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OKEH 6930; NOVEMBER 1952



This was what the major labels dreamed about… not that any of them wanted to see rock ‘n’ roll take over the marketplace, but rather that if the Devil was going to move into their neighborhood, that they should be able to extract some money from him too.

So one by one they began to think about instituting subsidiary labels to be able to capitalize on the movement while still allowing them to segregate the music from their more respectable output.

Columbia Records was, on paper anyway, the least likely to accept rock ‘n’ roll, as they were the oldest, most conservative major label where rock-hater Mitch Miller made the musical decisions. But in OKeh Records they had a dormant subsidiary that had a long history of acceptance within the Black community dating back decades.

Now that the imprint was revived to focus on rock ‘n’ roll and they’ve gotten some hits, including the biggest one yet last time out with Chuck Willis, here was the real test as to their intent… namely, what would they do for the follow-up?

Go further, or pull back?


Save Me Somebody, Please
We’ve been pretty complimentary of Danny Kessler, who was given the power to run OKeh as he saw fit, even though he probably wouldn’t have gotten that far to begin with if he wasn’t acutely aware of Columbia’s overall impressions of the music he was now overseeing.

So he’s had to walk a tightrope between trying to get hits with authentic rock artists and songs, neither of which the overlords of the company had any interest in or respect for.

Thus far he’s managed to do it quite adroitly, starting off by focusing on the type of artists with better pedigrees like The Ravens and The Treniers who had made their name as rock acts, but who were also tolerated by older audiences in live venues, if not always on record.

He scored his biggest coup, not surprisingly, with Johnnie Ray, a white act steeped in more emotional Black styles, which landed him a massive double sided hit on both the Pop and R&B Charts. But when Columbia responded by switching him to the parent label (where his success quickly tapered off as a result of their meddling), Kessler knew what this meant even if it wasn’t spelled out for him. If he were to succeed and get credit for doing so, it’d have to be with artists who were otherwise off Columbia’s radar entirely.

Legitimate rock acts… like Chuck Willis.

Here was someone who was a prolific songwriter, who could handle upbeat rockers and mournful ballads, whose erudite lyrics were a step above the negative image the Mitch Millers of the world felt about rock ‘n’ roll, yet whose messages in those song rang true with the rock audience.

When he scored a #2 hit last time out with My Story it gave OKeh their biggest rock hit yet and the fact it was covered by pop artists showed gave it the kind of validation that Columbia Records would best understand.

When it came time to release his next offering to see if they could do it again they naturally chose another downbeat ballad called Salty Tears, hoping audiences couldn’t help but notice the similarities.

But even had Willis been on a more revolutionary independent label, we know he wouldn’t have been immune to being forced into a likeminded follow-up… that’s just how the record industry worked, big and small companies alike.

This one however comes with an unexpected twist which certainly pegs it as the kind of decision that was borne out of a major label mentality.


Don’t You Hear Me Calling
Splattered all over the trade papers throughout the month of November were ads for the Chuck Willis hit from last summer, as they were hoping to milk every last sale out of it they could before settling on something close enough to keep the winning streak intact with his next single.

But Chuck Willis was too good of a writer, too creative a soul, to meekly succumb to their corporate arm-twisting maneuvers and so OKeh Records did what record companies were famous for.

They took matters into their own soiled hands and dug through his outtakes and found Salty Tears… a tune cut way back in February which Chuck Willis didn’t even write! So much for artistic credibility.

Here he was being widely praised for his songwriting as much as for his singing and they decide the best thing to do is hope that no one will notice, or if they notice no one will care, that this song was written by Lincoln Chase instead, just so long as it features the same general feel of his recent hit.

Naturally it’s nowhere near as good. Though Chase wasn’t a bad writer by any means, this is a much more pedestrian song about the same topic with a few good lines here and there which are offset by clunky scansion and poor rhyme schemes. Coupled with an arrangement that takes few chances, that leaves it up to Willis to try and impart more meaning via his interpretation alone.

Chuck does his best, showing that he was always a compelling vocalist even with someone else’s words in his mouth, but when his own words were so poignant and poetic at times, it can’t help but make someone else’s feel rather hollow by comparison. The concept itself is a good one, using the Salty Tears as a metaphor for drowning in misery as a result of a broken relationship, but that’s as clever as it gets and the lines to drive the point home beyond that are merely stock phrases cobbled together.

But it’s the reliance on a more bluesy backdrop which dooms this, as the guitar, though playing relatively few notes, is far too prominent without riveting your attention. It’s more like a mosquito buzzing around you than anything you’d want to welcome to the picnic. On top of that the crawling tempo, which is meant to show just how despondent he is, comes across as plodding and would be a slog to get through if Willis’s voice wasn’t there to focus on.

All of this shows that in early 1952 OKeh Records still wasn’t sure of – or didn’t trust – the more reliable rock formula, which in this case might’ve made it more acceptable simply by using a moaning saxophone break to give it a different texture. Instead they reduce the horns to a supporting role and then watch as the record follows Willis’s character down the drain.


Going Down For The Third Time
It’s always interesting watching a record company decide on a follow-up to an artist’s breakthrough hit and while a few are able to match, or even improve upon, that initial noisemaker creatively, far more take the safe, predictable and boring route and then wonder why it doesn’t click with audiences.

In his first two years with the company Willis recorded twenty songs, which is a lot for a new artist with no track record, and all but two of them were his own compositions. Salty Tears was one of the two that wasn’t and despite him being hot as as can be, this got the disinterest it deserved from the public, even if most of the prospective audience weren’t scouring the writing credits before making their mind up whether to purchase it or not.

The performance itself isn’t bad and you might convince me it’s just good enough to be judged an average release for the rock market in late ’52. But it’s an atrocious choice for releasing on the heels of Chuck Willis’s first smash… precisely because it’s a Chuck Willis record in name only.

As always the scores here reflect a number of things, some objective, some subjective, taken seriously at your own risk. But as one of the criteria being used is how a release helps or hurts an artist’s career, not to mention the label’s standing in the rock market, and that’s where this fails miserably.

It’s an indefensible decision made for all of the wrong reasons.

If a company can’t trust their own artists, especially those who are copious writers on top of their vocal or musical skills, then why don’t they just do away with them completely and let Danny Kessler sing the songs they deem fit and put those out instead?

We don’t expect this to change in the music industry any time soon, and frankly we’d be shocked if it did, but as advocates for the artists and the music, not the record companies, we won’t condone it and can’t excuse it when they keep making the same mistakes that are so obvious to anyone with any sense.

You just hope Kessler was the one shedding tears when Mitch Miller made him go to bed without desert as punishment for failing to get a hit.


(Visit the Artist page of Chuck Willis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)