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REGAL 3326; JUNE 1951



Though this project primarily is an overview of rock history as a whole, it also serves as a history of individual artists as we encounter most of them every few weeks or months and get to chart their individual progress as it relates to the genre as a whole.

With the big names we see their inevitable rise, watch as they ride that crest as long as possible and then, usually when new competitors arrive on the scene bringing with them their own stylistic innovations which move to the forefront, those once mighty stars begin to dim and eventually fade away.

At the same time there are countless lesser names just struggling to hang on from one release to the next, hoping something might break through just enough to keep them employed. When they inevitably disappear there are few at the time who would even note their absence.

Then there are artists like Joan Shaw who impressed on her debut as a rocker in 1949 but quickly headed into pop circles on a major label where she’s spent the last year. Is she back in our neighborhood today because she failed in those circles despite a hefty push by the company, or does she actually have something notable to contribute in our stomping grounds?


You Were Meant For Me
The career of Joan Shaw is one of the more interesting ones to consider, primarily because of her genre hopping.

When guesting as a vocalist for sax star Paul Williams on He Knows How To Hucklebuck she showed that she could handle the specific requirements of rock ‘n’ roll without much trouble – and it became her only hit record in a long career – but even that seemed to be something of a one-off assignment from the start, as she’d been an aspiring jazz singer who had loftier ambitions than the chitlin circuit that rock was bound to travel.

When she was signed by MGM Records soon after it was with the intent on making her a pop star, an admirable concept in theory for there weren’t too many black female pop singers on the radar at the time this side of Sarah Vaughan. Even those who had gained some across the board respect such as Ella Fitzgerald had merely grown too big for the jazz environs they had dominated for years.

But Shaw’s attempts at pop, while decent enough efforts, found no takers and after her stint with the label was up may have had little choice but to head back to the indie record labels who were more comfortable cutting rock ‘n’ roll.

So that’s where we find her, at Regal Records, trying to reconnect with us on Pretty Eyed Baby, a record which certainly sounds like a fit in rock, yet upon closer inspection you’ll find it has somewhat twisted stylistic roots.

To the casual music fan of 1951 this was a pop song that was currently selling on the basis of the Jo Stafford and Frankie Laine rendition, one of several versions on the market throughout the spring and summer.

The song itself though was done first in 1947 by a black group Bill Johnson and His Musical Notes in a manner that finds itself caught between styles – a little jazz, a little cocktail blues trio, a little pop and maybe, if you strain your eyes hard enough, a little of what would soon go into rock ‘n’ roll.

With the other versions on the market all aiming fo pop circles it was only natural that Shaw head in another direction that might get them some sales. Since jazz’s commercial bang had largely been silenced, that left rock ‘n’ roll as their obvious destination.

You’re The Cutest One
Just to wrap up the lineage of the song itself, it actually dates back further than 1947 but it was known under a different name.

Mary Lou Williams, one of the more acclaimed songwriters of the day, had written it as Satchelmouth Baby in 1942 with none other than Bill Johnson in her group. It was only natural that when he went out on his own and was in need of material he’d reach back into his past and grab a familiar tune. Of course he changed the title and reputedly the arrangement in order to get composing credit which led to a legal fight.

There had been a lot of versions of it under the original name over the years but when Johnson changed the title and lyrics to the more acceptable Pretty Eyed Baby that’s when it drew more pop interest which is what led, in a roundabout way, to the once aspiring pop singer Joan Shaw to return to rock and cut her version with jazz trumpeter/vocalist Billy Ford.

The unique backgrounds of both participants is fitting for a song that had been through the wash in so many styles and truthfully which style you associate this with might have as much to do with your mindset as what you actually hear.

The rock elements are made fairly obvious in the sax solo which adds a nice rhythmic groove to the song even as Ford’s trumpet echoes it throughout. The clickity-clack drumming however is nowhere near strong enough for the song to be a strong contender for rock acclaim.

But it’s obviously the vocals, particularly of Shaw who handles the bulk of this, which are going to be the final determinant for its place on the music spectrum as well as its quality within that realm and she’s fairly impressive all things considered. The melody carried by that horn behind the vocals is catchy enough and if the composition itself is pretty slight – “You’re so sweet walking down the street” I believe is found on page three of How To Write A Song in Seven Easy Lessons – the delivery she uses doesn’t try and mask the simplicity of it, but rather plays into it in a lighthearted way.

She’s a little sassy, a little coy, a little flirtatious and in the end it adds up to be a little alluring… kind of like somebody who catches your eye (or ear) that you first think isn’t worth your attention but you find yourself checking her out repeatedly until you’re almost hooked.

ALMOST hooked. Not fully, because as nice as she sounds sparring with Ford who delivers mostly the rejoinders to her with a few exceptions, there’s more personality here than depth. I suppose that can’t really be helped because of the nature of the song, but it does make this more of a passing trifle than a consequential recording, either for rock or for her career.


Can’t You See?
Shaw stuck with Ford for the rest of the year cutting one more session for a different label which we’ll get to in due time, but despite her natural talents she’s shaping up to be a rather vexing artist to try and keep tabs on.

She definitely knows how to handle a song though and the effortless vibe she gives off on is its strongest selling point. Her home state of Virginia threw their support behind the local girl made good as this reached the regional charts there, but while it got her some bookings the record itself didn’t do much business elsewhere.

Still, there’s no question that Shaw can sing well no matter the style, it’s just a pity that the ceiling on this particular song wasn’t very high.

While she arguably gets all she can out of it that’s still not enough to really make an impact in rock which has long since moved beyond these kinds of perky weightless songs, however much rhythmic sway they inject back into it for our needs.


(Visit the Artist page of Joan Shaw for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)