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CHESS 1496; JANUARY 1952



It’s not a word that’s thrown around much anymore, though just the sound of it conjures up the image of a conniving rat who’s oftentimes just as hapless as he is harmful, but if anyone in rock ‘n’ roll had the experience to sing about such unsavory characters it was surely Jackie Brenston.

A sudden star in the spring of 1951… an afterthought by summer when two future legends in the record business ripped him off… now in early 1952 a singer without a band and without a future as it turns out.

Such is the life of a rock act in the early 1950’s… surrounded by louses.


Bite You in The Back
Usually when a fairly new record company strikes gold with one of the biggest hits of a given year by a bunch of untested artists who naturally would be ecstatic over their good fortune, it’s not very difficult to keep them all happy by stuffing their pockets with loose bills and maybe buying them a flashy car to drive to the gigs they’ll be getting on the back of that hit.

When the money runs out – as it always will for those not used to having it and thus unable to resist spending it – they’ll be back in the studio eager to get some more of that long green by following up their hit with more of the same.

Maybe it won’t work out that way, sometimes you just catch lightning in a bottle after all, but you should at least be assured of having that act in your clutches for two solid years of attempts… unless of course you get greedy.

That is inevitably the Achilles heel of almost every independent record company in America in the 1950’s, and by neglecting to give the true musical talent of the group – bandleader Ike Turner – credit, they wound up losing him and the rest of the band to a rival company who you (or your partner in crime, Sam Phillips) pissed off in the first place by trying bringing this group to you – Chess Records – rather than to Modern Records with whom Phillips already had a deal.

What you’re left with then is Jackie Brenston, a fairly capable singer and a just passable sax player with not quite enough talent or drive to maintain that early success on his own.

Couple that with even more underhanded behavior on Phillips’ part by substituting another vocalist for Brenston and passing him off to Chess as if it were Jackie on the immediate follow-up, and is it any wonder that when he finally landed on his feet Brenston would be singing about Leo The Louse?

Leo is short for Leonard, as in Leonard Chess after all.

But no, that’s not where this song came from, even though it fits, but rather the tune is little more than a sort of updated version of a Bull Moose Jackson song from the 1940’s called Shorty’s Got To Go. Not that anyone blatantly ripped off the melody of that older song, but the general theme and feel of it is the same and since Brenston’s hit had similarly come from re-working an older song, you can see why all of these louses thought this might work too, even if the content seemed to be incriminating them all in the process.


Give Him The Air
With the departure of Ike Turner and His Kings Of Rhythm for greener pastures so to speak – or more accurately, for a different set of thieves named the Bihari Brothers at Modern – it left Sam Phillips, who was still running sessions for Chess in Memphis, to scramble for competent musicians to play behind whatever singer he coaxed into the studio with the promise of a few dollars.

He landed on some good ones since Memphis was teeming with first rate musicians, this group led by the Newborn brothers, Phineas on piano and Calvin on guitar, who along with a solid drummer and some horns – albeit not Jackie blowing his own sax as he keeps hollering during the break – serve up a very good musical track, rampaging ahead at full steam and contributing somewhat annoying backing vocals to chant the Leo The Louse hook throughout the record.

Granted it’s a little one-dimensional, but certainly nobody is turning it off with this kind of sledgehammer force being exhibited from front to back.

Which means it’s up to Brenston – and the song itself – to not let the band run away with the record.

Brenston is fine here, though in many ways he could be said to be acting as much as singing, trying to convey the absurdity of the situation with a steady patter that vacillates between speaking and singing, sometimes falling right in the middle of the two disparate points. Yet it works because he’s fully in character… exasperated, incredulous and disgusted by Leo’s antics.

The lines themselves are okay, though there’s not anything that catches you off guard and causes you to crack a genuine smile or double over laughing. The problem, if you want to call it that, is for a song where the main draw is to make the listener just as outraged by Leo’s freeloading and antagonizing behavior as the narrator is, the rest of the song actually prevents you from really focusing on it.

In other words the frantic pace, the driving beat, the honking sax and the chanting responses from the others means you can’t fully appreciate the story which is more skimming the surface with broad accusations anyway and thus doesn’t quite hold up.

Maybe it’s the way our brains are wired to receive information. The aforementioned Jackson track, which the early Impressions later revived in the late 50’s, takes things at a pace that almost suggests Shorty was creeping up on them while it was being sung, adding to the humor even if the lines weren’t all that different than what’s delivered here.

But when it comes to Leo’s story the breakneck speed desensitizes you from the lyrical aspects too much even if the musical aspects are very good on their own. It’s meant to be funny but by the end they’re pushing the humor via the delivery without having earned any laughs, derailing it in the process.

When The Times Are Hard
Maybe the most interesting aspect of this single is that while musically it has a similar tearing up the road focus than his hit, Jackie Brenston takes on a much different persona, almost as if he were somebody else altogether. The amiable cat out for some drinks with his no account buddies, already half in the bag with the rest of them, has been replaced by the sober upstanding citizen complaining about those kind of no-account tricksters.

In other cases this would be seen as something admirable, an example of diversifying your output and showing artistic range but I’m sure to many Leo The Louse seems like a gimmicky novelty-esque song desperately trying to stir some interest to keep his career afloat.

It’s a little better than that at any rate, yet still not all it could be. While his attempts to come across differently than his enduring classic is nothing that should be dismissed out of hand, it doesn’t really bring us any closer to figuring out Brenston’s real musical mindset.

The truth is probably much more simple than even those questions pose… Jackie Brenston had been more or less a passenger in that fateful Cadillac, able to take over the wheel if need be, yet with no sense of direction if left to his own devices. He needed someone with a steady hand, a strong musical compass and a well laid-out map to get him where he was going.

If pointed in the right direction he’d do okay, but if surrounded by louses who were pulling him in every direction from one song to the next, he was never going to get very far.


(Visit the Artist pages of Jackie Brenston for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)