No tags :(

Share it




As this review goes up it’s the one hundred and second anniversary of the birth of Ioannis Veliotes… Johnny Otis to you and me.

Normally such an event is cause for celebration… which is why when we saw he had a record being released in November 1952 that was going to land somewhere around this time we made sure to schedule this record to appear on December 28th.

Yet as you get older they say you don’t want to be reminded of your birthdays anymore because it reminds you that the grim reaper is closing in on you, waiting to collect.

Then again, maybe Johnny felt that if the Grim Reaper heard this quasi-pop contraption, he’d turn tail and run, thus affording Otis a little more breathing room before he was in their clutches.


I Know Just What I’d Do
When it comes to the infiltration of outside genres into rock ‘n’ roll our usual position on such things tends to be pretty harsh.

It’s not that we don’t appreciate other forms of music for their own qualities, but rock ‘n’ roll – especially when it’s struggling to get a hold in the market early on – needed to distance itself from other styles in order to establish it firmly as a new musical experience for an entirely different audience.

When Johnny Otis, who grew up wishing to play in the kind of big bands that were popular when he was a kid, began to incorporate some of their musical flavors into his rock ‘n’ roll we protested because that’s preventing rock as a whole from advancing. Likewise when he veered too far into the blues from time to time, we had much the same reaction.

To advance, you move forward, not backwards or sideways.

Rather than ease off that demand now that rock’s commercial footing has become strong enough to stand on its own, the music needs to become even more confident in moving further away from rivals rather than being reconciliatory. Yet that’s exactly what Otis seems intent on doing with Wishing Well, an original composition that sounds as if it were a current pop ditty, or even a slightly older novelty standard.

As with his previous big-band jazz influenced tracks, or his blues-inspired deviations, with this pop-slanted record Johnny Otis proves he can pull it off with the kind of technical ease that made him such a good bandleader.

But whether he should WANT to do so is another matter altogether and that’s where we typically have drawn the line.

Someone Just Like… You?!?
The first time hearing this, or hearing it again after putting it out of your mind for being stylistically inappropriate, you will almost certainly do a double take.

Though it has Johnny Otis’s name under the title as the songwriter, you are convinced this is a mistake. That it had to have come from The Andrews Sisters instead, or maybe it was something Mitch Miller dreamed up.

But no, this was something Otis conceived… presumably not in an effort to melt the minds of the pop music defenders who were decrying rock ‘n’ roll at every turn. Yet maybe by giving them something they would be almost powerless to resist, then seeing them try to justify condemning it because of who did it, that would show their hypocrisy.

Though that might be a good thumb to the nose maneuver if it happened, chances are the majority of the pop world wouldn’t ever hear, and certainly wouldn’t comment on, Wishing Well, no matter how Otis designed it to suit their tastes with its perky vocals by Ada Wilson, who sounds like a sprightly teen with dimples so deep you could break an ankle in.

Clearly he was still trying to find a suitable replacement for Little Esther on record but as cute as Wilson sounds, this is hardly the kind of voice that is going to get a response by Otis’s usual audience… especially with such a saccharine composition as he gives her.

With its prancing sing-songy melody and the innocent hope projected in the lyrics wherein a young girl is dreaming about a decidedly G-rated romance, there’s nothing within that is of much interest to either the grizzled older rock fans, half of them with their eyeballs floating in cheap whiskey, who frequent the clubs Otis played, or their younger counterparts whose youth belies their experience in such matters, all of them acting tougher than they are in an effort to keep up appearances.

Musically this has none of the rock trademarks that either of those constituencies want. The theme is too docile, the singing is too demure while the arrangement is completely domesticated.

The horns in particular are lacking testosterone, their back and forth lines in the break are designed to be seen as cleverly commenting on the proceedings rather than adding anything to give it some much needed attitude. Meanwhile there’s very little beat and no interjections from more aggressive sounding instruments to off-set it and give the overriding message of the lyrics a more subversive meaning for those who care to look.

And yet (brace yourselves)… AND YET… it almost works anyway.


Wish I Could Tell You I Love You
No, it doesn’t work as a pure rock record by any means, that’s laughable, but as purely a musical exercise this is very well executed, especially when going by the standards of popular music, circa 1952.

If it were a pop record that came out under Wilson’s own name and we either missed Otis’s songwriting credit, or he used a pseudonym that we didn’t recognize, we wouldn’t hesitate to say that Wishing Well was a very good pop song for its time, and one that actually had some moments where Wilson was able to subtly add a little soul to her vocals when she sings it alone.

What does that mean, you ask? Sings it “alone”? I thought Ada Wilson was the only credited vocalist?

Well, she is, but don’t forget this was Mercury Records who perfected the art of double-tracking Patti Page’s voice, making it her trademark more or less, but one they apparently weren’t averse to using here if it might help to revive the commercial fortunes of Johnny Otis whose celebrated signing last year thus far hasn’t really paid off for them.

I can’t say the double-tracked Wilson sounds great here harmonizing with herself during the verses, but that’s more the fault of the cloying melody in that section, as annoyingly infectious as it is. But when she takes the bridge alone that’s when she shows more grit and the shift in the melody also makes it much more appealing to our tastes, as brief as it lasts.

What you’d really like to know is what the motivation for this record was? Did Mercury pressure Otis into coming up with something more suitable to their primary demographic? Did Johnny himself feel that it might keep the label happy, or possibly expand his options going forward when looking for a new deal?

Or did he just have a creative itch he wanted to scratch and had in Wilson the singer who he felt could pull it off.

The thing about it is, as weird as this is for Otis it oddly enough confirms his songwriting and arranging skills, showing his versatility – and adaptability – in ways nobody expected or for that matter nobody wanted. So whatever wish Mercury had for reviving Otis’s fortunes it wasn’t likely to come true no matter how many coins you tossed in after this record.


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