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RCA 20-4899; AUGUST 1952



It wouldn’t be far fetched to say that if you were drafting early rock solo artists on potential alone, Jimmy “Baby Face” would be a pretty high choice.

He could write, he had a good voice which he applied in a variety of ways, and he played a vicious guitar when given the chance.

Yet here he is once again letting most of those talents go to waste and while the end result is hardly bad, it’s also fairly obvious that it all could’ve been so much better had someone steered him in the right direction.


Make Any Good Man Go And Lose His Head
I know, I know, you’re looking at the record label and see this came out on RCA-Victor, one of the staid major labels who resisted selling their soul to rock ‘n’ roll for far too long, and you think that’s the rather clear answer as to who is to blame.

You may be right. Certainly someone they hired is responsible for the arrangement, probably Howard Biggs, the pianist with a good deal of rock experience but who always managed to straddle the line with something a bit more high class, as if he were trying to prove that rock ‘n’ roll could indeed be tamed for the masses.

But while it might be fair to criticize Biggs’s choices in this particular case, what was the excuse when Jimmy Lewis was recording for Atlantic, Manor or Savoy and fell prey to the same unforced errors?

Maybe it’s time to admit the problem was Lewis himself. It could be that he was simply too accommodating… simply too young and inexperienced to stand up to the so-called adults in the room wearing suits and looking stern who told him to curtail his true musical personality in order for them to court an audience that they felt more worthy.

Then again, it’s entirely possible that Baby Face himself was a fan of more genteel music and had to be coaxed into cutting loose in the past when he’d done so in limited fashion.

But because he showed such promise in doing so, who can blame us if we keep waiting for something truly explosive, something to strip the paint, blow out the tires and burn up the engine just to prove he can do it. Yet every time it seems he just barely gets up to the speed limit before winding out in third gear and coasting home.

Seeing the title of a self-written song called Cherry Wine had us hopeful once again. A kid barely over the drinking age singing about boozing it up with his friends is always good for some pearl clutching by the establishment.

Yet once again he pulls up short, either because he himself didn’t really like the taste of this hooch and was just pretending to in order to fit in with his friends, or because RCA watered it down before he took his first sip by setting it to an outdated arrangement.

If Baby Won’t Come And Thrill Me
Since it’s the arrangement that sinks this, it’s the arrangement we have to focus on and while at this point I’m not prone to letting Jimmy Lewis off the hook for a string of releases that even when passably good still qualify as let-downs, all signs here do indeed point to Howard Biggs as the one who was entrusted to make sure this concoction wasn’t fermented enough to get anybody even a little tipsy.

There are good musicians here, Budd Johnson as one of the two tenor sax players contributed to a number of classic sides over the years as a New York sessionist, and while both he and Buddy Tate, his fellow tenor horn on this date, were primarily jazz musicians, they’re certainly not incapable of honking away loudly and crudely when being paid to do so.

Besides, what they and the rest of the crew are playing her hardly qualfies as jazz, but rather somebody’s idea of what cutting edge Black Rhythm Music sounds like… circa early 1947 that is.

Therein lies the problem. It’s not pop or jazz, allowing us to dismiss Cherry Wine altogether for that reason, but instead it’s masquerading as rock just enough to place the onus back on Lewis since his vocals are now adhering to the 20 proof track.

He’s lively, but a little too bouncy as he speeds through this in an almost cheerful fashion that seems to contradict his own lyrics. He’s bemoaning his girlfriend dumping him over his drinking habits, then goes on to say that he’s basically becoming a full-fledged drunkard rather than just somebody who ties one on every now and then. However, rather than embody that by either delivering this as if he were happily sloshed, maybe slurring his words or singing as if he’s got a stupid grin on his face while his eyes are half-mast, OR failing that choosing to convey his plight with genuine regret, realizing he’s throwing his life away for a perpetual buzz, he sounds perfectly content.

He might as well be telling us about the tomatoes he grew in his garden or the clear picture he got on his television set to watch Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on Your Show Of Shows last Saturday night.

Lewis always sings well, so that in of itself isn’t the problem. As such he sells the song better than he sells whatever mindset his character inhabits, but he’s not giving us anything compelling beyond merely sounding modestly pleasant.

Things improve slightly during the instrumental break because they actually let him play his guitar and he gives us typically sharp, slightly flashy stinging notes, but even those are restrained in that he’s avoiding aggressive riffs and focusing more on brief melodic passages.

When he starts singing again and raises his voice to drive home the title line and source of his problems, we pass it off as false enthusiasm. He suddenly becomes the kid who is acting drunker than he really is so as to avoid suspicion that he’s not really guzzling it like the rest of us. But we’ve all been around the block a lot more than he has and we can tell he’s been dumping half that wine in the potted plant which surely is having more real fun than Lewis is.


It Throws Me Down And Picks Me Up
Though he’s only in his early 20’s, we might as well admit that Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis is never going to be the artist we want him to be.

Some people are just born underachievers and that description fits Lewis as well as anyone. Blessed with rare gifts, he’s consistently squandered them and hasn’t even benefitted commercially from adhering to that toned-down approach as he may have been led to believe would happen by labels like RCA who encouraged him to tread lightly rather than rock hard.

In life our frustration is reserved for those we like and have such high hopes for because when they don’t live up to our expectations we feel almost personally betrayed even though it wasn’t fair of us to place that burden on their shoulders in the first place.

Cherry Wine, even with its drawbacks, is still good enough to enjoy, still contains brief flashes of that guitar skill we admire and still features a talented singer in good voice on a song he wrote about a topic we appreciate.

But while that ensures we won’t pan the record it doesn’t mean we’ll heartily recommend it either. Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis may be excused for not delivering what we yearn to see from him each time out, a deal he didn’t sign up for, but when it comes to grading rock records as a whole our expectations always have to be met, if not surpassed, for us to truly sing their praises and that’s when we’re free to criticize him for failing to reach his potential.


(Visit the Artist page of Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)