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Every once in awhile there’s a song that comes along that sticks out.

Not necessarily for the best, though then again not always for the worse either.

Music tends to follow pretty standard structural rules and when something tweaks it, even just slightly, it can’t help but seem a little out of place.

In other words we want creativity, but we’d prefer creativity that adheres to what’s already widely accepted, which is another way of saying we might not truly want creativity at all.

With this song you’re going to get it whether you want it or not and while it’s certainly not a radical re-thinking of rock ‘n’ roll’s core attributes, it’s got a unique flair to it that shows Billy Wright wasn’t resting on his laurels.


Everything Done In The Dark Will Sure Come To Light
When first meeting Billy Wright back in 1949 we talked about how he’d cut his teeth on the medicine show circuit, a black showbiz tradition throughout the south which was rapidly fading from prominence by the late 1940’s but which still had legs enough to provide vital training ground for Wright and his biggest admirer, Little Richard, among others.

The shows were notoriously flamboyant as the acts did anything to attract interest as their meager livelihood depended on making an impression. For Wright that meant acting as a female impersonator.

Though he doesn’t quite do a command performance of that on When The Wagon Comes this has got more than a little of that kind of vibe built into it to give you at least a passing familiarity of what that might be like… sans visual appeal naturally.


That Ain’t No Fun
The song is built around a semi-spoken delivery, more conversational than traditionally sung… at least up until he segues into the title line and uses a slightly more melodic tone.

Because of this refusal to play by normal song rules however it’s probably not something that a lot of people will get into the first or second listen. Absent a stronger melody line and using a herky jerky progression the song takes on the appearance of a series of stage introductions by a comedic MC as the house band riffs behind him.

The real problem is the band isn’t making enough of an impact to make When The Wagon Comes capture your interest. The horn riffs are noisy, but unexciting, the rhythm is indistinct rather than cutting a deep groove and there’s no soloing spots to really highlight Wright’s performance.

Though the style of rock is miles apart, consider late 60’s era James Brown where the band was locked into such an endlessly infectious groove that it set off JB’s vocal interludes – be it screams, grunts, spoken commands or sung vocals. The band never deviated from their role which was to keep the listener focused so the unusual structure of the vocal aspects of some of those songs could be better appreciated.

That’s what Wright needs here, a churning groove that could’ve worked solely as an instrumental. Instead they’re throwing out tired riffs without any real energy or conviction. The horn line sounds as if its batteries are running low as instead of punching the notes to emphasize the rhythm, they’re easing into them lazily giving the impression of going through the motions.

When You’re Dead You’re Done
But that’s not to say that Wright’s contributions here aren’t worth hearing. He definitely is fully invested and possesses an admirable showmanship from start to finish.

Some of the lines are… well, if not sensible, at least memorable, such as the opening couplet which pretty much establishes the off-the-wall nature of the record:

”Hey little bald headed man, this is Q on the avenue
Don’t you know that the witch is watching you?”

Make of that what you will, but you’d have to be devoid of even a shred of curiosity to not want to keep listening to find out what the hell he’s talking about.

We never do really find out, but the rest of the tale is interesting in a cockeyed sort of way and is aided by Wright’s theatrical vocal technique which ranges from a hard declarative delivery at times to a breathy sigh at others… the very components that Little Richard would further hone and establish as the bedrock of his entire style.

Of course Richard was for the most part using a far more forceful approach with his songs, which also utilized a better musical foundation that never let up which helped enormously in making the records instantly catchy.

Funny though how that line from Wright to Richard to James Brown (who used to stand in for Little Richard in some 50’s gigs and later picked up his band The Upsetters) sort of evolved, isn’t it? Each subsequent generation takes from the one before them which is what allows rock ‘n’ roll such continuity over the decades.

Anyway, When The Wagon Comes may not be much more than a intriguing curio years later, hardly an indisputable influence over future styles regardless of a few faint concepts they may share, but with a better arrangement the pieces were at least in place for Wright to have a solid record out of this instead of something easily passed over or dismissed out of hand.

Everybody Fall In Line
Though music evolves over time – often morphing into something that seems alien to earlier generations – there’s really a pretty standard set of components that get endlessly recycled no matter the era… or for that matter, no matter the style.

But when there’s a slight variation in the way in which a song is built, like When The Wagon Comes, it doesn’t matter what style it is being made for, there’s bound to be some uncertainty when encountering it at first.

That the technique of semi-spoken vocals goes back a long way on stage, and even in some popular records, there still needs to be a way to give audiences something comfortably familiar surrounding it to make for easier acceptance.

That was their failing here, de-emphasizing the very thing that might’ve made this eagerly embraced.

So while this contains some good ideas and a strong performance in the middle of it all, the experiment goes a little awry. But without these trips to the laboratory every now and then, music becomes stagnant and runs the risk of losing the sense of discovery which lures in each subsequent generation along the way… the tantalizing promise that they’d be the first to latch on to something new.

This wasn’t it, but it was a tentative step in another direction which may pay off down the road and that is hardly anything to be critical of when it comes to music.


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