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The commercial turning point for Joe Morris last year came about when he surveyed the rock scene and found somebody successful to emulate.

That person was Johnny Otis, another non-singing bandleader whose good fortune had been to find a couple of vocalists to front his records. Little Esther and Mel Walker were the most successful of them and so Morris followed suit with Laurie Tate, who got him his first chart topper, and Billy Mitchell who on this record gets a track that might just as well have come from Otis’s hand.

That this one didn’t work – commercially or creatively – shows that while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it’s not necessarily always the surest route to long-term success.


If You Ain’t Coming Back Home
Though the records of Johnny Otis, regardless of who was handling the lead vocal duties, were known for their diversity from one song to the next when it came to instrumentation – some featuring saxophones, others showcasing sinewy guitars or barrelhouse pianos – there was often a very distinct vibe to them all that was unmistakable.

Or should we say very distinct “vibes”, as in Otis’s own vibraphone which he turned to after damaging his hand in an accident which forced him to give up his seat behind the drum kit.

This was not a typical instrument for rock but Johnny found ways to adapt the sound and made it a calling card for his work, lending an exotic feel to the records which made the job of Walker or Esther easier because the mood was always recognizable to fans.

There are no vibraphones on Joe Morris’s Verna Lee but you’ll do a double take when you hear it because they appear to be there, lurking in the mix. In actuality it’s the treble keys of Elmo Pope’s piano which are not being tasked with carrying the melodic thread but to add accent notes in between the cracks which is the same role that Otis’s vibes always took on.

Making the connection even more unmistakable is how Morris entrusts the guitar (NOT Roy Gaines, as we’ve pointed out before, despite what some online credits claim) with giving the record an after-hours blues club feel that Pete Lewis had long made a mainstay of Otis’s work.

So while the game plan itself is fairly cut and dried, Morris has three problems he can’t escape in his attempt. The first issue is that the model for this approach has already gotten stale, even within Otis’s camp. Their greatest success with these distinct components came about more than a year earlier which is an eternity in the rock singles era.

The second and third problems though are even more insurmountable in that neither Mitchell or the song itself are nearly as good as who and what they’re trying to emulate.


Took All My Money And Ran Away From Me
Maybe another underlying flaw here is that we’ve heard a lot of songs tackle the same broad subject of a guy complaining about a girl – who we never do get to meet – who has done him wrong.

It’s not that we’re not sympathetic to his plight, but we’re hardly surprised by the accusations, even though in the case of the duplicitous Verna Lee she seems to have taken some of these actions to the extreme.

As a result we can never be too invested in the story since we already know the outline before the first line is out of Billy Mitchell’s mouth and we know the solution to his dilemma is to simply turn and walk away with the realization that some women are not worth the time, trouble or trauma of trying to navigate a relationship fraught with such obstacles as these.

But even if the picture being painted was a little more compelling from a narrative standpoint, the framework it’s using is beginning to show signs of wear. The slow pace that is meant to build tension comes across as a delaying tactic to not have to reveal all of the pertinent details too early which also has the unfortunate side effect of depriving the song of any any catchy hooks.

Lastly Mitchell’s being forced to carry too much of the weight of the record and unlike Mel Walker who excels with a languid pace, Mitchell is far better when he can showcase the flexibility of his voice with a good melody to ride, something he never gets the chance to do here.

While there are a few nice guitar licks found within and the band is restrained for the most part as Morris and the rest of the horns only get a brief showcase in the intro to keep this focused, there’s nothing about it that is really memorable… nor intended to be.

It’s a pastiche with slightly inferior components taken from a hit sound already out of style.

Send My Money Back
If you want to be kind and say that Joe Morris was merely getting this kind of thing out of his system before moving on to something more original, we won’t dispute you on that point. It was cut back in April and held over nearly seven months which doesn’t exactly help it to sound fresh either.

But the truth is that for all of the verifiable success Morris had in adapting someone else’s artistry to his own cause, this was bound to be a creative dead end in the long run. You need to find your own niche to make a name for yourself and Verna Lee was more of an ode to somebody else than a form of genuine self-expression on Morris’s part.

While it’s only a B-side and therefore nothing to get too alarmed about, its failure to draw any interests suggests we’ve reached another transition point in Morris’s career. Now for the third time since leaving Lionel Hampton’s band for rock ‘n’ roll he’ll need to look elsewhere if he’s going to remain a major player on the scene for much longer.

He hasn’t failed to do so yet, but how many reinventions does one artist have in them?


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