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IMPERIAL 5065; MARCH 1950

 
 

 

In the last few months there’s been a number of prominent newcomers on the rock scene along with a handful of others who’d broken through after their earlier sides had come and gone without much notice.

Little Esther was unquestionably the biggest immediate star among them with a #1 hit already on the books and her second chart topper just released, the first coming alongside The Robins and the second which found her paired with Mel Walker, each of whom were going to be fixtures on the scene for awhile themselves.

Toss in the first hits of Clarence Garlow, Professor Longhair, Lester Williams, Jewel King and even a brief flurry of interest with the improbable Doc Sausage and then add into the mix smaller successes from The Flames, Gatemouth Brown and The Shadows and you can see what a heady time the first few months of 1950 were shaping up to be when trying to assess just how big rock ‘n’ roll might become.

But of all of the new stars appearing in the sky the one who seemed to be the most immediately appealing was Fats Domino. The combination of his ebullient vocals, spry piano and one of the tightest bands on the scene gave no indication he’d merely caught lightning in a bottle that first time out, instead Domino seemed like a keeper even before his debut made it to #2 in the country.

This then would be the record that was going to confirm his place in the emerging hierarchy and should it meet with the same reception there’d be little doubt as to who the bellwether artist from that cross section of acts would be…

Imagine everyone’s surprise when the record barely drew notice outside of Louisiana.
 

 

Likes To Ball
Like virtually every artist in this day and age Fats had recorded the standard four songs at his initial session on December 10th 1949. That was the way it was done for most acts large and small, pop, jazz, blues, country or gospel. Sometimes you might record more, but you’d rarely record less because companies wanted enough material for two releases if they were going to book time in a studio.

As two of those sides made up the first single in Domino’s discography that means there are two remaining songs in the can from that date from which to draw his second single. Basic math, ladies and gentlemen… no calculator or tricky formulas needed!

But it’s interesting to note that neither of those songs were chosen for this follow-up, though both would soon see release of their own. Instead Domino returned to the studio in early January just after The Fat Man hit the market and was met, at least in New Orleans, with immediate adulation.

Knowing they had a budding star in their midst and wanting to take advantage of his soaring popularity and capitalize on the precise sound that was stirring so much interest, especially since Fats and the band, along with producer Dave Bartholomew were slated to go on tour soon and thus would be unable to record for awhile, they hustled everybody back into the studio to cut a more calculated follow-up.

It’d be unfair to call Little Bee a sequel, since thematically it’s not at all related to the autobiographical first record, but it’s clearly designed to replicate much of that record’s structure so as to leave no doubt that this was the same guy doing the same thing you liked so well.

As we know – but as record companies never seem able to grasp – that is never a formula for success even with such skilled practitioners as Bartholomew and Domino at the helm.
 


 
 

Not So Pretty
There’s enough different about this to make its intent slightly less offensive than a lot of these unimaginative retreads can be, but that being said the alterations are not in any way an improvement on even one aspect of the original idea.

In fact each thing they borrow – from the extended piano intro to Fats’ replicating a mouth organ in the bridge – comes across as distinctly inferior, both in concept and execution. It’s almost as if he knew this was just a shallow facsimile of his earlier song and wanted no part of it, but being a shy 21 year old kid who was seeing his dreams of a professional recording career come true, dutifully went along with the program.

But as desultory as the thought of rehashing something far better may be, there was more than enough talent in the room to ensure that Little Bee was going to have some qualities which were still worth hearing.

The first is that long drawn out piano intro which wisely has him avoiding the same notes – we’d really be up in arms if they were THAT shameless – instead letting him come up with a clever hesitation move to close out each bar followed by some brief trilling notes, which is unquestionably the catchiest part of it, and then a more ponderous segue before coming back strong with that trilling section again.

Yeah, it’s derivative for sure, not nearly as captivating largely because there’s not much energy in it, but Domino’s keyboard work was vital to his overall appeal and it’s good they recognized that and gave it an outlet rather than bury it for something less identifiable.

