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ATLANTIC 884; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

More than other style of music rock ‘n’ roll performers are always trying to craft a singular identity, something that will come to serve as an easy reference point to their career.

Establishing a definite image eliminates a lot of the ambiguity when it comes to guaranteeing a response from audiences. Find what you do best, then do it repeatedly until you’ve attracted a enough of a fan base to consistently support you, and THEN you can branch out stylistically because you’ve earned their trust.

But therein lies the key – you first need to establish who you are, what you stand for, what persona you want to project and have that be widely known and accepted before you can deviate much from it.

Which is why Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis is failing to move up the ladder of success in rock ‘n’ roll, because the very image he’s looking for and which he is entirely capable of projecting at will is being curiously muffled on each and every release. As a result in late 1949 after two and a half years in the business he is still an artist without an identity and consequently he remains an artist without an appreciable fan base despite his many talents and some pretty decent records along the way.
 

 

How Long Will It Be
With all of these tenor sax led instrumentals coming out – sometimes around here it seems as if every other release fits that description – it might not appear to be the best time to try and make headway with something outside of that realm like showcasing the electric guitar, an instrument still looking for widespread commercial acceptance in any field outside of pure blues.

Though we’ve seen more and more guitarists coming along in rock the last year, led by the dynamic Goree Carter who is setting precedents with his axe each time you turn around, those guys noticeably aren’t getting hits out of it in the process. The instrument, for whatever reason be it the aggressive sound, the different sonic texture it possesses, or a just a lack of familiarity with listeners which is preventing the audience from instantly connecting it with the still nascent style in their minds, is proving to be quite an obstacle to overcome.

Even Tiny Grimes, arguably the most technically skilled guitarist of the day regardless of genre and one with some name recognition to boot, is sharing the spotlight on all of his records with tenor sax honker Red Prysock. In a way his brawny horn is acting almost as the musical bouncer at the rough and tumble joint across the tracks where rock ‘n’ roll thrives, thereby allowing Grimes access to the club. But needing to slip in the back door to be accepted is hardly the most promising news for someone who’s been intrigued by the sounds they’ve heard these groundbreaking rock guitarists make so far.

Grimes at least has something to fall back on in case he – or his instrument of choice – never gets welcomed with open arms into rock ‘n’ roll, as he could easily return to jazz and carve out a good living and get plenty of acclaim for his work. But those younger guys like Carter who are just starting out and who’ve already rejected the more hospitable blues pastures in order to try and make a go of it in the rockier terrain on this side of the divide are facing a very real dilemma – how long do you keep at something that is showing little in the way of commercial returns?

If you’re Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis, a precocious teenager who is already one of the best guitarists to be found, the answer apparently is – not very long.
 

How It Hurts Me So
This is hardly something that was to be expected for a myriad of reasons, starting with the fact that there is no species in the universe more headstrong than an 18 year old kid. If Jimmy Lewis was bound and determined to cut loose on his guitar on each and every side he recorded there’s probably not much any record label signing him could do to stop it, short of binding his arms to his sides with rope.

Yet here on How Long Blues, his first release with Atlantic Records, his guitar is but an afterthought. Did he decide not to play much, or was it his new employers who inexplicably determined it might be best NOT to let him showcase his best talent right out of the gate?

Which brings us to reason number two why this decision is so bewildering, namely what can they possibly offer that is a better bet to draw notice for a kid still seeking is first hit… and still seeking to create that identity that will set him apart from everybody else?

The answer of course is nothing. That’s not to say “Baby Face” Lewis was without other promising attributes – he wrote all of his own songs, he was a pretty decent vocalist and a good looking kid who easily could become something of a heartthrob for female listeners – but it’s just that he possessed one indisputable skill that set him apart, something tailor made to get him NOTICED in the first place… and that was he played a scintillating wild and viscous guitar.

Except he doesn’t play wild, or viscous, or even particularly riled up on this song, or its flip All Night Lover Blues for that matter, which leads you to wonder what the hell Atlantic Records even signed him up for. Why buy a high-powered sports car to drive three blocks to the grocery store once a week? Why wear tailor made suits just to veg out on the couch eating cheese doodles watching TV all day? Why employ the best chefs in the world just to work at a fast food joint serving cheeseburgers and french fries?

Or why recruit an artist who can create fireworks with his guitar and then have him strum inconsequential chords buried deep in the mix?

So since we’ve already critiqued the glaring drawbacks of How Long Blues in such a way as to make the rest of the review all but inessential, or at best anti-climatic, what do you say we spend the next few hundred words attempting to see the positives in what he’s left us with?

It sure beats putting on your best suit and flopping on the couch to watch re-runs while sending your expensive sports car out to pick up cheeseburgers and fries.
 
 

 

Thinking About My Baby
The first sound we hear… is a guitar.

How’s that for misleading you?

Before you get your hopes up it’s an acoustic guitar and Lewis is only lightly strumming the instrument. The song is slow and subdued so it fits the mood being set, but there are other moods to choose from that would allow for him to actually do more than lazily keep time.

But enough about what he DOESN’T do, let’s focus on what he does put forth, which somewhat surprisingly makes the whole thing worthwhile almost in spite of itself.

