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EXCLUSIVE 51X; SEPTEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

I suppose it’d be wise to lower our expectations a bit after the unexpected magic of the flip side which formed our introduction to singer Joe Swift and bandleader Johnny Otis, though as was made clear the credits might just as well have been reversed, so vital were the arranging contributions of Otis and the expert skill of his band.

Swift, who’d written the song, certainly wasn’t incidental to its success but his drawbacks – the cotton balls he’d apparently plugged his nose up with before he began singing for one thing, or should that be “for two”, one for each nostril – are really all that kept it from perfection.

Thus it wouldn’t fair to think that Swift would be able to come close to it, let alone match or surpass it on the B-side, would it? I mean let’s be real here. Despite recording with one of the most legendary all-around talents in rock history in Johnny Otis, a man who enjoyed a 70 year career as a musician, singer, drummer, bandleader, talent scout, producer, songwriter, radio host, author, painter, sculptor, chef, politician and minister (am I leaving anything out?), someone whose name recognition remains high even in the 21st century, Swift is never even mentioned in passing when recounting Otis’s saga. And that’s DESPITE writing and singing on the aforementioned That’s Your Last Boogie, which was the first actual national HIT Otis had a hand in that he received label credit for. That can’t bode well for Swift’s own legacy, can it?

So let’s call it what it was, a lightning in a bottle set of circumstances that turned a good song on paper into a great song on wax thanks to the stunning musical arrangement, and admit that Swift got all he could out of his own limited vocal skills and just move on. Maybe it’s not even necessary to cover the B-side. Just let Swift have a bit longer in soaking up the acclaim from that one before we encounter him again and quite possibly tear him back down again when he doesn’t quite have the same support to cover up his flaws.

I’m sure you can see where this is going so I’ll save you another few paragraphs of this purposefully misleading set-up and get right to the point:

Joe Swift surprises again!

He surprises even WITH lowered expectations and a full awareness going in as to his limitations as a singer. And this time it’s not Johnny Otis to the rescue, though Johnny does indeed play on this one as well, nor is the song itself anywhere near as unique its construction as the first side, which was a large part of that one’s appeal.

Yet here we are again, covering a record where the positives outweigh the negatives and that’s knowing what the negatives are to start with and dreading them! In other words he’s beginning this record in a sizeable hole. Like a baseball team coming to the plate in the bottom of the first inning already down five runs Swift has got his hands full just trying to pull even and yet, somehow, someway, he does.
 

Just The Other Day
I suppose though I should say right off that while good, this isn’t nearly as good as That’s Your Last Boogie, just so there’s no misconceptions here.

To start with What’s Your Name doesn’t have that mesmerizing, addicting complex intro that “Boogie” featured.

Whereas on that the first section was all instrumental, fully hooking us before springing the acquired taste vocals of Swift on us, this one by comparison figures we already are well braced for his submerged tones and so they waste no time by dragging out his introduction. In fact he comes in before any music is heard as he moans – or is it bellows – a wordless cry that sounds almost like a badly stereotyped scene for a B-movie jungle flick that you might’ve caught in 1948, complete with natives chopping up carrots for a giant cauldron they were about to cook the blonde-haired virgin in before she was saved by some swashbuckling Anglo-Saxon hero with all the acting skill of a piece of wet cardboard. In other words our already sinking expectations drop lower.

But the funny thing is it actually starts to work. This time out he’s not taking a back seat to Otis and his crew who far outpace, but rather they just settle into a normal righteous groove and keep pace. It’s pretty straight forward in design, no elaborate patterns, no unique textures, no memorable hooks, but also not striving to do too much. Devonia Williams lays down a rock solid rhythm on piano and the horns grind out a credible entirely serviceable riff on top.

Nothing special, but nothing wrong with it either.

Then Swift begins to sing and lo and behold… he still sings through his nose. But not as badly. More like the back of his head rather than throat or chest. So he’s getting closer to the right area at least. But it works.

Maybe it’s the different nature of the song that helps. Whereas in That’s Your Last Boogie he’s confiding in us about the behind-closed-doors affairs of some questionable people before launching into the rousing chorus thereby rendering the first part of that equation a little harsh in his delivery, here he’s supposed to be boisterous throughout, recounting his meeting with a “cool and easy” girl and his crass public come-ons to her.

We can envision this loudmouth making a fool out of himself and embarrassing the girl who’s looking for a friendly store to jump into, or perhaps hoping she’ll see some friends, preferably male friends, to surround her and get her away from him, harmless though he may be. So his tone here is perfectly suitable for the role he’s playing.
 

Sugar, Darling, Sweetheart…
The construct of this song – the theme anyway – is pretty typical stuff for the era. Girls in those days really couldn’t walk far along the rock ‘n’ roll block without being crassly hit upon by every wisecracking out of work bum who somehow still thinks their lack of prospects in life are by choice.

Yet provided you aren’t one of the girls being verbally accosted by these lay-abouts who mistake crudeness for charm the songs they offer up in their feeble attempts to score are usually pretty reliable in terms of enjoyment.

Mix one part rousing horns, another part slinky boogie and top it off with exuberant vocals that offer up a few smirks on the road to being shot down for their obnoxious come-ons and you have a record that’s usually at least worthy of claiming your nickel for the jukebox. They’re rarely exceptional records, they’re limited in their aims and thus limited in their potential as well, but they’re entirely serviceable for what they set out to do which is merely draw attention to themselves and get you moving a little.

Swift hits all the right marks with this, helped by the band but not carried by them either. His lyrics are clever and made more noticeable by how he delivers them (nasal passages aside), particularly the rambling quality he adds to that delivery in the middle, seemingly talking to himself like a crazy man but making perfect sense with his advice, warning about the trap he himself is falling into, yet falling just the same.

The blaring horns that kick off the break keep your spirits up and while none of the solos to follow are particularly noteworthy they also don’t drag it down as we’ve seen happen far too often when the wrong instruments are highlighted. That’s the case here as well (the trumpets, as usual), but they overcome it by keeping their parts reined in, offering staccato fanfare rather than meandering drunkenly all over creation.
 

 

To Me You’re Only Fine
This is a bit of an odd record to try and evaluate. The shortcomings are all too obvious, starting with the singer’s tone, yet he gets by with it because he fails to acknowledge his limitations, too excited – too horny really – to slow down for an instant. The arrangement is merely serviceable but efficient in what it needs to convey in order to keep you moving and it pulls it off with the same lack of awareness that Swift has for how it could be improved. They don’t stand out, but neither do the take a wrong step and derail it.

The lyrics are run-of-the-mill but by giving us what we expect in a reasonably self-assured manner we aren’t bothered by the lack of a big hook or a signature turn of phrase. It all just sounds like it belongs. It’s not the prettiest car to look at, it might not have much power under the hood and gets only mediocre mileage, there are some rust spots on the quarter panels and the interior needs to be vacuumed, but it’s a comfortable ride, one that will get you wherever you’re going.

So focus on what’s good about the car, the fact it’s roomy and the stereo works, and just grab a bunch of your buddies and tell them to climb in and take a road trip. Eventually you’ll run out of gas, maybe blow out a tire, but nothing that can’t be patched up.

That probably doesn’t sound like the strongest recommendation for a song but sometimes the end results add up to much more than the individual parts. What’s Your Name is just such a song. Joe Swift, against all odds perhaps, is shaping up to be just such a singer.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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