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SAVOY 731; JANUARY, 1950

 
 

 

And so after more than six hundred seventy reviews charting the course rock music took from the moment of its birth in 1947 we’ve finally reached the dawn of the Nineteen-Fifties, the decade in which rock ‘n’ roll would reach full fruition commercially while crossing over from being exclusively a black art form to one embraced by white audiences and artists alike, giving the music universal appeal.

It would take some time for all of this to play out, it didn’t just happen when the calendar turned from one decade to the next obviously, but as with any artistic and cultural pursuit evolution is inevitable if it wants to carry on.

And rock ‘n’ roll definitely intended to carry on.
 

 

Been Looking For You
Johnny Otis’s rise from being a drummer in jazz-based territory bands of the early 1940’s to the overseer of a vast conglomerate of stars in rock ‘n’ roll a decade later was as unlikely as it was impressive. Not only being the sole white face on the national bandstand in early rock ‘n’ roll but the fact that he was filling a role that hadn’t really existed before in this brand of music.

He was, in essence, a cultivator of talent. A musician, yes, songwriter, sure… but not being a singer (at least not yet) meant in most circumstances he’d be resigned to the background. But Otis’s road to stardom had an important stop along the way when he started The Barrelhouse Club in Watts in 1948 and began to put together a nightly show that encompassed all types of singing acts and instrumental hot-shots, but also comedic skits to provide a variety show atmosphere to keep every patron invested in the proceedings.
 


 

He continued to record however, first for Excelsior and now for Savoy Records, and he wisely attempted to transfer his club’s acclaimed floor shows onto wax. The records showcased his first rate band and increasingly he began to spotlight the growing ranks of vocalists he’d been working with. His two best finds in that realm came when he combined an existing vocal group, The A-Sharp Trio with bass vocalist Bobby Nunn to form The Robins, a group he hoped might compete with The Ravens, the most popular such act in rock. His next coup came about when he plucked a 13 year old girl calling herself Esther Mae Jones from a rival club’s talent contest and enlisted her to handle the female leads for his act.

With her high mousy voice she didn’t seem to be star material but Little Esther had a way with a song that was captivating and when surrounded by Otis’s musicians and in this case backed by The Robins, the results were alluring. Even so, on paper Double Crossing Blues didn’t seem to be something that would be the game changer for any of them, but of course when you’re least expecting it in rock ‘n’ roll that’s when something is most apt to sneak up behind you and shake you down.
 

Folks Say That You’ve Been Cheating
The song came from the pen of Jessie Mae Robinson, though Otis initially got label credit for it, something which may or may not have deeper more insidious connotations.

Her credentials as a songwriter are hardly in question… the first African-American female member of ASCAP, the composer of memorable songs for artists across the spectrum in music, from Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan, Charles Brown and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson in the black pre-rock styles to rock icons Amos Milburn (In The Middle Of The Night and Rooming House Boogie) and down the road Elvis Presley, with pop and jazz acts like Jo Stafford, Patti Page and Sarah Vaughn thrown in for good measure.

The story is that Robinson wrote Double Crossing Blues for Otis on request since he was headed into the studio to cut his first sessions on Savoy with a lot of different vocalists and – whether mistakenly or not – the record came out with only Otis listed as the writer. She sued and won a settlement entitling her to royalties as was only fair.

Yet while there’s no question she wrote the song, it was Otis whose fingerprints are all over it.
 
 


 
 

I Can’t Quit You Baby
Opening with Otis’s vibes, something his records would become known for after mangling his fingers in a carpentry accident in the fall which had largely forced him to give up his drum seat in the band, the record takes on the quality of a peaceful dream that quickly gives way to a harsher reality when he drops out and Esther comes into the picture, her voice high and shrill as always but offset by the mellow harmonies of The Robins behind her and Pete Lewis’s delicate guitar fills.

Right away all of these seemingly conflicting parts mesh together, a testament to Otis’s arranging skills, something he’d shown to dazzling effect back in late 1948 on our first meeting with him when he backed Joe Swift on the Top Ten hit That’s Your Last Boogie. But whereas that was mostly flash and nimble dexterity, this arrangement is much more refined and subtle in its construction. Though arranging doesn’t technically qualify as writing in the legal sense there’s no question that how this record sounds stems almost entirely from Johnny Otis.

But with a title like Double Crossing Blues the actual songwriting courtesy of Robinson promises some juicy intrigue in its story as Esther recounts her boyfriend’s infidelities and her despondent response to this revelation.

Putting aside the fact she’s clearly talking about an adult relationship and she’s barely reached puberty herself, Esther sounds fully mature, not in her vocal tone per say, but in her phrasing and underlying awareness of the heart-rending ramifications of the plot.

