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One of the first phrases kids learn to spout in this world is: “It isn’t fair!”.

That petulant ode to selfishness is at the core of who we are as human beings, wanting to do as we please at all times, consequences be damned.

If anyone in music had the right to voice that complaint it was Arlene Talley, a teenaged vocalist who caught some early breaks that allowed her to put out of a few records before she was old enough to vote only to see her career put on hiatus for decades as life itself interfered with her dreams.

Before those dreams came to a premature end she at least got this chance to announce her presence to a world that would soon forget her.


Start To Go A Long, Long Way
After spending much of her youth singing at her father’s Mason’s Lodge gatherings, Arlene Talley was recruited by the legendary Illinois Jacquet to tour with him while still in her mid-teens before making her debut on the New York recording scene in 1950, first on Jubilee where she was a featured vocalist on LaVerne Ray’s Rock And Roll this past winter.

By summer she had begun to be featured in the band of saxophonist Frank Culley to bring some much needed diversity to his shows by adding a few vocals to his sax instrumental repertoire and when they got in the studio for Atlantic Records that August surely she must’ve thought this was the start of something big.

Instead it was just the beginning of the end for not long after that Arlene Talley left music to raise a family and presumably the only singing she did was for her own enjoyment around the house.

But later in life Talley ventured back out into the New York club scene where she got a long-term residency at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem, maybe not on par with the Apollo Theater where she sang during her brief “heyday”, but by the mid-2000’s there weren’t too many first generation rock singers who were still performing regularly, even if what she was singing now was mostly jazz, not rock ‘n’ roll.

But Little Miss Blues, which was her nickname at the time, shows that had she been able to keep recording during those prime years she’d have been a formidable presence on the scene if nothing else, someone more than capable of helping to balance out the male-female divide that continued to plague rock for the majority of her lifetime.

Instead, this became just a fleeting glance at what she left behind for a life spent out of the spotlight.

Like A Stick Of Dynamite
While Arlene Talley is the unquestioned centerpiece of this record (the entire song is built around her performance) let’s not forget that it’s still credited to Frank Culley and he opens things up with a great saxophone line, stuttering with anticipation yet retaining the tonal warmth that gives it tremendous character in its all-too brief window before Talley comes into the picture.

Her voice is strong if a little harsh and strident, trying to put across the intensity the part seems to require at the expense of nuance. Remember though, she was 17 at the time and most 17 year olds are worried about who they’re going to the prom with and not how to perform on a record. Besides, the sheer impact of her voice is definitely pretty impressive starting with a stop-time introduction that raises the volume as she goes along. Though she doesn’t tone it down quite enough for the more subdued payoff there’s no mistaking her command of the room.

Little Miss Blues sounds a lot older, or at least more experienced, than her years as she spins this tale of a spurned lover who isn’t reduced to begging her ex to reconsider, nor is she wallowing in self-pity as most of these type of songs would tend to do. Instead she’s taking charge of her fate, demanding he at least confront her again because she’s got the confidence that when he does he’ll be unable to resist her.

This doesn’t necessarily imply that her powers of persuasion are all that great, she herself admits she’s not a dazzling beauty, but rather she’s banking on the fact that all guys tend to have their interpersonal decisions controlled more by the head below the belt than the one on their shoulders and she’s relying on his horniness as much as her desirability to win him back.

Whether or not that’s something to be admired is up for debate maybe, but if he’s what she wants then kudos to her for using whatever means are at her disposal to get him.

She could’ve used a more experienced hand in the studio to guide her however, a job that rightly should’ve been the producer – probably Herb Abramson – getting her to dial things down so that her explosions were more spaced out and calculated, but I’m sure this was something that went over better on stage anyway, allowing the response of the crowd to mix in with her own performance until the energy was at its peak and you could bring the house down with a few well-timed passionate wails.

The other figure responsible for modulating things in the arrangement of course would be Culley himself who can’t seem to wrest control back from Talley and instead lets himself be little more than window dressing on his own record.

Sure Am Hard To Please
That opening riff by Culley is by far the most aesthetically pleasing musical passage on the record but the rest of the run time isn’t clunky or off-putting by any means, just more or less subservient to the vocals which means there’s not much room for them to stretch out.

In fact it’s not Culley but rather pianist Van Walls who gets the primary role of providing a musical backdrop for Talley as he sketches out a melody for Little Miss Blues using very limited components… some quick progressions, a few accent notes and a minimal bass line that gets lost in the din.

Culley meanwhile gets his chance to contribute each time Talley steps things up in those stop-time “choruses” answering her with extended two note phrases. It’s dramatic, reasonably effective and familiar enough for rock fans by this point to never lose their way as it goes along.

What it needs though is a solo from him, one that starts off more mellow before gradually raising the stakes so that when Talley returns she’s got a launching pad to get her off the ground… not that she exactly needs much help in that regard.

When Culley gets a few brief spots in between the vocal lines he plays well but there’s just not enough notes for him to really leave his mark. The record clocks in at three minutes even without an instrumental break so what it needed was some editing to prune back the vocal and balance things out better. Since they were thinking of this as a way to highlight Talley more than to give the band another showcase then you can at least understand why they were so modest in their contributions even if it made for a weaker record than it might’ve been otherwise.

I Know You’ll Come Back Someday
Though this was Talley’s only appearance on Atlantic Records, it wasn’t her only session for them with Culley as they returned to the studio with a different supporting cast in early 1951, cutting two more tracks that were possibly to be credited to her, only to have them go unreleased.

While you could hardly say judging by the rather extreme performance of Little Miss Blues that her subsequent disappearance from the recording scene was a major loss, the absence of a vigorous young female singer to slug it out with the fellas was a detriment to rock ‘n’ roll as a whole as it evolved.

Atlantic of course had Ruth Brown who could stand toe to toe with any male singer and in a few years would add LaVern Baker who was no slouch herself, but in 1950 they briefly looked as though the company might be taking it upon themselves to level the gender based playing field in rock, scoring chart topping hits with Brown and Laurie Tate in addition to this opportunity being given to Talley.

When she returned to singing in public by the end of the century her rock beginnings were largely forgotten other than as biographical minutiae to fill out a press release or small article in a local paper and she managed to bask in a comparatively dimmer spotlight until the end of her life in 2011.

But whatever soft and slow material she may have been singing then, once upon a time she came charging out of the gate hard and fast thinking she had a lifetime ahead of her to soak up the glory only to find that life, which is rarely fair despite our protests, had other ideas.


(Visit the Artist page of Frank Culley for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)