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The end is near.

Savoy’s position as one of the top labels in rock ‘n’ roll is almost over because their contract with Johnny Otis is about to lapse.

They’d never find an artist to replace him and after awhile wouldn’t even try all that hard to compete in the field. Maybe it serves them right for being so egregious in ripping off everybody who had the misfortune of being hired by the company.

For what’s it’s worth though, Johnny Otis would never again be quite as relevant either. He was still capable of great work and would contribute to some massive hits for others as well as scoring a number of lasting hits of his own, but his commercial peak ended after leaving Savoy.

But while it lasted they were all but unbeatable.


Pop Your Fingers And Fall Way Back
Recording contracts back in the day were typically for two years.

There were exceptions of course. Newcomers with no track record would often get signed to cut a single four song session after which they were free to go, the belief being that the company didn’t want to invest more in an artist without a track record of success. Occasionally that would cost the company a potential star when those first releases proved to be winners, as was the case with Big Jay McNeely who Savoy lost as soon as he broke through after being discovered working with Johnny Otis in the fall of 1949… the same time that Otis was inked to a deal by the label.

Because Otis had more name recognition, having released records for a few years and scored a hit backing Joe Swift on the addicting That’s Your Last Boogie, his deal was the more standard two year variety and because he brought with him an entire retinue of co-stars – vocalists and instrumentalists alike – it was as if Savoy had hit the jackpot.

While Otis was the constant presence on all of the records as the primary songwriter and bandleader, Savoy in effect got multiple acts in the deal. Little Esther became the overriding star until the court voided her portion of the contract because she was underaged, but not before Savoy had gotten seven Top Ten hits from her including three chart toppers.

Mel Walker gave them ten hits, some of those with Esther, all of which featured Otis backing him, while the band members contributed countless instrumentals that allowed Savoy to constantly have new product on the market that could be guaranteed to draw spins on jukeboxes even if they never quite broke through to the national charts.

But like everyone else Savoy’s owner Herman Lubinsky dealt with, Johnny Otis grew frustrated with the company’s thievery and when Esther decamped to Federal Records at the start of 1951, Otis made it clear that he’d join her there as soon as he was legally able and as a result his final releases for the label, Chittlin’ Switch among them, were almost a year old by the time they saw release.

Savoy was over a barrel, their biggest star on his way out the door while the company had to pretend nothing was amiss as they prepared for life without him.


A Beat That’s A Treat
It’s easy to look at the songs cut by Otis in 1951 after Esther’s departure as being a series of halfhearted throwaways. In the fallout over Esther’s departure last winter, Otis cut just two sessions in March that fulfilled the terms of his contract and then hit the road with Esther for the rest of the year while surreptitiously backing her in the studio for Federal Records.

But Chittlin’ Switch didn’t come from those March dates, but rather the marathon sessions they cut in January over four days which also produced some of Mel Walker’s best sides with them including the massive hit Gee Baby.

Yet looking at the songs, piecing together the timeline of what else was going on – with Savoy filing lawsuits against Esther and Federal in an attempt to stave off the inevitable – you wonder if midway through those sessions Otis realized the situation was untenable at Savoy and began plotting his exit.

The reason we suggest this is because some of the songs – like this one – have an off-the-cuff, almost experimental, quality to them… a sense they were trying things out just to see if they worked rather than crafting something they felt was a surefire commercial winner.

Certainly this does have some intrinsic appeal thanks to its sing-along nature that finds the band with Walker in tow (credited as The Vocaleers) joining together to deliver the refashioned nursery rhyme lyrics to promote a dance they were hoping to kick-start.

In some ways that gives this a slightly ahead of its time feel, as by mid-decade there were plenty of rock songs being crafted out of similar origins as the record companies were seeking to appeal to an ever more youthful audience by reaching back for something juvenile, not realizing they were aiming a bit too young in the process.

This is no exception in that regard with its bouncy inspid melody and cheery vocals your first instinct as a rock fan is to cringe and become indignant over their perception of you as a drooling infant likely to be swayed by such simplistic nonsense as this.

But as it goes along the song’s construction reveals it’s a little deeper than it first appears as they intentionally mess with the song’s meter in interesting ways while the quality of the band begins to assert itself a little more in the process.

Granted it’s never going to be a work of art, but as a lightweight dance floor exercise with a few neatly compact horn solos thrown in, you could do worse than hearing something this maddeningly infectious.


Play It Cool, Play It Cool
During his tenure at Savoy, Johnny Otis presided over more than seventy five finished songs for the label, a remarkably deep pool of material which formed the basis of his legend that lasted until his death in the next century at the age of 90.

Chittlin’ Switch is certainly not among the most memorable of those songs, and hardly among the most representative of the kind of work he did best either, but while it may be atypical it’s not without some modest charms… almost in spite of itself at times.

It’s also among the last sightings of Otis on the label where he rose to fame, as Savoy seemed to be unwilling to promote the artist they lost once he went to another label, putting out just two more Johnny Otis records in the coming months despite having another nine songs from the 1951 dates which went unissued until the CD era, and a few others which only saw release on albums.

Like most divorces this split was acrimonious and left bruised egos and hurt feelings in its wake. But while the breakup was probably inevitable, the time they spent together was magical in many ways and now that everyone involved is gone, what remains is a legacy that neither the label nor the artist would ever be able to equal with anyone else.


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