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REGENT 1016; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

One of the small joys of life is running into someone you haven’t seen in awhile… someone you genuinely like but for one reason or another never really hung out with much outside of when circumstances drew you together. Chances are nothing much will come of these unexpected reunions – maybe you’ll grab something to eat together and rehash old stories and regale each other with new ones – but it’s still nice to reconnect and not allow one another to fade into the murky recesses of time.

In rock ‘n’ roll this is a fairly frequent occurrence, as minor artists appear, disappear and then suddenly reappear over time, their ability to get another record contract out of the blue being largely contingent on luck and happenstance as opposed to their likelihood of scoring a hit for somebody. So, like a high school yearbook come to life, we keep coming across names and faces from the past as we navigate our way through rock’s onward progression.

Unlike a lot of these figures Devonia Williams isn’t someone who’s vanished from sight altogether since her last appearance as a lead artist on record, which itself wasn’t all that long ago, but her appearances in the spotlight will nonetheless be somewhat rare and so each chance we get to focus on her more than just in passing is something to savor.
 

 

Filling In The Blanks
In such a large ensemble as Johnny Otis’s band it’s hard to point to any one figure as the anchor of the group, but for all of the storied musicians in their ranks Devonia “Lady Dee” Williams was as vital as any over the years.

Her piano may not get as many showcases as Pete Lewis’s guitar, or James Von Streeter’s sax, but whereas they sometimes get left out of the arrangement altogether, or get moved well into the background depending on the textures Otis is trying to bring out, Williams’ role is about as constant a presence as there is.

You rarely hear music critics gushing over such elemental tasks as a musicians “fills” – that is, the musical notes designed to plug holes between more elaborate written parts in the arrangement – but they’re crucial for making any song flow. Arguably there was no one on the rock scene at this point who was as relied on more for this role than Devonia Williams… and nobody quite as good at fulfilling that need from one record to the next.

She played with unerring judgement, her delicate cascading treble runs shading the song’s dominant themes without drawing attention to themselves while her solid left hand ensured that she was more than capable of picking up the rhythmic ball and running with it should the other musicians drop it – either by design or by oversight.

Oftentimes she’d be asked to take the intro and set the entire scene before fading into the background for the rest of the song, getting little glory for a part which is always at risk for slipping your mind once the fireworks start.

Maybe the best way to describe Williams was as the ultimate team player, someone never demanding the spotlight but capable of filling it as the need arises.

I’m Not Falling In Love With You was one of the first sides Otis and company laid down in the studio after signing with Savoy in the fall of 1949, a time that’s notable for it being before he had any sense of what the national audience would respond to, as well as before he himself really knew what he had in terms of marketable vocalists. Little Esther, who’d become his greatest star and biggest muse, had cut just one side with him prior to this – I Gotta Guy – as sort of a trial balloon on Modern Records. The Robins had the most experience on record but they’d yet to score any hits and his MC at the Barrelhouse Club, Redd Lyte, was capable but hardly inspiring.

So not surprisingly Otis turned to Williams to take a shot with a song that probably had no real chance to make any waves but would at least give them something to help get their feet under them as they tried to figure out who and what they would become.
 


 
 

Break My Heart In Two
It’d be entirely fair to call this song sort of a test run for Little Esther’s future material as it follows the same basic concept – a slow introspective lovelorn ballad where the singer’s mindset carries with it just as much responsibility to sell it as the lyrics or musical arrangement.

While Esther herself never had what you’d call a “pretty” voice, she was a master of expression, of delving deep into the physiological ramifications of a song’s story to unearth its deeper truths. So knowing that, even if it’s only in retrospect, Devonia Williams has her work cut out for her to be able to bring those facets of a rather simple theme to the forefront, especially since singing was not her primary responsibility in normal circumstances.

Yet she acquits herself quite well on I’m Not Falling In Love With You, nailing the pensive qualities inherent in the lyrics – essentially her justification for turning down a suitor whose reputation as a cheater precedes him – with a fair amount of grace, even as, if you listen closely, you can hear her confidence at her vocal qualities waver slightly, probably as she’s analyzing her performance in real time rather than simply letting herself go and immersing herself fully in the song.

Her tone may be a little nasal but she’s got good command, sticking within her comfort zone which allows her to focus on maintaining the proper mood to make her doubts and fears within the song seem genuine.

