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Welcome to Phase Two of the plan to turn rock bandleader Joe Morris into the East Coast version of Johnny Otis, replete with multiple vocalists to carry out the roles so brilliantly played by Little Esther and Mel Walker (among others) over the past year.

It’s hard to argue with the concept as Otis wracked up more hits – by far – than any rock act during that time giving Savoy Records and their subsidiary Regent so many releases that it essentially bankrolled their entire operation. Why wouldn’t other companies see the benefit in trying the same thing with another talented bandleader?

The first phase of this worked to perfection too as Laurie Tate delivered a #1 hit her very first time out with Morris last summer and then followed that up with another Top Ten hit just recently. But with Tate on the verge of departing music altogether Morris needs not only to establish a male vocalist to take on the Walker role, but to do so quickly to give him more time to find another female singer to replace Tate.

That’s a helluva lot of pressure on to put on the shoulders of a nineteen year old kid making his first appearance on record.


You Got Too Much To Lose
So just who IS this singer being tasked with such an assignment?

That would be Billy Mitchell who – not to spoil the plot or anything before we even get started – doesn’t wind up getting any hits out of his year long partnership with Morris, a fact which might have you surmise that this plan was a complete failure, surely a case of Morris overreaching in his – and Atlantic’s – attempt to duplicate the successful Johnny Otis prototype.

But while that may be the official takeaway after seeing the scorecard, the truth is a bit more complex.

Mitchell was a native of Washington D.C. who dropped out of school two years ago to sing professionally. After departing Morris to serve in Korea he got his biggest break when he was drafted to join The Clovers to serve as one of a few replacements for the similarly military-disposed Buddy Bailey as lead singer.

It was supposed to be a temporary role but when Bailey returned Mitchell had made a strong enough impression that he was retained and the group switched off lead vocalists depending on the song into the 1960’s, as a result Mitchell sang lead on some of their biggest and most memorable hits.

While all of that is still to come, what it shows is that Mitchell had definite vocal chops and so it’s hardly surprising why Morris would choose him to act as his version of Mel Walker. They have different strengths as singers, Walker’s sleepy baritone brought undercurrents to his performances that were often more effective than the lyrics, and Morris and company seem to understand that Mitchell wasn’t suited to be a Walker imitator. So instead they head off in other stylistic directions including – unfortunately – a pure pop song approach on the flip.

My Love, My Desire was written by company founder Ahmet Ertegun and shows that even as his fortunes were rising exponentially with rock ‘n’ roll he was still not entirely convinced of its long term potential and was seeking to appeal to a much different audience. The song itself is pretty bad, though at times Mitchell manages to inject some soulfulness into it that clearly wasn’t intended if the supper club piano and dreary horns are any indication.

But on Pack Up All Your Rags he fares much better, in part because he wrote the song himself along with Morris, and it finds that while Mel Walker might’ve been the inspiration for signing him to the group, there’s another – equally successful – singer that he resembles which may have been the intent all along.

You’d Do The Same Thing If You Could
Right away this side of the record has a much different, more authentic, vibe than the pop-oriented side does, as it kicks off with Roy Gaines’ bluesy guitar playing a slow meditative line with some slightly distorted chording interludes.

What’s shocking, especially if you know Mitchell’s vocals from later songs (which of course would’ve been impossible when this came out, though if you listened to the other side first it’d still definitely catch you off guard), is how high he’s pitched here.

The first line sounds almost like it’s a female singing before his voice settles in and the lyrics give away it’s a male by what he’s describing. That, combined with the hesitancy in his delivery, adds an incredible amount of tension to what is otherwise a fairly predictable song about a guy telling his girl that he wants her out of the house after they broke up following a fight of some kind.

Mitchell is not angry, nor does he sound hurt over the split, but he is determined to see her leave which removes any ambiguity from the story, as if a song called Pack Up All Your Rags had many loose ends thematically to begin with.

Depending on how good your memory is – or how quickly you can spot the vocal similarities to a song that was a year old at this point – you can see that the idea for this record came from Larry Darnell’s Pack Your Rags And Go. Though that featured a more uptempo pace the plot was the same and Mitchell sounds remarkably like Darnell in his vocal textures for much of this, which may not be the best way to go about building your own reputation.

Once he finds his footing Mitchell’s delivery takes on different shadings, bluesier and less melodramatic than Darnell, but it still sounds like somebody who’s not quite sure of their own direction as an artist yet and so instead of charting his own course he’s borrowing elements from others and trying them on for size.

The parts he chooses are reliable enough, but it never aspires to be anything more than a facsimile of a dozen other records. The story plays out as you’d expect after the scene has been set, the musical interludes – though carried out well enough, especially the slow burn sax solo – come from the standard rock arrangement repitoire and the only brief flash of originality we get is when he adds his own name to the lyrics, but even that may be little more than a calculated attempt to make sure he gets credit should Atlantic decide to release this without putting his name on the label.


Been Runnin ‘Round Here
To their credit they didn’t do that and future associations aside, this might be the most interesting aspect of this record to ponder, as it got issued as by Joe Morris’ Blues Cavalcade, an obvious attempt to brand them in a way that would allow for multiple singers to handle the lead chores without detracting from Morris’s role in the process.

We saw that happen to Otis who nearly became an afterthought for awhile when Little Esther started getting not just the lead credit on singles, but the ONLY credit on the trade paper Top Ten listings. Otis would manage to wrangle back the lead credit on releases by the end of the year but someone here – Morris or Ertegun – seemed determined to not allow any cracks in the machine they hoped to build.

Using that moniker for the outfit helped to sell them on the road by using a name that focused on the one constant on the bill while also promising a wider variety of performers and yet still gave them some flexibility in who would be featured from one record to the next, or even one leg of a tour to the next. If Billy Mitchell didn’t work out, or when Laurie Tate left, they wouldn’t necessarily have to invest as much to build up a newcomer.

As for the record itself, though Pack Up All Your Rags didn’t give them the commercial returns they were hoping for, it wasn’t a bad first effort, just a rather unimaginative one. Mitchell shows he can sing well enough to handle the role, even if he’s doing so here in something other than his natural delivery, enough so that when this was released, obviously having no idea of his future endeavors, you’d at least be interested to hear how he progresses in time if nothing else.

So it’d be unfair to call this a failure, for what might be forgotten is that when Johnny Otis exploded with one huge hit after another by using different singers on his releases in 1950 it only came after a few years of less than successful similar experiments with other vocalists.

Considering Morris already got two hits out of the same idea his first two times out, this one falling short is hardly reason to worry.


(Visit the Artist page of Joe Morris for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)