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CHESS 1518; AUGUST 1952



When starting out in music there’s always some uncertainty about which direction to pursue and that doesn’t mean whether to specialize in uptempo songs or ballads.

Instead an artist – and their record label – have to decide on which genre to pursue, or at least which besides their primary vocation should they hedge their bets with by incorporating some of another style’s attributes into their songs and arrangements.

This being Chess Records of the early 1950’s there was bound to be some blues components that found their way into a new artist’s repertoire even though there seemed far less chance to break a 19 year old (or so they said, he was really 27) stand-up vocalist into a blues star when rock ‘n’ roll was tailor made for him.

This one tries to split the difference but as is usually the case that only means no one wins.


You Better Get Yourself A Line
What you’ll notice right away is that both sides of his debut single were written by Bobby Lewis in conjunction with Leroy Kirkland, a name we’ve mentioned in the past but haven’t really taken a closer look at and since he actually gets a co-lead artist credit as leader of the “Orchestra”, this is as good a place to do it as anywhere.

Kirkland was a respected jazz guitarist in the 1940’s who by the early 1950’s already working as an arranger which is where he’d make his most notable contributions, though hardly his only ones in music history.

We’ve said countless times how rock was hardly associated with or indebted to the blues at the beginning, but rather it was jazz which had a far bigger influence on how rock developed largely because the session musicians were jazz veterans which naturally shaped their playing, even as they had to modify it – or dumb it down if you prefer – to fit rock’s simpler requirements.

Kirkland proved his worth at OKeh Record, particularly in bringing the best out of Big Maybelle, and along the way drew the attention of Mercury Records who were hardly anxious to dirty their hands in rock and perhaps thought a former jazz artist might ensure the company’s rock output at least had some vestiges of class. Instead he helped to put the scream into Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ early records for the label’s embarrassed subsidiaries.

Kirkland enjoyed some of his biggest successes in the early 1960’s when a lot of his contemporaries were being eased out of the picture as younger producers and arrangers got up to speed, as he now connected with a series of female acts, writing Etta James’s Don’t Stop The Wedding and collaborating with Etta herself on the scorching Something’s Got A Hold On Me. Showing he could be more sophisticated in his approach he co-wrote Maxine Brown’s classic Top Ten hit All In My Mind and then managed Ruby & The Romantics and oversaw their #1 hit Our Day Will Come with its distinctive haunting organ led track.

Back in 1952 however he was still on the rise and figuring out his best route to success and so you’ll forgive him for injecting some blues elements into Travlin’ Days. Maybe it was done to appease Leonard Chess who was known to demand new material conform to whatever style brought in the most money over the last few months (probably not, as this may have been bought outright by Chess, explaining why it was Lewis’s only release for the label rather than the standard two singles), or if it was Kirkland himself who saw the benefit in branching out stylistically a little, as blues was definitely hitting its commercial peak just as rock was at this time.

Whatever the case however, the compromise doesn’t allow for either brand of music to lay firm claim to this which is a lesson that perhaps he needed to learn before climbing further up the ladder in his new role.

The Cost of Living Is High
Though he lived until 95 years old, there’s not much first-person recollections from Bobby Lewis about his musical upbringing which means the scant mentions of it which does exist – including the one telling us he grew up listening to “pioneer blues musicians” – is more than likely some white writer projecting their own images as to what someone like Lewis would’ve been listening to growing up in the 1940’s before making a career in rock ‘n’ roll starting the next decade.

Who knows, maybe he was a devout Big Bill Broonzy fan, but even as Leroy Kirkland gives him plenty of opportunity to adapt a bluesier vocal to this song which definitely contains some stock blues images of getting off the road and returning home, Lewis’s vocals are clearly out of place in that motif. His vocal projection, the way he phrases certain lines and his overall tone are much closer to rock ‘n’ roll even if the song doesn’t necessarily always agree with that decision.

But then again, even the composition can’t rightly decide what it wants to be either. Clearly he didn’t spend his Travlin’ Days thumbing through a dictionary on the road since he can’t spell the first word of his own self-description, but whereas blues songs with this theme tend to be more downcast in their outlook, this one is just sort of weary, slightly peeved yet still a little anxious to get home again.

Furthermore the vocal structure is definitely more suited to rock ‘n’ roll than blues. In fact in that regard it’s probably not surprising that it has a lot in common with Chess’s first rock act, Andrew Tibbs, and while Lewis doesn’t possess the same light supple voice that Tibbs employed, he’s using a lot of the same rise and fall techniques to express his emotions within lines that are more tightly constricted.

But the blues shadows are never too far from sight with Kirkland utilizing his own guitar in ways that link it more closely to that genre. Though there are horns present, including Sam “The Man” Taylor, who thanks to Kirkland would be the first call sax player for rock sessions for most of the decade, they take a back seat to the fills that Kirkland injects throughout the song. Some are quite nice, particularly the flashy run towards the end, but it certainly doesn’t help clear up the confusion as to which market they’re aiming at and so in the end it largely misses both of them.

It’s hardly a bad record, just a misguided one and if genre consideration was removed from the equation we’d bump this up another point. But by now the lines of demarcation between styles are too clear to not choose a side and since all signs point to this as being a conscious decision, then it’s a conscious decision on our part to call them out on it.


(Visit the Artist page of Bobby Lewis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)