Though what she’s describing is certainly a pretty universal concern for anyone who finds themselves attracted to somebody with a dubious track record in fidelity, the slow pacing all but ensures there’ll be no opportunity for major lyrical twists or outright surprises. As such you need to invest yourself in her plight, something she sells with the mixture of wincing bitterness and wistful regret that is her – and the song’s – best attributes.

You genuinely feel for her, her desire is palpable but thankfully is stunted by her common sense and dignity. Yet there’s very little forward progression to the song to latch on to, no furthering of the plot, no suspense and no resolution. She makes up her mind to stay away from this cad before we even enter the picture and with that settled the bulk of her time is devoted to merely explaining why.

The best line isn’t even one that was assured to draw any notice at the time it was recorded, December 1st 1949, though by the time they took this off the shelf and issued it, as Otis’s Double Crossing Blues was the hottest song going, then Devonia’s referencing three other girls this guy has dipped his quill into – “How about Betty, Esther and Marie?” – comes into clearer focus and is worth a slight smile for the appearance of the soon to be star, Little Esther.

Before you read anything into any “rivalry” for men’s affections between the two female members of the outfit, keep in mind Williams was an adult and Esther was just 13 years old at the time.
 

Tonight We’re Together
Musically this largely sets the template for much of Otis’s style over the next year or so, at least when it comes to the kind of languid paced songs they specialized in.

Williams herself takes a back seat in the instrumental lineup, playing only sporadically and only prominent in the breaks, telling you that she might’ve been uncomfortable singing and playing at the same time, but while usually her relative absence would be sorely missed, here they make up for it by substituting Otis’s work on the vibes, his “new” instrument since mangling his hands in a carpentry accident that took him out from behind the drums.

In the future Johnny sometimes has a tendency to overuse the vibes where they’d be best kept in moderation, but on I’m Not Falling In Love With You they’re a welcome addition, giving the track a dreamy exotic feel that makes it seem as if Williams might not actually be speaking to the guy in question face to face, but rather rehearsing her speech to him in the privacy of her own home, laying in bed and envisioning the exchange that she’s going to have with him the next day when they meet.

Johnny’s sensitivity on the instrument – the ability to use space to his advantage so that it’s not a constant sound, but rather an intermittent accent – adds to its emotional impact, like the voice of your conscience perched on your shoulder, gently whispering advice in your ear rather than tugging at your sleeve and nagging you into paying attention.

There’s a few moments of sloppiness, or rather uncertainty, as various instruments seem hesitant to inject themselves into the song where they should, and so at times it comes across as tentative and slapdash, but they generally recover with a minimum of fuss even if they hardly provide anything truly ear catching to focus your attention.

As a result for any track where the musical mood is implied more than firmly asserted your ability to have it reach you is more dependent on your patience than your visceral reaction. Even Pete Lewis’s guitar, which adds some much needed edginess to the sentiments, are mostly discreet and thus noticeable only if you look for them.

All of this is necessary to keep the song from losing its balance, but while it’s generally smartly conceived it’s also not altogether gripping.

With no saxophone to provide a moaning ache, no drum fill to get you on the edge of your seat as the “confrontation” reaches a climax, and no jolting coda where louder instruments tangle with one another to symbolize the fallout from her decision – where she’ll be removing herself from being hurt at the expense of going unloved – means it’s a mood piece at best… a decent one maybe, but not a real memorable one at that.
 


 

Sneaking Out On Me
One of the most overused – and thus most annoying – terms in modern times is “It is what it is”, which could be appropriate for just about anything under the sun. Here that saying however would be accurate – this IS what it set out to be, a test run for a general idea using Devonia Williams, a trooper to the end, as sort of a stand-in for future vocalists allowing them all to work out their parts and explore some basic ideas to see if it holds together.

I’m Not Falling In Love With You “is what it is” in another sense as well, that of a nondescript B-side, a song not intended to overshadow the debut of Mel Walker on the top of the record and yet still give listeners something a little bit different (in terms of voice at least rather than its mood and sentiment) should they flip the record over.

Because this was coming out while the group’s biggest hit was still raking in the cash it also was something of a space filler – there’s that word again – something Williams was used to doing. This record wasn’t designed to break her out but she did what was asked of her even if it wasn’t her forte, a team player to the end.

As always she gave it her best shot and not surprisingly that’s good enough to at least be worth a listen.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist pages of both Johnny Otis and Devonia Williams for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)