When his vocals come in they too are lacking that joyous vibe he gave off the first time around and it’s replaced with a more plaintive yearning that might’ve been worth exploring in a different context, but here – with your mind already forcibly being asked to recall a more boisterous vocal performance – it feels somewhat flat and uninspired.

There are at least few new touches added to the mix, such as a subtly quirky guitar fill that shows up now and then, apparently attempting to replicate the “buzzing” of an actual bee. The horns of course are delivering their parts with ruthless efficiency but aren’t given too much to do, remaining out of the picture entirely for the extended piano break in the middle.

Though it all comes together smoothly and the basic “formula” remains sturdy, you can’t help but feel you’ve essentially been handed a lesser version of what you’ve already come to love from that first time around the block with him.
 


 

Likes To Play
So with that criticism ringing in your ears I’m sure you expect this to get a resounding thumbs down and a loud admonishment for Bartholomew and Imperial Records for being so crass in their intentions.

Not quite.

For starters we have to address the utterly off-beat lyrics which makes this among the more unusual songs in Domino’s canon. In fact Little Bee is an oddity no matter which way you take the title of the song.

The most interesting aspect of this is that it’s meant to be sort of a double meaning, as I’m sure the primary thought is this girl is named Bee… for Beatrice… and thus it’s nothing all that unusual for a guy in love with her to sing a declaration of love in her honor.

But they consciously work to tie it into the OTHER kind of bee, the honey bee variety, and that gives this almost a cartoonish flavor that makes it far more endearing than had her name been Maude or Mabel or something that made such a comparison of species impossible.

This Bee is described in a way that leaves no doubt as to the image you’re expected to conjure up. In a way they’re almost risqué in how blatantly they do this, telling us “She’s 42 in the waist, 31 in the bust” which is hardly an hourglass figure but nonetheless is an intriguing thought. Trying to picture her as a girl of the human variety with those proportions leaves you incredulous and so naturally you let your imagination go wild and assume he’s in love with an actual bumblebee which is no less ridiculous but a lot more fun.

Unfortunately there’s not much more in the way of interesting revelations… no threesomes with aardvarks or camels thankfully… but at least what he did offer is memorable to say the least and Fats’ vocal tones can make even the most nonsensical of lyrics sound reasonable appealing.

That’s hardly enough to recommend it strongly but along with the capable band turning in a polished performance you could do a lot worse than this reasonably harmless diversion.
 


 

Until Judgment Day
The underlying story of these artists we’ll get to know over time is in seeing how they navigate their careers and either react to their musical surroundings or bend those expectations to suit them. Do they progress as artists or regress… or, as is the case with most, do they merely remain basically what they started out as.

With Little Bee serving as the only evidence to date as to Fats Domino’s future course he’d be lucky to have the latter charge slapped on him, a capable but essentially stagnant artist. Since this is a definite step back from his astonishing work in that first sighting then unless he delivered something that hinted more at his vast potential he’d be at risk for being seen as someone who already hit his peak, a fluke most likely, and may seem destined to slide back in the pack and find himself struggling to match it the rest of his career.

We know full well that didn’t happen and so in retrospect THIS record becomes the fluke, but it also shows the secondary underlying story that we’re constantly trying to point out but which frequently gets lost in the shuffle, and that’s how the record industry itself – producers, label owners and the like – have to repeatedly be convinced of an artist’s inherent creativity and allow that to blossom without undue interference.

If they fail at that when given the chance, yeah, then you can go back and try to desperately recreate what worked the first time around, not that it’ll have any better success rate than if you immediately took that route. But rather than treat records like nothing more than interchangeable product churned out on a conveyor belt, if you want to help build a star to keep your company rolling in hits, let creators create and stop buzzing around their hive offering shortsighted suggestions like this.

This one may not be a disaster by any means but it hardly advanced your cause or his and that’s not a habit you want to get into.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Fats Domino for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)