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There’s an odd consequence to rock ‘n’ roll becoming so strong as of late, where commercial misfires increasingly are viewed as an inexcusable offense, and that is when an artist with the basic skill set to be successful fails to deliver right away there’s probably some thought as to changing up the game plan, as if the direction the artist had been taking might be at fault for their failure to land even a modest hit.

Sometimes this might be a reasonable assumption, though usually it should be pretty obvious just listening to the records even before they flat-lined in the marketplace, but that’s clearly not the case with J.B. Summers who put his sometimes crude, powerful voice to work on songs which called for those traits, only to have none of them score with audiences.

This leaves record company’s with a decision to make, which often spells trouble since decision making is rarely a record label’s forte. The question they start to ask themselves is when the artist in question handles their job with reasonable self-assurance and still can’t buy a hit do you try and offer up something altogether different in the hopes that it might change their fortunes, even though it’s not playing to their strengths and might not even be something they could faithfully replicate down the road anyway should it become an unexpected success.

Or do you just say, screw it, and double down on what they do best and hope that this time around people might catch on?


The Rest Of My Days
Somewhat surprisingly the answer to that question with J.B. Summers is that they DID change things up, quite radically in fact, by letting him try his hand at a downhearted lament which most who were familiar with him would assume he didn’t have in him to do constitutionally. At best this appeared on paper to be simply a chance to diversify his portfolio, something recommended frequently around here, but usually with those who seemed more capable of actually pulling it off stylistically if nothing else.

The good thing I suppose is that Summers was continuing to get every chance to find a way in to the hearts of rock fans in spite of his limited returns, as this was already his fourth release – sort of* – since signing with Gotham Records back in late spring and already was his second single issued this month. Along the way he’d cut sides with three different backing units, all whom complimented him pretty well, and he’s had some good efforts scattered among them while nothing he released was downright awful.

Of course the asterisk affixed to the line in the preceding paragraph indicates that there WAS something a bit unusual in his release pattern which may have contributed some to his lack of returns, as Gotham had issued his debut, Stranger In Town, on the back side of the debut of saxophonist Eddie Woodland, a decision which inevitably hurt both artists by failing to give them each a full shot at glory on their own. They quickly saw the error of their ways and pulled that single back, re-issuing both Woodland’s instrumental AND Summers’s vocal song with new cuts by each of the respective artists on two separate records as they should’ve done in the first place.

It didn’t help and that was the last we’d hear from Eddie Woodland who deserved a much better fate. Summers on the other hand got plenty of other chances for which we can be glad, but considering the label had been so quick to jettison Woodland, a promising saxophonist in the midst of rock’s sax-led revolution, you’d have to say that perhaps J.B. Summers would be smart not to take out a long term lease on an apartment in town until he scored a hit that would make it more likely he’d be sticking around for the long haul.

Though it’s doubtful that a song such as My Baby Left Me, in which Summers whines about his crumbling love life, would reverse the slow sales trend he’s been experiencing (and if it did there’s no chance it’d give listeners an accurate impression of the kind of material he generally excelled at) the change of pace is still not a bad move to make at this point, if only to allow the more typical sounding flip side stand out more by comparison.

When I Saw My Baby
If ever you were going to release an atypical song on J.B. Summers while minimizing the risk for doing so then surely it was with this single simply because all of the focus would be on the A-side, I Want A Present For Christmas. Though hardly a heartwarming holiday tale, the title alone, not to mention the marketing push it’d receive heading into December, would mean that the B-side was all but irrelevant when it came to drawing interest.

Since it’s probably inevitable in life – though not always welcome – that we lump people together based on surface similarities we have to acknowledge that it was done in music circles all the time for reasons of convenience. If one type of act is hot, find one for yourself. So record companies were always more inclined to give a modest talent a shot if they had something about them which suggested an established popular act. The discount bin at record stores, back when they had such things, probably were full of artists who “sounded like” somebody else. Few really succeeded, because after all, why get the imitation when the original is still cranking out hits? When they stop cranking out hits, who wants an imitator of a has-been?

J.B. Summers was one of many who was slotted in the Wynonie Harris category. We have no picture of him to see if he shared any physical similarities but vocally he fit the bill for sure. Both were what were called at the time “shouters”, those who often started off their songs in a full-throated roar and then somehow ramped it up from there. They generally had an issue with volume control. If airbuds had existed back then and you were listening on shuffle play your eardrums might explode if you suddenly went from Sonny Til & The Orioles to any of the shouting brigade, whether Harris or Summers, Crown Prince Waterford, Clarence Samuels, Smilin’ Smokey Lynn, Clifford Blivens… the list goes on.

Of the big voiced shouters of this era only Big Joe Turner had both the technical ability, the the musical instincts and most importantly the discipline to rein it in convincingly when called for. Others might be able to do it every so often but you always were waiting for the explosion the longer they held back, almost as if their bodies openly rebelled at easing back on the intensity.

We already know he can cut it at the seedier roadhouses with his no holds barred delivery so now we get to see just how versatile he can be and if he can manage to pull off My Baby Left Me reasonably well it may give Gotham Records more incentive to keep him around, hits or no hits.


Down On My Bended Knees
Once again we encounter a narrator who has lost his sweetie for unspecified reasons, but which – if we believe Summers telling of it – was completely unexpected and therefore presumably unprovoked by any actions he’d undertaken.

