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What is this?

A cover record of a song that has been on the market all of a week or so, yes… but more than that it’s a cover record of a rock song by another rock artist yet done in a totally different style than the original.

Normally we don’t look too kindly on artists ripping off their peers, but in this instance the differences in presentation gives us an insight into how rock was traveling down different stylistic paths by the end of 1951 in ways that might not be easily understood otherwise.

Of course if you want your fill of the same ol’ record industry chicanery we have that here too as by dropping a single word from the title meant that Don Robey of Peacock Records felt it was open season to claim publishing credit for somebody else’s composition.

I guess some things, like outright theft, really are timeless in that regard.


Somebody’s Taken Your Place
We’ve talked about it at length already – and will continue to do so until it practically goes the way of the unicorn by the end of the decade – but one of the biggest changes brought about by rock ‘n’ roll on the music scene as a whole in the 1940’s and ‘50’s was how it valued originality and self-expression in their songs.

Sometimes this was more perception than reality, as many rock acts of the day were not writing their own material and thus the sentiments they were expressing weren’t necessarily reflecting a personal view.

But the manner in which these songs were performed always gave the illusion that they were. Not only did rock emphasize a deeper emotional connection with the lyrics through more intense vocal technique than pop music employed, but the more passionate rock fan seemed inclined to take these songs as gospel truth far more so than a more detached casual pop music fan did when Perry Como or Kay Starr was singing about something.

By the mid-1950’s when pop record companies had no choice but to acknowledge rock’s growing commercial clout their first instinct was to do what they’d always done whenever a song showed immediate appeal and have their own acts cover it in pretty faithful renditions. It worked for awhile as the adult pop listener were presented these tame rock covers as being harmless gimmicks or novelties but the difference in approach rendered the imitations meaningless.

When the adults lost interest in the content quickly and the younger rock fan dismissed them out of hand, the practice began to wither until the term “cover record” became almost a vile epithet.

As time went on you’d still get an occasional cover – by which we mean one released to compete directly with the original for sales rather than a revival cut a few years later by a new artist – but they got more and more rare with each passing year. So much so that when Rihanna covered Tame Impala’s New Person, Same Ol’ Mistakes for her brilliant 2016 album ANTI it was so unusual as to be worthy of lengthy dissertations explaining its significance.

Like RiRi did then, Gatemouth Brown drops the first part of the song’s title in favor of an abbreviated Too Late Baby, as if he doesn’t have time to expound on his thoughts any more than that.

But unlike Rihanna, who copied the entire vibe of the source record with eerie precision, here Brown deviates quite a bit from Chuck Willis’s It’s Too Late Baby in terms of his presentation, causing unsuspecting listeners to do a double take as it begins to sink in that this is in fact the same song they just heard by someone else.


I Knew It Wasn’t Right
Whereas Chuck Willis was a singer/songwriter, not a musician, the same can’t be said for Gatemouth Brown whose guitar playing was every bit as much of his musical persona as his singing.

Naturally this means that whenever possible that instrument will play an out-sized role in his records compared to most artists.

Not only does this give his material a much more distinct image, but in this case it is almost wholly responsible for altering the entire feel of Too Late Baby, almost as if the guitar is a second voice tasked with singing alternate lyrics.

Of course we can’t make out quite what the guitar is saying – not with actual words anyway – but we definitely understand the general impression it gives off with its coiled intensity that ramps up the disdain that those lyrics imply.

Ironically that was a source of some disconnect on Willis’s original, as rather than be bitter about the dissolution of his romantic partnership, Chuck was expressing joy with his upbeat arrangement and excitable vocals… something which worked musically even if it revealed his insecurities thematically, as he was trying too hard to show he was over this girl and in the process put her down to hide the fact he was still hung up on her.

Brown’s vocal tone is similarly “wrong” for the stated intent, a little TOO casual, as if he’s completely unaffected by the breakup, and the rest of the arrangement follows suit, much to its detriment thanks to a wheezy trumpet and a far too polished overall sound. But it’s his guitar which puts everything back into the proper perspective, slithering, snarling and snapping at the girl without restraint.

The solo starts off with a quick burst of anti-aircraft fire before slowing down and sending off some tracer bullets before finding its range and peppering the opposition with rapid fire attacks.

Whenever you’re prone to dismiss the song – and the artist – for being far too hasty in its appropriation of Willis, you immediately reconsider thanks to the power of Brown’s playing.

Both of these figures might be failing to express their true feelings in their vocal deliveries, but just as Willis had the vibrant support of a well-oiled band to mask his pain which worked wonders for the record as a pure listening experience, Brown takes an alternate route by acknowledging the hurt he’s feeling, not with his indifferent voice, but with his fingers which squeeze the life out of the song on the fret-board.

A different experience, but just as rewarding in its own way.


Somebody Else Is There
Though he’d be a recording artist for only eight years before his untimely death in 1958, Chuck Willis’s lasting reputation is that of a gifted songwriter whose material has been recorded by a boatload of legends.

Gatemouth Brown is rarely mentioned in the company of such stalwarts as Ruth Brown or James Brown among countless others (Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, The Five Keys, Charlie Rich, The Clovers, Buddy Holly) who cherry picked from his catalog, but this Brown beat them all to it, recognizing the genius of Willis the songwriter before anyone.

The fact that both versions of Too Late Baby are not quite all they could be, yet still are eminently enjoyable for different reasons, speaks well of Willis’s knack for strong stories and solid melodies, but it also highlights how Gatemouth Brown could put his own stamp on a song with little apparent effort.

Neither was a hit and Gate’s attempt was surely forgotten long before Chuck’s original faded from memory, but if you want to see how to do a cover record right, as in making it your own, this isn’t a bad place to start.

In other words, give them something different while giving them something familiar at the same time.


(Visit the Artist page of Gatemouth Brown for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Chuck Willis (November, 1951)