How Long Baby is another downhearted lament, the kind of which has made up the bulk of the slower numbers in the rock arsenal over the first two full years. We’ve said how these kind of songs were necessary to offset the more rambunctious party anthems and the rousing testaments to life in the fast lane. Although that remains true – then as well as today – it does seem that a lot of the artists at the time had sort of a one-track mind when it came to balladry wherein every guy seemed to be on the brink of suicide after a break-up. For a style that relied so much on braggadocio on the uptempo sides, it’s amazing that the same artists were so fragile whenever they had to deal with any adversity.

But that said, Lewis delivers this perfectly. His voice is incredibly delicate and expressive here, his breath control in expressing his despair is particularly good, as he never quite descends into a sob but seems on the brink of breaking down for much of the performance even as he somehow manages to stay tenuously in control.

Unlike the gospel-bred Roy Brown or Andrew Tibbs, who ramp up the emotionalism to extremes to make their anguish known, or the pained confusion of Sonny Til which conveys his character’s lack of life experience in the songs, Lewis comes across as someone legitimately grappling with feelings more powerful than he expected here. That doesn’t necessarily make him sympathetic, he’s still whining far too much for us to feel comfortable with, but it’s pretty effective for the material and shows him to be an even more promising vocalist than we may have given him credit for.

The lyrics aren’t bad either. There’s nothing special about them, the general sentiments are pretty cut and dried, but he manages to throw in some interesting details along the way which gives you added reason to pay attention rather than just assume he’s reciting a roll call of the usual complaints that have been featured in so many of these types of songs. So far he’s two for two at the plate, neither one an extra base hit maybe, but he’s on base for someone else to drive in… that is if the supporting players are up to snuff.
 

I Can’t Understand It Myself
We’ve already said how his guitar gets kept under wraps here, something which still makes no sense whatsoever from a conceptual standpoint when it comes to establishing his persona to the public, but even if he had been allowed to play it with more conviction he’d still need the help of others to ensure this was a well-rounded performance. So that’s why we’re happy to say that what takes its place in the arrangement is something entirely predictable – yeah, a saxophone – but also entirely fitting… dare I say even MORE fitting than his guitar would’ve been for this type of song.

At times it sounds like an alto rather than a tenor but we have no session info beyond Ernie Freeman on piano to be able to know for sure. Whoever it is they’re creating a haunting atmosphere with how its played, almost like a musical illusion of a rain streaked window at night refracting the neon lights of the city through its spider-webbed design.

There’s no rough sounds to be heard anywhere on this record, no honks or shrieks or squeals to turn your head, even the solo sounds as if its straining to break free without possessing the determination to do so by design.

But it’s the best feature of How Long Baby, taking what might’ve otherwise been a run-of-the-mill plea for love and turning it into a surprisingly deep mood piece for such a young kid to handle. The entire band is completely sympathetic, the two entities are in sync throughout this and though hardly containing a singular moment to turn your head there’s not anything that’s played that could be called out of place.

Within this delicate framework Lewis shows real maturity here, delivering an element of emotional grittiness when faced with the darker flip-side of romance. Wouldn’t it be a bracing act of confidence to have set out to do this from the start, not wanting to rely on his greatest weapon to pull himself up off the canvas yet again? If so maybe our criticisms were a little hasty, even if the general argument remains unassailable.
 

Put It On The Shelf
Which fittingly brings us back around to the lead-in for this review, the part about trying to establish an identity that can be built upon with subsequent releases as well as serve as a drawing card for his live gigs. The fact of the matter is, no matter HOW good How Long Baby may be, both in conception and execution (and for the record as evidenced by the score below it’s quite good), it’s not entirely sensible from the standpoint of providing either Lewis, Atlantic Records or the audience the most bang for your buck.

Even if this were to become a hit, the way the record industry of this era was it’d mean you’d likely be chasing more hits in the same style which would keep his guitar on the shelf for far too long. The addition of his volatile playing on subsequent records would be a sound that was downright alarming to those who’d bought and enjoyed this, potentially scaring them off altogether, whereas if they’d courted listeners with his most incendiary sides first, then something like this would be a more acceptable change of pace.

Furthermore on its own at first listen How Long Baby wasn’t going to forcibly grab your attention. This type of song requires multiple spins to really make a deep impression whereas something more explosive knocks you on your ass the moment it blasts out of the speakers. Those records might not be MORE likely to score on the charts, but they sure as hell were more likely to be noticed and that in turn leads those who did hear it to seek out his next record and maybe to turn others onto it as well. That’s how you gain a word of mouth reputation that can only help you in the long run… just ask Big Jay McNeely. That type of brash exhibitionism – whether sax or guitar – also builds anticipation for live gigs when you want to see if Lewis can duplicate – if not surpass – something that was so explosive on wax once he’s on the stage.

Most of all though we’re at the point in rock’s evolution where the field is a crowded one and you need a way to stand out. Considering the success artists have had with saxophones unleashing their fury on listeners then it stands to reason that finding another instrument capable of doing the same thing but in a different way would be worth exploring, especially when you have the guy who is more than willing and able to do so sitting in the studio, guitar in hand.

As much as I like this record, as promising as it was for Lewis’s long-term viability as a creative artist, it wasn’t his best chance for stardom and as we know all too well stardom is what allows you to have unlimited opportunities to keep recording.

Songs like these on the other hand, as good as they may be, have a tendency to get lost in the shuffle. How Long Baby would’ve made a killer B-side to something that sought to tear your speakers to shreds but as it is without an established identity to draw us in you weren’t even assured of noticing this unobtrusively playing off to the side.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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