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EXCELSIOR 537; FEBRUARY, 1949

 
 

 

Over the next two or three years (1949-1951) of rock ‘n’ roll, Johnny Otis is going to be a ubiquitous presence here on Spontaneous Lunacy. Arguably NO artist at any time in rock history will have as many records to review as Otis will during this upcoming period.

In part that’s due to two unique factors, the first being that we’re still early in rock’s evolution and so the genre itself is still confined to a smaller pool of artists. Five years down the road, not to mention ten, twenty and now seventy years later, rock’s scope will have grown considerably with each individual subgenre having spawned subgenres of their own to explore as the reach of rock quickly spread far beyond the borders of specific regions of America until it headed past the shores of America itself and became a worldwide phenomenon.

Before we make our final post on these pages I’m sure there may be the first extraterrestrial rock song to be reviewed.
 

But at this point in time rock was still fairly limited in its participation, so any prominent artist is going to command a greater percentage of reviews for these years than will happen down the road when more artists on more labels from more areas are releasing records everyday.

The OTHER reason is less related to era and more specific to Johnny Otis himself and his role as the overseeing facilitator of an entire congregation of fellow rock artists. From the vast number of musicians in his band to the multitude of singers who front that band each of them will receive their own releases making the Johnny Otis Show a self-sustaining cottage industry for years to come.

This may be Johnny’s most far-reaching influence actually, that of the multi-artist tours which became the dominant trend for rock shows in the 50’s and into the 60’s, then was reconfigured for the festival audiences of the Monterey Pop and Woodstock era and continued through Lollapallooza and its off-spring, all of which can be traced back to Otis’s original concept.

Unlike those however, which featured artists unconnected to one another simply appearing on the same stage for the same audience buying the same ticket for them all, never collaborating with one another save for maybe a few unplanned jam sessions from time to time, Otis’s R&B Caravan as it was known featured a wide array of names who already knew each other very well because they already played together every night, first at his Barrelhouse Club in Watts, then in the studio, so by the time they reached the stage they were a well-oiled machine, each act supporting the others, their roles worked out to perfection.

Many of the names affiliated with Otis – featured musicians Pete “Guitar” Lewis, Devonia “Lady Dee” Williams, even briefly Big Jay McNeely, and headlining vocalists Little Esther, Mel Walker, The Robins – will be heard from a lot and Johnny Otis played a large role in all of their careers. Some became stars, a few even flirted with becoming legends, while others had to be content with burning brightly for a few short dazzling moments before the spark fizzled and died.

Yet most of those names left lingering traces in the night sky that are still visible if you look hard enough.

But then there are those few who appeared so suddenly and disappeared so quickly that unless you were watching the horizon when they flashed across the sky you missed them altogether, their time spent as a satellite in the Johnny Otis orbit over before it really began. Swallowed by the black hole of historical indifference their names are all but unrecognizable today.

Here we do our best to see to it that such a fate doesn’t have to be permanent, that every artist who plied their trade in rock ‘n’ roll is deserving of recognition for the attempt alone, and so rather than let them sit unmoving at the apogee of their travels we study them at the precise moment when they came as close as they ever would to the center of the rock world.

So look up in the sky, Cathy Cooper is entering our view, however brief her stay may be.
 


 

Perigee
What we know about Cathy Cooper isn’t much. She’s not even mentioned in any of the Johnny Otis-related books or liner notes. Her vocal style suggests she was as much a comedienne as she was a singer, specializing in skits that would work well on the stage where visual embellishment of the travails of a strong woman dealing with no good men could get laughs as well as stir musical interest. That’s certainly a role she’d have been valued for at The Barrelhouse Club which is how she came to be associated with Otis in the first place, but it’s doubtful that had she not been a valued performer in that setting that she’d have been tabbed to cut a record which needed to connect in an entirely different setting.

It’s not that she’s a BAD singer, though she could in fact be Joe Swift’s long lost sister with her tendency to sing through her nostrils at the height of allergy season when they’re clogged up, but rather her repertoire is rather limited.

Because of this she’s not going to be singing love songs trying to seduce a man with her dulcet tones. She doesn’t seem remotely capable of playing the innocent girl swayed by a man’s deception, in fact the opposite is more likely to be true, as she sounds as if she’s been around the block a few times herself. Yet she’s certainly not a sultry man-eating vixen either, twirling men around her finger because of her looks and experience. The usual roles for women in rock to date therefore have already been exhausted before we get to what she could credibly pull off and so they adapt what she DID do well to fit within the confines of a song in the hopes it’d find an audience listening to it on a record rather than at the club.

On Alimony Boogie Cooper is presented as a woman dealing with a no-good former husband. They weren’t well-off, he’s probably barely clinging to a job for more than a few days, spending his afternoons loitering around the poolroom, boasting about his activities to gullible friends. He’s Kingfish on Amos & Andy basically and as a result she dumped him and took him to court to collect some measure of remuneration for her troubles.

