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Isn’t it always the way… analyzing a Christmas record in the midst of the hottest stretch of summer as a heat wave blankets the continent.

But since there is no time limit with which these reviews can be read – and since with holiday titles there’s sure to be far more people over time coming to read this as snow is falling and sleigh bells are in the air – just keep in mind that both the review and the recording session for the song came about during the same exact week in the midst of August… seventy one years apart.

Proof maybe that it’s not the atmosphere that counts when writing these things after all.


Christmas Time Is Here… Or Is It?
First things first. Christmas songs are always caught in a weird sort of limbo historically. Their immediate shelf life when issued is relatively short – late fall to early winter – even though for the best of these songs their long term shelf life can be remarkably enduring.

As such most go to great lengths to advertise the fact they are connected in some way to the Twenty-Fifth of December.

…Except in doing so it almost guarantees that on the Twenty SIXTH of December they will stop being purchased or played for at least another eleven months, thereby immediately rendering your yet to be unloaded stock of these singles still on the shelves all but worthless.

Therein lies your dilemma as an artist and a record company.

All of which is a roundabout way of explaining why this song’s official title Far Away Blues, meant undoubtedly to keep it viable for a month or more into the New Year, is not what is usually referred to when recounting it. Instead look to the small print under that title and stick the shortened Xmas from there into it and you’ll come up with the Far Away Xmas Blues moniker that you’ll most often find it under these days when they want it to be recalled each December.

But there we run into a second problem which is this is not your typical holly jolly Christmas song where everybody is Ho-Ho-Ho’ing along.

Instead this is a song wherein Christmas is seen as a sad event and with a few notable exceptions the dour subjects and lack of catchy melodies of these kind of tunes virtually ensures they won’t be on too many holiday playlists year after year rendering the Xmas reference in the title somewhat misleading and counterproductive.

But just because a song is slightly atypical in how it looks at its subject doesn’t mean it has no merit and when it comes to the trio of big names adorning this song there track record is more than good enough to give it a chance whether sitting around a warm fire chugging eggnog in December or baking in the sun sipping margaritas in August.


It’s Been So Long
The theme, as you might’ve guessed looking at either version of the title, is a simple one. Little Esther’s man is not with her this holiday and though she knows he’s coming back – he hasn’t broken up with her in other words – she’s obviously despondent over spending Christmas by herself.

To that end Esther’s downcast delivery is entirely appropriate for the subject at hand. She’s lethargic, not due to lack of energy so much as lack of enthusiasm, and the draggy tempo of the music reinforces this.

Though not a showy arrangement by default there are some nice touches that capture your attention. The trumpets, often a source of irritation in rock songs when used with a jazz mindset, here becomes one of the highlights, as they’re used sparingly and back in the mix, giving Far Away Xmas Blues a haunting feeling that perfectly reflects Esther’s state of mind.

Similarly Pete Lewis’s halting guitar and Johnny Otis’s restless vibes – with just a hint of Lady Dee Williams’ piano to change the texture at times – help to contribute to the self-pity Esther feels as she looks at the calendar with despair rather than elation at what is just around the corner.

When Mel Walker comes into the mix it intentionally upends the narrative as he’s announcing that no matter how far he is from his girl he’s going to make it back to her in time to unwrap presents – and unwrap other things I’m sure – come Christmas morning.

It’s a nice twist on the story and his optimism infuses her outlook with hope that culminates in a good stop time vocal with a slightly erotic undercurrent to it that makes this far different than most songs about flying reindeer and talking snowmen even though Otis is wise enough to throw the censors off their trail by quoting Jingle Bells on his vibes in the fade.

Never Stray Away
So those are the positives… now what about the negatives?

Surely you had to guess that there was going to be SOME coal in your stockings when it came to this song, otherwise it’d be more widely celebrated, right?

Well to be fair there’s nothing wrong about the actual concept of the song, no bad lines or illogical plot as found on the top side, Wedding Boogie. Likewise the band here hones in on what works and the vocalists convey the right mood throughout the record.

So the “problem”… if you want to call it that… is more a matter of perception than any actual flaws in the record and that means what misses with one set of ears might connect with another.

That’s true of all records of course but while Far Away Blues works well enough for what it set out to do, which was to create an authentic look at someone’s fragile emotions for a specific time and circumstance, in doing so they don’t necessarily play to the strengths of the lead character as a performer.

It was on these slower introspective cuts where Little Esther built her reputation so this would seem to be right up her alley. But during the first half of this where she’s the entire focal point you can sense her struggling to find her footing. The pace is just a half measure too slow for her to feel natural and though it fits the mood they need, it doesn’t quite land in Esther’s comfort zone.

The horns help mask this to a degree but the ponderous pace in the first half also causes a rift when things pick up in the second half.

Again this fits the song quite well but makes for an uneasy record when it comes to repeated listening. The mood you’re being put into is one that requires some mental adjustment if you’re experiencing none of these emotions for yourself and so once you settle into it, maybe cuing it up late at night with the lights down low for added effect, they snap you out of it down the stretch when Walker enters the picture… his voice more vibrant, the arrangement a little more spry, and the mood suddenly upbeat.

That yo-yo effect throws you ever so much making this a record to admire rather than enjoy.


By New Year’s Morning
Both sides of this record were far from Johnny Otis’s best work during the year – though this is clearly the superior cut – yet he, Esther and Walker were so popular that they each became Top Ten national hits.

But one thing might be starting to become clear and that’s whereas in the past Otis was seeking diversity in his approach from record to record, with rousing instrumentals (featuring either sax or guitar) sharing space with vocal group records, while comedy skits sat sandwiched between heartfelt ballads and enthusiastic party-starters, the success he found with Esther and Walker was ironically starting to limit his options.

He’d had an acrimonious split with The Robins months earlier while Big Jay McNeely parted under better circumstances around the same time for a solo career to honk up a storm with his own band leaving him with fewer options. The straight novelty stuff hadn’t connected as well and his other vocalists, though not bad, hadn’t captured the public’s fancy and so he naturally stuck with what he had left which meant Esther and Mel.

But since neither of them was geared towards uptempo material Otis was beginning to rely on formula and while Far Away Blues is still a good song that’s worth hearing it no longer seems quite so fresh.

Like a Christmas tree in January as the needles are starting to fall on the rug this might just be a sign that they need to start packing up the ornaments and get ready to redecorate come spring with brighter colors and fresher ideas.


(Visit the Artist pages of Johnny Otis, Little Esther and Mel Walker for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)