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In something as vast as rock history it’s easy sometimes to forget certain figures, no matter how talented they may be, if they fail to connect with the public right out of the gate.

While an initial lack of interest might be the result of either poor distribution, no name recognition, poor publicity or even being too far ahead of the curve for people to intuitively grasp, when the commercial drought continues with each subsequent release then all but the most enraptured cultist tends to move on.

Three years after his debut as a precocious 16 year old, Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis’s career was shaping up to be one of those destined for obscurity even though his talents were still apparent for anyone who bothered to listen.


Growing Tired Of Me
It’s been five months since we last met up with Lewis back in October of 1949 and in that time he hasn’t really been missed. Let’s face it, by the dawn of 1950 there were so many rock acts churning out records and so many hits and stars among them that the prolonged absence of someone yet to find their niche wasn’t going to be seen as very significant.

Even within the offices of Atlantic Records, where Lewis now found himself after bouncing around a couple of labels, there seemingly was no anxious anticipation for his next single as the company was far too busy trying to break Ruth Brown’s recent dry spell – three separate releases for her since Lewis’s last record – and pushing their newest signee Professor Longhair instead. Heck, Atlantic even managed to issue singles on their departed stars Joe Morris and Tiny Grimes since Lewis was last heard from and in their March trade ads Lewis was listed as an also-ran by the company, hardly a reassuring sign for his prospects.


But it’s not just the lack of new output that was concerning for Lewis’s career as much as it was the misguided direction everybody seemed to be steering him in when it came to material and arrangements. Yes, he was still firmly positioned as a rock ‘n’ roller, but they were downplaying his greatest natural attributes – his youthful energy and his incredible guitar playing – and instead were having him conform to a more generic approach.

I’m So Good To You is more evidence of this. Loosely modeled on other songs nearly a decade old (Gatemouth Moore most specifically who took his from the remnants of a Buddy Johnson cut from 1942) Lewis again finds himself handcuffed by an old school mindset even though the arrangement itself has been modestly updated.

But instead of hurtling into the future at a reckless speed that befits his age and outlook on life, Baby Face Lewis was almost being thought of as someone ready to ease into the retirement home.

Careful What You Do
The idea of reconfiguring older songs for newer styles is hardly a novel concept in rock ‘n’ roll. In fact these periodic revivals are vital in forming a more durable connective tissue between eras and genres to ensure there’s not complete upheavals in listening habits every few years.

But the key to making them work when borrowing something from the past is actually placing it firmly in the present. To do this effectively you have to abandon the outdated elements while injecting the most distinctive character traits from the newer style so as to leave no doubt as to its residency.

I’m So Good To You changes some of the trappings – the title for instance, which in Johnson’s, Moore’s, even Count Basie’s rendition from three years back was some form of I Ain’t Mad At You – but keeps it tied to a quasi-hipster delivery that dates it immediately. Rockers just don’t sing that way and for good reason, primarily because it was so established elsewhere you’d never be able to carve out your own identity by adopting it.

Though he’s facing an uphill battle here, if you can look past the window dressing that starts with the hoary sounding horn intro we’re treated – however briefly – to an all too rare sighting of Lewis’s guitar. Though it’s far too underutilized overall once again he’s at least getting a chance to subtly add it to the mix, off-setting those horns to a degree before his vocals come in.

When he does start singing in that ridiculous patter your hopes sink however. His voice is alluring but his delivery is not… that is until he seems to realize he’s at risk for attracting the parents of the teenage girls in the audience rather than the girls themselves and he gradually starts to tear off the restraints, even shouting at times which no doubt caused those in the studio to wonder if he was having some sort of seizure.

But while the enthusiasm itself is admirable the lackluster support behind him doesn’t add to that feeling he’s trying to create and so he’s unable to build to the emotional crescendo the song needs. It sounds as if no matter how hard he pulls on one end of the rope the band is stubbornly yanking him back with all of their might on the opposite end of that rope and that just means no one wins this stylistic tug-of-war.

Don’t You Lie To Me
The problem is conceptual by nature for there were ways in which even this idea could’ve been made to work better if anybody had been thinking of just who their intended audience actually was at this point. It never was going to be a game-changer for Lewis no matter what they did with this type of stagnant material but at least they could’ve gotten it to sound more current with some simple tweaking.

The most obvious alteration would be to ramp up excitement from the start. I’ll Be Good To You does indeed get more rambunctious down the stretch, which not coincidentally is when it raises its game overall, but most of the first half has a jazz-based mindset of keeping within the painted lines and thus requires you to get excited by the technical precision which was substituting for a more potent emotional release. Maybe that’d work in 1945 but not in 1950 and certainly not in rock ‘n’ roll.

Roy Brown’s sax man Leroy “Batman” Rankins is guesting on this, at least Lewis calls out “Batman” before the solo (maybe it was just a ruse to get us to think this was the case, although Rankins wasn’t exactly a household name), and yet it’s hardly a performance that leaves you gasping for breath. He’s doodling more than honking and while there’s a few grittier lines thrown in towards the end the overall impression is that it was merely a good enough approximation of a typical sax madman to let them feel as though they’d covered their bases in that regard.

The more unforgivable sin however is the absence of Lewis’s guitar for most of it. Granted the electric guitar has yet to become the centerpiece of many rock outfits but most rock outfits don’t have Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis in their midst, a kid who could wield that thing like a weapon of mass destruction. Had they opened this with him delivering a forceful riff and had him play some edge-of-your-seat jagged chords early on it’d have changed the mood of the song and would give this an identity it’s sorely lacking.

Only the unnamed drummer provides any real excitement and even that is kept well in the background. Lewis himself does his best to convince us of his enthusiasm vocally but when the band is only half-heartedly going along with the program then nobody is going to believe their exuberance was genuine. As a result it’s another wasted effort for someone who was in desperate need of a record to fully establish himself to the public.


I Need Consolation
There are few criticisms that carry as much sting as the word ”underachiever”, for that implies the person involved was talented enough to become successful but it was their own lack of focus or determination that did them in.

But with Lewis that hardly seems to be the case for at most of his stops along the way he’s been forced to keep his phallic guitar in his pants for the most part while they try and come up with long-in-the-tooth alternatives for whipping things into a frenzy.

You can tell he wants to take a more frenzied approach on I’m So Good To You but without the right firepower behind him he’s got little chance of doing much damage with just his voice alone.

It may be too much to ask each record label to be visionary enough to peer into the future and intuitively grasp the sounds of tomorrow, but when all four record labels he’s been associated with have continually kept their sights fixed firmly on the past with his output then it’s kind of hard to place the blame for Lewis’s faltering career entirely on his shoulders.


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