The concept works well enough in theory but it requires a better perspective than is shown here to gain more than our passing interest. There were many ways this idea could’ve been explored but by sticking to the most basic approach it becomes exceedingly limited in its payoffs.
 

When The Deal Went Down
The first problem they face is in never ramping up the comic potential of the situation, letting her unveil a litany of grievances a mile long, each one more outlandish than the last. They DO touch upon this at times, with her complaining about him “trying to act like a movie star”, but the details are not just lacking, they’re altogether absent.

Her voice injects the right amount of humor at times, the way she drops down to add, “You’re playin the horses too” sparkles, but the rest of the time she mostly plays it straight so the potential laughs embedded in the situation aren’t mined, let alone polished to a shine.

Therefore they need to make it up by playing to her outrage, letting her voice drip venom as she lays out the charges one by one. This seems to have been the intent, yet while the accusations themselves make the case for her man being a first class heel, the complaints themselves aren’t nearly memorable enough to leave their mark. That may make it more true to life, but as a song it doesn’t quite connect unless of course you are suffering through the same situation yourself. If that’s the case however does listening to another woman’s similar bitching give you any sense of satisfaction? I doubt it.

On the other hand if she were to follow up these accusations with the very real threat of reprisal, be they vows of castration (or stand-ins for such a penalty) that are surely exaggerated for effect, yet real enough in the fury of their intent that might be effective. If she detailed some decidedly over-the-top remedies to counter his philandering, lack of financial support and general neglect when they were together… say warning him that she was preparing him a dinner of donkey hooves and spider stew, or letting him know that while he slept – or passed out – she would remove all the hair on his body with lye, then the listener wouldn’t dare miss what was to follow.

But what this settles for is more of an everyday grumbling that you might hear while at the beauty parlor or sitting on the front stoop with the neighborhood women all criticizing their exes to those still sticking it out waiting for their flawed husbands to return home, the nightly battles over money, lack of entertainment and unsatisfying sex about to commence again. Though real enough they’re also the kind of disputes that others in the vicinity close their windows so they don’t have to listen to them play out.

Which is a shame, in a way, because the record adds things to the goings-on that you’d never hear in the rundown apartment house such people were stuck in, such as a very good instrumental break with Devonia Williams expertly handling the first part on piano before the horns launch in with some lusty honking, the combined effect providing the song with its most enjoyable moments. Unfortunately there isn’t more of this to alleviate your lack of interest in the rest.

Though Cooper plays her part as written the script itself is too thin and there’s nothing for her to add that can beef up the role. It’s a by-the-numbers performance in a skit that can’t hold your attention. Though she’s not endowed with the best voice, it’s a voice with potential if given better lines, but since Cooper herself co-wrote it – probably handling the lyrics while Otis took care of the music – she’s got no one to blame but herself.

It’s certainly not bad, just uninteresting. The best part comes in the last scene, which also happens to mark the very first vocal appearance of Johnny Otis himself on record, playing the no-good man she’s left who in a spoken coda refutes her claim in a fairly clever twisting of her words.

That part speaks to the humor that was lying under the surface all along, one they never brought to the forefront until it was too late. Cooper’s talents, such as they were, get wasted here, a song that conceivably was right up her alley if they hadn’t held back and played things too predictably.
 

I’ll Have The Judge To Bring You Down
One of Otis’s avowed goals when starting out was in trying to bring the diverse club performers to a broader national audience via records, thereby exposing the many forms of entertainment that flourished after dark at places like The Barrelhouse to those who’d never dare step foot into such a den of inequity. In general this approach worked very well, as Johnny and the many artists under his aegis scored more hits over the next two years as anybody in rock, yet the one type of performer who was unable to crossover from the stage to wax was the pure comedy bits, even when wrapped in a musical presentation such as Alimony Boogie.

Some things just don’t translate well to the different requirements of connecting on wax and throughout rock’s history comedy is one such field that largely fell by the wayside. Even the handful of genuine hits that could be housed under such a heading – with the exception of The Coasters (the core of which actually got their start with Otis at the Barrelhouse this year) – are generally looked down upon historically, almost as if they were a temporary guilty pleasure now chalked up as embarrassing novelty.

This wasn’t quite so bad as that and actually doesn’t have much to find serious fault with, but it’s also not very vital work from any of the participants.

Still, what’s good about it is, at least from our modern perspective, is merely getting a chance to hear another of the various approaches Otis and company tackled as they were starting out. In 1949 they had no track record showing what worked and what didn’t to dissuade them from the attempt and only after seeing the lack of interest did the jettison the ideas behind it and focused instead on what was connecting.

In the process though they abandoned the one who’d been assigned with trying to put across this type material the first time around and since this was her shtick to begin with for Cathy Cooper, like the role she plays in the song, it wasn’t likely she’d be able to collect on this one either.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Johnny Otis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)