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ATLANTIC 901; MARCH, 1950

 
 

 

One of the inherent difficulties in these reviews, or really any study of the past from a vantage point in the future, is that we already know the real-world outcome of what we’re analyzing.

For the most part around here we try to ignore future events so as to keep the records that are coming out perserved in the context of the times in which they appeared, but where we run into problems is when an artist’s narrative is set early on and the steps needed to unlock their potential remain plainly obvious to us but not to them.

With Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis, an immensely talented individual whose abilities were constantly being shortchanged by record companies, we keep addressing the problem knowing all the while it will never be adequately solved at any stop along the way.

Like the rest of his output this record isn’t necessarily the solution to his dilemma but it is an important reminder as to why we’re willing to stick it out with Lewis, believing in him to the bitter end, even as we know all too well how the story will play out and leave us all wanting more.
 

 

Right By Your Door
The systematic failure behind the inability to unlock Lewis’s career – as I’m sure regular readers are weary of having us remind them – is the fact that most of the record companies he’s been associated with have yet to fully understand how vital his guitar was to his style.

When starting off at Aladdin back in 1947 as a 16 year old he was allowed to showcase it more than he has since but that came at a time when rock itself was only just appearing on the horizon and the attributes he was able to deliver with the instrument weren’t seen as being in demand once rock began to take shape with saxophones, pianos and drums leading the charge.

Ever since – at Savoy, Manor and now Atlantic – he was forced to downplay his guitar, if not put it aside altogether, to adhere to their views of what sold. Yet Lewis’s records without the guitar being featured didn’t sell much either which shows you how wrong their assessment of the marketplace was at the time.

Now it’s not as if the electric guitar was in any position yet to challenge the tenor sax for supremacy in rock, but since Lewis himself didn’t play sax, and none of the horns those companies brought in were up to the task of setting those records apart either, that sort of makes their decisions all the more suspect. At least if Lewis was allowed to cut loose with his axe they’d have been able to use that to craft a reliable image for him going forward.

Instead we have a very malleable Lewis from one record to the next, singing well, often with some glimmer of creativity in the writing aspect, but without a signature sound to hang his hat on.

On Mailman Blues that unfortunate trend continues, but at least the first sounds we DO hear pouring from the speakers is Lewis’s guitar. Granted it’s not played with any ferocity or harsh tones to make us sit up and take notice, but at least he’s being allowed to plug it in for a change and at this point that has to be seen as a moral victory if nothing else.

But while the guitar quickly steps aside for other – less impressive – musicians, the song itself actually gives Lewis a pretty solid base from which to try and resuscitate his career.
 

 

 

What You Gonna Do?
After Lewis’s slack-tuned intro and back and forth exchange with the sax, energetic but not very full sounding, the vocals come roaring in. They’re a little TOO frantic probably, sounding as if Jimmy is almost out of breath, but the energy is appropriate when you take into account his perspective.

Mailman Blues gives us an overeager suitor reaching out to a girl to show he’s interested and in the days before texting this required a stamp and the assistance of the United States Postal Service.

Yet rather than play it cool and wait for his letter to reach the girl in question and then allow her to process the contents of his message and decide whether to reply or to chuck it in the trash, Lewis is so impatient that he races over to her house on foot to find out for himself what her response will be.

Keep in mind that Lewis is still a teenager and that factors heavily into his actions within the song. At that age patience is certainly NOT a virtue and a slightly older and wiser hand at relationships would be able to tell him that he’s not only lessening his chances for hooking up with this girl by laying all of his cards on the table at once, but then compounding his mistake by being so anxious to find out his fate that he’s coming across as desperate.

Yet that’s part of its charm too, or at least it’s what makes this so authentic. Because Lewis is just a kid it means he’s two parts boundless enthusiasm mixed with two parts starry eyed optimism and – on a good day – just one part measured restraint.

That’s not exactly a good balance when trying to get a girlfriend but on a record that’s showing how overeager he is to get said girlfriend it works to his advantage. Lewis is practically giddy with anticipation, something highlighted by the scream he elicits in the brief sax break, almost as he’s on the brink of losing his mind, and he rolls along with a determination that may be either admirable or delusional but is never less than modestly endearing.
 

Let’s Get It Fixed
Because there’s a lot of small touches Lewis offers that are appealing – the multiple stop-time count offs for instance which give this an added schoolyard vibe where his zeal is barely able to be harnessed – it’s a shame the recording itself doesn’t seem to have been better planned.

The instrumental mix is awfully murky which rather surprising to hear, for even at this early stage of Atlantic Records they had better than average fidelity once Tommy Dowd took on main engineering duties. Mailman Blues however sounds as if the musicians were in the hallway rather than in the studio, as none of the instruments are mic’d properly which is a pity because the drummer for one is quite energetic with a rare solo for his efforts, and if the screams in the background are any indication the band was fully engaged during the session.

Even so there are flaws in the execution at times, from the far too dainty Ernie Freeman piano interlude to the saxophone which gets the primary responsorial duties in the song. Its ensuing solo starts off well with some scorching notes before drifting into irrelevance with a breezy sound that doesn’t match Lewis’s fervor and is emblematic of the conflict in their stylistic direction.

But where we find a measure of solace is with the all-too rare opportunity to hear Lewis deliver a guitar solo – and an extended one at that – which highlights the second half of the record. He starts off with some stray notes in response to the battering drums then gives us a nifty hesitation move before stepping into the spotlight and ripping off some great lines showcasing his fleet fingers and his melodic inventiveness.

Yet as much as it confirms Lewis’s skills on the instrument, and as good as it sounds in isolation, it’d sound even better if it the levels had been cranked up on the mixing board, sending the arrangement over the edge where the musicians themselves intended it to be.

My guess is that was what had happened and that’s why the entire track is much fainter than it should be. When they captured what was heard on the floor they feared it might alienate listeners not used to such pyrotechnics and so they overcompensated by adjusting the levels too much, relegating the band to an all too faint backing role when in reality they should’ve been in the forefront all along.
 

I Can’t Wait
As a result of their timidity we’re left with a record that is both a good example of Jimmy “Baby Face” Lewis’s best attributes… and of the industry’s worst attributes, namely their conservatism.

Whether this was done to keep Mailman Blues from sounding like a jailbreak put to wax or whether it was simply a lack of understanding of the changing aesthetic demands of the rock audience which was growing more receptive to over-the-top displays in the name of musical anarchy the end result is a mixed bag.

On one hand it’s entirely possible to pick out all of the elements which if properly utilized would transform Lewis into a star, from his natural exuberance to his appealing vocals with their shifting tones, to his deft guitar wizardry which should’ve been his calling card.

Yet on the other hand we see that nobody quite knew what to make of it all just yet and when Lewis himself seemed unable, or unwilling, to fight for his artistic freedom we’re stuck with a record that was better than most of what he’d released to date, yet still quite clearly not all it might’ve been.

Chalk it up to another delivery marked “Postage Due”.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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