This was always Esther’s strong suit, the ability to not merely recite lyrics but to invest herself in them emotionally and this is no exception. She’s definitely portraying a younger girl, one who’s probably fairly inexperienced compared to her slightly older beau who’s been around the block a few times, but she makes it clear by her delivery that she’s past the point of returning home to her parents if this romance hits the skids, something she is trying to prevent by playing on his sympathies and whatever love he once had for her.

All of that is fine. Esther is in good form and already shaping up to be a vocalist to watch, while the lyrics, though fairly simple, are at least effective in laying out the plot. But the basic IDEA behind the song is one we’ve seen many times before and will see many times again down the road. It’s perfectly suitable but there’s nothing altogether special about it the way it’s shaping up.

The melody is pleasant enough, the wordless “oohing” by The Robins is sublime, the band is perfectly understated and the pieces all fit together nicely, but Double Crossing Blues doesn’t do anything to really GRAB you and leave its imprint on your consciousness.

That is until Bobby Nunn of The Robins enters with the first of two cameos which is where the song takes on a distinctiveness that wouldn’t be apparent just by looking at the sheet music.

But the question is: Just who’s idea was this?
 

Goodness Knows How I Tried
We’ll get to the more famous Nunn interjection in a minute but let’s first start with the prelude to that part wherein following Esther bemoaning her fella’s lack of interest in her which ends with her telling him – and by nature us, the de facto jury that will decide this case – that she’s really tried hard to keep him happy.

That’s when Nunn chimes in taking the next stanza, telling us she was the one who went out playing cards the night before, leaving him alone and after taking a shot at her “hard head” in a off-handed put-down, he too concludes by saying that HE’S really tried hard to be the ideal boyfriend.

It works really well, in large part because of Nunn’s deep, slow delivery which heightens the drama and balances her higher voiced parts. Yet upon closer inspection you wonder if it was intended to be sung by a guy at all.

The set-up to the story as told by Esther gives the impression that she’s the aggrieved party and the line about going out to play cards seems far more likely to be a woman’s complaint than a guy’s, particularly since no other aspect of the plot is deviating from the expected. It’s possible, even likely, that it was Otis who had Nunn sing it instead, thereby turning it into a duet, something that Robinson couldn’t have foreseen when writing it.

The reason he would’ve done this is because of what follows, the famous one-liner that sounds ad-libbed but which Otis had cribbed from a comedy routine, modified here to have Esther put her boyfriend down by saying he should be “Out in the forest fighting big ol’ grizzly bears”. Of course this has absolutely no relation to what we’ve heard so far, but when Nunn shoots back that SHE should be out in the forest she replies, in a brilliantly acted spoken line that manages to be both proud and demure, “I’m a lady” to which he slyly responds, “They’ve got lady bears out there”.

THAT was the line that sold it.
 


 

Now that hardly seems to be anything worth getting excited about, though it’s helped greatly by the fact both deliver their parts with a panache that’s worth a chuckle, but when you realize that “lady bear” was common slang for ugly women in the black community at the time, and then see poor Esther, with her protruding smile and slightly out of proportion features you “get” the joke even more.

Whether Otis knew the song needed a hook or a gimmick to sell it, or whether he just came up with it on the fly, that fortuitous decision made Double Crossing Blues a “must hear” record with people playing it repeatedly just to crack up at that line. Yet in doing so Otis gave the performers an identity, one that would allow listeners to feel as if they knew them via an insider joke that only those “in the know” would truly get.

In the process the connection between artist and audience with rock ‘n’ roll became even stronger.
 

 

You Swore That You Were Mine
Ironically – or maybe not considering he wasn’t a member of the intended community for this type of thing – Savoy’s owner Herman Lubinsky didn’t particularly like the song when he was going through the material sent back from the West Coast to press up, but when Newark DJ Bill Cook heard it in Savoy’s offices he immediately predicted its appeal, particularly the joke in the spoken bridge, and hyped it on his show. The reaction to it was overwhelming with more than a quarter million copies sold around the New York metro area in just a few days.

Decades later, and with so much lore to wade through, some might say that it doesn’t quite live up to its reputation and it’s true that the closer you study it the more you see the cut and paste approach they took on it, but it’s still really damn good and while it’s not a seamless record or even a really original idea the record’s historical importance can’t be understated. Double Crossing Blues vaulted all of them into the stratosphere as well as confirmed rock’s overall popularity as the calendars turned over.

Those insufferable critics hoping that with a new decade this noise pollution which had filled the air the last few years might soon disappear were sadly mistaken. Rock ‘n’ roll was bigger than ever and in 1950 no one IN rock was bigger than Johnny Otis and his subversive group of accomplices and fittingly it’s they who get the honor of starting the Nineteen Fifties off with a bang.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist pages of Johnny Otis, as well as Little Esther and The Robins for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)