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SAVOY 827; DECEMBER 1951

 
 

 

One of the more interesting things about music is the connective threads which grow into webs that ensnare artists from all styles and audiences from different camps and eras.

Hip-hop of course has turned this into an art form, although usually it’s taking an actual recording and repurposing it for something entirely new, but the concept of borrowing and adapting dates back to the dawn of music.

In early rock circles you had a lot of “floating verses” that were plugged into various songs, but you also had entire songs that were adapted in different styles and made to seem almost brand new… at least to those who weren’t around to hear the originals.

This is one of the more ambitious attempts in that regard, disguised by a name change, further obscured by a sultry arrangement, but unmistakable all the same.
 

 

You Got Me Way Down Here
Stop me if you’ve heard this before… the blues role in rock’s birth is vastly overstated.

But that doesn’t mean the blues wasn’t on the radar of rock ‘n’ roll at times as we’ve seen a number of Tampa Red songs get covered of late and there’s definitely been some direct influence on rock’s sonic evolution too as the guitar has increased its presence in the rock playbook over the past two years.

Here though we see rock once again reaching further back, something it has done primarily with pop standards to date, to drag a Big Joe Williams song out of mothballs for the second time in a few weeks.

The Orioles – maybe the most unlikely candidate for doing so in all of rock – dredged up Baby Please Don’t Go this fall and the radical overhaul of that group’s style from tentative balladeers to fairly aggressive rhythmic singers on that record gave them not only a hit but also breathed new life into what was becoming a somewhat stagnant image.

By contrast Billy Wright has been unique enough from the start to always seem fresh, but here he too is changing things up yet again with Turn Your Lamps Down Low, a different title but the same song.

What isn’t the same is the way in which it’s being framed and with that renovation, although a still rocker through and through, he may just have earned that designation now appearing on the labels in small print touting him as “Prince Of The Blues”.

Surely nobody singing this song has ever sounded bluer.
 


 
 

I Believe Your Man’s Done Come
There’s not many more archaic sounding tracks than the original version of this song with its slapped percussion, acoustic guitar and whining fiddle behind Big Joe Williams keening voice that gives the impression he lived in a sepia toned world.

He re-did it a number of times over the years, adding different elements and taking others away, but it rarely sounded “modern”… as in they’d discovered electricity and indoor plumbing yet.

We expect songs to undergo certain changes as time passes, especially when it crosses into other genres, but after The Orioles and Wright both took a whack at it and re-structured the song, the majority of renditions that followed (save for Dion’s piano based cut which added more melodic vocal elements as well), all kept the same swaggering two-step strutting vocal cadence which indelibly ties it to the blues and makes it instantly identifiable no matter who’s singing it.

In case you were wondering that includes rock versions by Them (the only others to score big on the charts after The Orioles), Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Amboy Dukes and John Mellencamp, hardly artists you’d immediately lump together stylistically, but which shows just how inflexible the song wound up being in the long run as they all approach it the same way.

Maybe the reason for this was that nobody wanted to compete with Wright who completely changes the mood and with it, the song’s implications, transforming Turn Your Lamps Down Low into a stark melodramatic one man play that ratchets up the intensity to unbearable levels as Wright continually sounds as if he’s about to break down into either madness, despair or perhaps slow burning fury that will ultimately consume him whole.

That uncertainty is what sets this apart from the rest of the versions where usually the intensity is framed largely as a veiled threat, the “please” being a social courtesy rather than an emotional plea.

The Orioles had changed that, as you’d expect with Sonny Til at the helm, his character’s control over the situation being far more tenuous requiring him to take on more of a begging position which works great, playing into his image while allowing the other Orioles to add harmonies to flesh it out. Yet even they retain the guitar that was the centerpiece of the blues versions however. Not so with Wright who doubles down on the haunting atmosphere by giving that role to a saxophone that defines the word anguished with each line played.

The instrumental track is a work of art, as hollow drumming, icy piano fills and intermittent trumpet squawks augment that tenor sax which never plays the same lick twice, an improvisational masterwork considering how few notes are able to be used in the limited openings he’s given.

When he gets a solo he sticks to the primary melody but plays it with a languid grace, using a full rich tone that is dripping with sadness, almost giving the impression that the sax is speaking and confirming Wright’s defeated mindset.

By the end when Wright starts to sink into depression, the lights in his eyes truly growing dim, his voice rises up in a last spasmic sign of life while the trumpet takes over with an elegiac coda, they really ought to have handed out handkerchiefs… or isoniazid… to go along with yet another bravura performance.
 


 

Don’t Go
Everything about this on the surface gives you an uneasy feeling before you lower the stylus and hear the atmospheric sounds pouring out of the speakers.

For starters it was the only song cut at a make-shift session, a rush job to cover The Orioles record before it had a chance to cement itself as the definitive rock take on the dusty blues classic.

You’d expect it then to be an imitative rendition utilizing the same basic components, maybe even bringing in The Four Buddies or something to provide harmonies behind Wright. Even if you give them all slightly more credit than to rip it off down the line surely you don’t think that they were going to completely reinvent the song on the fly.

Yet of course that’s exactly what they did, stripping it down to its bones and rebuilding it until it took on an entirely new image.

If you learned that the arrangement differed greatly from previous versions you wouldn’t think Billy Wright with his expressive wiry tenor would be able to match that gloomy backing with little time to practice… but naturally he did just that, giving almost a cinematic performance in the process.

Maybe the one misstep they took, if covering a rising hit was truly their corporate endgame, was to re-name it Turn Your Lamps Down Low since that would mean audiences who knew the song’s name but maybe were unsure of the artist wouldn’t accidentally choose this one instead… or those who were already fans of The Orioles rendition wouldn’t have their curiosity piqued enough to hear another rock star’s take on the same song (and considering Savoy themselves screwed up the name badly in their ads, you can see how confusing this might be).

But in the long run maybe even that works out for the best, as it serves to illustrate just how much Billy Wright and company re-worked the song for their own talents, in the process showing once again that rock ‘n’ roll, far from being the mindless non-musical genre critics sometimes made it out to be, was well ahead of the game all along.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
The Orioles (October, 1951)