This seems to be a more common problem in rock ‘n’ roll than its image would suggest, as we’ve been led to believe through a lifetime of hype that these singers have their choice of any women they want, all they can handle and more than they need. Maybe that’s so, but for whatever reason it appears that a lot of them can’t manage to hold onto the best of them, something which pokes a few holes in the enduring image of the swaggering rock star.

But that gratuitous shot at the guys who would have you believe they were infallible in the eyes of the ladies aside, our focus is the song in question which surprises right out of the gate.

The music is exemplary in setting the downhearted mood, with perfectly chosen horns – no squawking trumpets, no wild sax solos – just playing a weary backdrop, melodically groaning if you will, which provides the right atmosphere for Summers to try and win our sympathy for his plight. It’s an uphill battle for guys like him, those who’ve spent so long trying to convince us that life’s one endless celebration, whether inviting us to join them, as on Hey Now, or regaling us with their plans for the party in Drinking Beer, that any change in that rambunctious mood is bound to come as a surprise. Even when he’s been despondent over a contentious relationship in the past with his Back Door Mama, Summers wailed at full volume throughout.

In other words, he basically stuck to one approach… one which would not work at all here on My Baby Left Me. That’s why it’s so unexpected to report that he successfully alters his delivery and fits in seamlessly with the low key music and the lyrical misery he reveals in a modestly restrained tone.

He’s actually got a fairly good voice under all that testosterone. It’s hardly going to be able to compete with the more skilled stylists like Roy Brown, Andrew Tibbs or Amos Milburn, but he’s pretty effective all the same while lamenting about his former flame, his voice swelling with emotion at times but never relinquishing control in the process.

It’s a good balancing act. He manages to convey his despair without overburdening those who are not involved in the breakup, meaning of course everyone who happens to be listening to the record. The musicians definitely deserve a lot of credit for never wavering from their subdued approach. Their masterful playing provides Summers’s character with the sympathy he’s seeking and maybe that’s enough to keep him from going off the rails, as he’d surely realize that unleashing his anguish more openly would risk turning them against him.

The saxophone in particular needs to be singled out. It’s so soothing in its tone, yet the notes played sound inherently sad without getting to the emotional fault line where they’re breaking down. It aches rather than sobs and leaves you with an almost haunting feeling by the end, as it, more than even Summers, has gotten you to care about this disintegrating relationship.


Makes My Blood Run Warm
Our concerns going into this was that Summers would blow it by overselling the emotional despair which could then lead to the band trying to match him – or cover for him – and that would upend the entire premise.

Neither fear proved true.

Unfortunately the aspect we sort of took for granted, or at least didn’t concern ourselves with as much as we should’ve, was the lyrical content of the record.

We weren’t expecting all the juicy details of their split, no blow by blow account of whatever fight led them to this point, and if using past records mining a similar subject as a barometer we probably could’ve guessed there’d be more focus on his feelings after the fact than anything relevant to their relationship prior to their breakup. That’s okay. But the problem is there’s really not much to My Baby Left Me once you get past his grief.

The primary problem is how clumsy the song is written in places as it doesn’t give Summers much of a chance to smoothly transition from one line to the next. This most apparent in how it violates of the first rule found in Songwriting 101 class which is the edict that couplets should, if at all possible, find a way to rhyme.

Yes, this can be a cloying technique and one that is potentially very limiting when it comes to a songwriter’s choices, but when you’re setting up lines in a certain pattern that gives every indication that it will close with a word that rhymes with the one which came at the end of the line before it, but then DON’T follow through on that, it makes it sound as if the singer screwed up when in fact it was the writer who misled us.

So while Summers revelation that his girl ”left him for somebody else” is supposed to be gut-wrenching, it winds up losing a lot of its power because it doesn’t fit with the title line which precedes it.

Few singers can compensate for an inherent awkwardness in any song. Summers is no different. When he has good lyrics, as when recounting her best attributes in a tender reflective passage mid way through, he comes across quite well and is very self-assured in his delivery, but when he knows there’s something approaching which doesn’t roll off the tongue you can actually hear him tense up, dreading the choices he’ll have to make to try and make it sound natural, knowing all along that it won’t.


I Just Can’t Help Myself
It’s probably of little consolation to Summers that My Baby Left Me could’ve been a very good song with just some simple retooling, giving him single wherein both sides were of equal value, but instead he has to be content with merely showing he’s got more than one approach which can be used effectively going forward.

I’m tempted to knock this down one more point because we have to take into account all aspects of each release, from the performances of the singer and band, which are above average, to the content itself, which is needlessly sub-par. But the latter effects the former and listening closely to him try and tap dance around the lyrical potholes is a frustrating experience that will have a lot of amateur wordsmiths grabbing a pen and paper to try and tighten things up for them.

But unfortunately the singer, the band and the record label itself are all long gone and so we’re stuck with trying to sort it all out in a fair impartial manner seven decades after it was made.

There’s a lot here to like even though it’s offset by a few vocal slips and the glaring weakness of the lyrical flow – or lack thereof – something that usually spells doom for getting it to meet our standard for an average record. Yet that’s just what we’ll give them in spite of its obvious issues.

Maybe this is a case of bestowing too much credit for merely surpassing fairly low expectations, or maybe it’s that sometimes we’re more inclined to see the positive than dwell on the negative and feel that J.B. Summers deserves to get at least one break in his career before he vanishes from the scene altogether.

While being “average” is usually nothing to get too excited about, in this case – when faced with such looming obstacles – coming away with a solidly average record is actually a pretty nice compliment.


(Visit the Artist page of J. B. Summers for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)