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FEDERAL 12070; APRIL 1952



Every so often we all see the news stories about an abducted woman who escapes her captors by calling 911 and pretending to order a pizza to be delivered hoping the operator is smart enough to figure out she’s in trouble… Other times these women maybe actually DO order a pizza from a place that makes them and then hands the driver a note in the bills begging them to call for help.

These stories reveals the lengths a smart and desperate woman will go to get free of the sick twisted men who hold her captive.

We just don’t usually expect to see any artist use her own record as a public plea for her release from the detestable men who have abducted her and locked her in a studio while they attempt to ruin her career.

There’s a first time for everything though.


You’ll See The Shape I’m In
A few words on Dorothy Ellis, the survivor in this harrowing ordeal.

If it’s possible to have a more tragic life than her and still come out on top, I’d like to see it. The daughter of sharecroppers who watched her mother die in the fields of heat stroke when Dorothy was 11, she fled the homeless shelter she was put into two years later, riding a bus to another state where she got a job and sang on the side.

Married at 16 she forged a career in music that lasted the rest of her life, until her death at 82 in 2018, releasing her first albums a half century after her first singles… those which we’ve reviewed on these pages.

While her marriage to John Ellis, her bandmate in The Rockin’ Aces, endured until his death in 2008, Dorothy was hospitalized a few years later and had to be resuscitated three times. When she got out she discovered her home had been broken into, her jewelry stolen along with a lifetime of mementos… yet a few days later, with an oxygen tube in her nose, she sang at a concert all the same.

Dorothy Ellis was one tough lady… and a great singer.

But she also had the misfortune to be done wrong by some of the biggest names in 1950’s rock – Ralph Bass, President and producer for Federal Records who paired her with Johnny Otis and his band for the session they did together which resulted in one classic – Drill Daddy Drill, a song which was nearly ruined by Otis’s suddenly out of touch band – and three other songs that attempted to place her in another stylistic niche that did not take advantage of her greatest gifts or the fertile market that would be most accepting for her records.

Must Go Out And Play are words those backwards looking music professionals should’ve taken to heart, allowing her to run free rather than continually trying to confine her to a dim and dingy musical past.

What Else Can I Do?
Since Dorothy Ellis did not write this song, despite its appropriateness for her unfortunate situation at Federal, we can’t take the sentiments expressed here literally.

Rick Darnell, the author of such classics as Roy Hawkins’ classic The Thrill Is Gone, which B.B. King would later make his most enduring hit, is the author along with Mario Delagarde, the bassist in Johnny Otis’s band who later died fighting Batista in Cuba during the revolution.

But it almost seems as if they were aware of the situation Ellis was getting into here because the plot mirrors her predicament with a band that seems unwilling to provide her with the kind of musical support that would actually make these sides they cut with her viable in the rock market in 1952.

This isn’t quite so bad as her initial sides for the label, but the horn section in particular is squarely in a jazz mode throughout this, using the kind of broad bold strokes on the main riff that excites no one, which playing utterly pointless watery fills behind her for much of this. It’s polite “white noise”, something to fill space without conveying anything emotional in the process.

This was the nose-in-the-air attitude of so many musicians whose time had come and gone and their inability to respect that which replaced them is the very reason their preferred style would continually lose ground commercially. The guitar rock of today faces the same problem because they – and their dwindling audience – feel they’re superior to the hip-hop and dance tracks that rule the broader rock scene this century.

That disregard for the material means that Dorothy Ellis is left to hoist the entire weight of Must Go Out And Play on her shoulders, trying to convey the melodic nuances the band is oblivious to while also attempting to give it a modicum of rhythm to assure the rock fan that this isn’t too far outside their realm despite those musicians with their heads up their collective asses.

She doesn’t falter in those areas despite the lack of help, but it’s her delivery of the poignant lyrics and the expertly judged ache in her voice that lifts an otherwise disposable record and makes it tolerable.

When she sings with weary resignation about how dispirited she is with her lot in life and how much this guy – a stand-in for ALL of the men in the studio I assure you – is keeping her down, the flickering hope she still holds that she can overcome it is evident in those few moments when she lets herself soar on just the mere thought of getting out and seeing the sunshine again.

She’s trapped, she’s battered, but she’s not broken and her resolve in the face of a life she didn’t bargain for should be more than enough to see you through to the end of a record that you didn’t bargain for considering the names of those involved.

Still It Seems So Hopeless
It’s amazing – and then again it’s not at that – how many of rock’s early female artists had their abilities shortchanged, their opportunities wasted through mishandling and their careers all but ruined by the ignorant men that made up the record industry.

We’ve seen Albennie Jones, one of the most talented singers of rock’s late 1940’s run, get discarded after her best record, never to record again. We’ve watched Jewel King have her promising career upended by her own jealous musician husband.

We’ve also cringed as Federal Records derailed Little Esther’s career with bad stylistic choices, saw Dot Records try to turn the vibrant Margie Day into a cover artist at one point and will soon have a front row seat as Jubilee Records follows up a brilliant original hit by Edna McGriff with a series of shallow rip-offs until her career withers and dies.

From the very start we’ve witnessed Erline Harris and Chubby Newsom and Alma Mondy and Eunice Davis and Tina Dixon and most recently Odelle Turner all turn in superlative performances only to have record companies quickly lose interest in them altogether, unable to appreciate what they brought to the table, if not altogether unwilling to accept the fact that women were kicking their ass in the process.

Now Dorothy Ellis faces that same fate herself after enduring typically bad choices on most of her output including Must Go Out And Play.

Yet let’s also never forget that the women in rock so far, whether the few longer lasting stars we’ve met to date such as Ruth Brown, Sylvia Vanterpool and Annie Laurie, or those who were here for too short a time such as Kitty Stevenson and Marilyn Scott, have given us some of the very best rock records we’ve heard and on the whole the ladies probably have a much higher average score than their male counterparts, despite the obstacles they’re forced to contend with every step of the way.

As usual when anyone not in the privileged class succeeds it’s a forgone conclusion that they’ve overcome far more to reach their goals than those who are given every break along the way. Dorothy Ellis may not have gotten any hits in her career, but in many ways her achievements over the course of a lifetime are far greater than those who did.


(Visit the Artist page of Dorothy Ellis for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)