.
 


 

I’m Holding Out For The Seventh
As stated the structure of this record doesn’t lend itself to typical musical arrangements but it’s to their credit that while Wright is going on about this woman’s indiscretions and his own anguished reactions to them the musicians are providing steady and subtle support that enhances the mood with a minimum of fuss.

The horns section is superb with the baritone sax playing a slow circular riff while the others – trumpet, trombone and tenor sax – add elongated notes on top of it, their parts all overlapping and interlocking to create a mood that almost puts you in a drug-like trance.

When Wright regains his vitality after his big reveal towards the end the horns match him, rising in unison while the piano returns for emphasis before the wheezy tenor closes things out in sort of a muted celebration as the curtain closes on Stacked Deck, one of the most unusual songs in rock to date, but also one of the most memorable.

Because it’s so methodically paced and devoid of any solos… and what little music that exists is designed largely to get you to focus on the mounting drama of the story… I’d be interested to know if those who DON’T appreciate lyrics have any affinity for this record at all or if they view the dirge-like performance as boring, lacking both a musical hook and vocal punch.

Surely it’s not a song that’s particularly suited for a party and while it’s possible you could sort of slow grind with your baby on the dance floor to it, you’d really have to be deaf to the lyrics – or stoned out of your gourd – to have it work in that setting.

Instead this is one of the first rock songs that seems ideal for the kind of deep psychological analysis that later long-winded songs of the late 60’s and 70’s specialized in. But unlike a lot of those cuts that try your patience with vague literary references and meandering plots, thanks to Wright’s vocal prowess and how he builds the tension step by step in a way that’s easy to follow this one is never anything less than riveting… provided you actually absorb what he’s saying.
 

If You’re Gonna Play Cards, Baby
Obviously as someone who writes at length about each and every record in rock’s history in this way you probably can guess my views on the importance of lyrics in songs. As long as you can make out the words they’re bound to impact you in some way, directly or indirectly, whether you like it or not.

You may not necessarily care about the story making perfect sense, or reflecting your own worldview, or being grammatically correct, but words DO matter, otherwise they wouldn’t be written, wouldn’t be sung and wouldn’t be used as a song’s primary identifying feature decades after its release.

People generally don’t talk at length about specific notes and chord changes much unless they’re a musician, but while you don’t have to discuss lyrics to converse about music with others, the fact is for most people they remain the primary way they relate to songs, at least intellectually.

Straightforward material with a good beat, a catchy refrain and a simple vocal hook that stick in the memory after just a single listen are definitely easier to grasp and great in their own right, but as long as artists use words to tell a story then that has to be taken into consideration when assessing their work.

Stacked Deck might not appeal to everyone because it relies so heavily on the gradual unfolding of the plot, but even those who don’t find its approach to be as rewarding as more traditional songwriting methods can’t deny that Wright was ambitious in his attempt to come up with something more creative than the usual fare.

That he actually managed to be successful with it commercially shows that once again the rock audience was far more willing to accept risk-taking in the name of art than their detractors would otherwise claim.

You’re free not to care about any of this stuff of course, but I probably speak for most people who seek a more diverse slate of records to consider along the way when I say, deal me in.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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