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MERCURY 8289; JULY 1952



Maybe it could be passed off to a decision made by Mercury Records as opposed to the artist, but it’s kind of telling that having spirited away Mel Walker from Savoy Records, a move which would soon result in lawsuits which Mercury lost, the primary artist credit here goes to Johnny Otis instead.

Now that did happen a lot while both were on Savoy, so again it could be that their new label was trying to simply replicate the success on the old… it’s certainly possible, maybe even likely.

But it’s also no stretch to say that Johnny Otis was anxious to prove he could still deliver the goods after underwhelming commercial returns during his final eight months on Savoy and his uninspiring sales on his first two Mercury singles. Perhaps fearing Walker earning a hit his first time out under his own name – even with Otis prominently credited for leading the band – it’s not hard to envision Johnny being the one pushing to have it come out as it did.

Under any name though there’s something else oddly familiar about this to those of us from the future which shows that Johnny Otis still had some valuable musical cache of his own that can’t be taken for granted.


In Your Daddy’s Arms
As already covered yesterday, Mel Walker DID get a hit his first time out on Mercury with the top side of this single and even though it was a cover record of a good Floyd Dixon side that was charting in its own right in a more stripped down arrangement, there’s plenty to credit to give to Otis who beefed up the musical backing enough to give their version of Call Operator 210 a slightly different feel.

But while everyone involved – the label and both artists – were grateful for the hit to bolster their respective résumés, there wasn’t much future in simply trying to predict which new song by somebody else was a potential hit and then racing to churn out a hasty cover version to hop on the bandwagon.

Nope, in rock ‘n’ roll anyway you needed to consistently come up with something original, maybe borrowing from past songs and styles, but effective shaping them into a new sound that itself might get picked up on in the future.

It’s safe to say Johnny Otis did that to an extent on Baby Baby Blues, hardly a song that turned a lot of heads then, nor one that most fans of the artist or era probably could recall easily since that time, but one which certainly has more than a vague resemblance to one of the most indelible songs of 1950’s rock.

Or are you telling me you didn’t notice a similarity to Big Joe Turner’s 1954 smash Shake, Rattle And Roll?

Now it’s hardly as if Jesse Stone completely ripped this off lock, stock and barrel in crafting that song, but veteran tunesmith that he was with his finger on the pulse of rock ‘n’ roll while working for Atlantic Records you know he had to have heard a song written by someone as successful as Johnny Otis which was on the flip side of a Top Five hit and with its good melody – even if it was left a little underpowered here – that’s something that has a tendency to stick with you for use later on down the road.

You Make Me Feel So Fine
Okay, enough about that… for while there is a certain sense of déjà vu in hearing this today, back in 1952 we were still two years away from that development and so this has got to be judged on its own merits for the requirements of the time period at hand.

One thing’s for certain though and that’s with his reliance on mournful ballads, Mel Walker certainly could use a slight jolt in the energy department in his catalog, for when he did get a more upbeat tune to work with he generally turned in good performances and this is no exception.

Now granted, they were not his best option because he was not a ribald shouter, nor a gospel-soaked wailer, but he had a good voice, great control and an intuative sense of how to build a rapport with audiences with his phrasing and characterization… besides, it’s always good to give listeners a few different approaches to keep them off balance.

If for no other reason than that, Baby Baby Blues would be a modest success. Walker rides the piano and horn based rhythm with a relaxed confidence, even as the lyrics find him asking… practically begging… for the attention of a girl.

Despite the position of subservience Walker finds himself in he doesn’t choose to go the normal route, partly because Otis’s track has an infectious bounce to it. While it’s feasible he could’ve used that simply as a counterweight to his own despair over not yet getting the girl he’s after, instead he injects a healthy amount of optimism in his delivery. He may know that it’s a long shot they’ll wind up together, but it’s still one he’ll lay his money down on in the hope it will come to fruition.

That action twists the song into something decidedly different than it appears on the surface thanks to Walker, driving home the subtext of not giving up until that nagging confidence becomes the primary message to the song.

Otis’s musical instincts are clicking here with the rise and fall horns being impossible to shake out of your memory and when followed by the stop-time vocal interludes (which harkens back to Ruth Brown’s 5-10-15 Hours while also having a certain likeness to the aforementioned Turner record still to come), he gives the record a couple of different patterns to provide the diversity it needs to never get repetitive despite a minimum of prominent instruments.

The sax solo is far too aimless and jazzy to fit comfortably in the overall mood, but when Walker returns the ease in his voice immediately causes you to lock right back in as he takes it to a close. Otis did skimp on the story a bit, needlessly repeating a stanza from the first half rather than advancing the plot in the second half, but the overall feel of the record is really good and definitely provides a nice contrast to the hit side.


Can I Be Your Man?
It’s worth repeating – for the umpteenth time no doubt, though I’ve long since lost count – just how reliant Johnny Otis was on finding good singers to perform his material, but just how effective he could be when he got them.

That makes Otis unique among rock acts in that his own performances on the record was often not the first, second or even third most vital role he took on, but that he was able to have such enduring success anyway is a testament to those other facets of his skill set which were still at the forefront in 1952 before he became a more willing and frequent singer himself.

Mel Walker, though respected and hugely successful with Otis for two years, still doesn’t get enough respect, for even as the most noticeable aspects of Baby Baby Blues is found in the song’s melodic construction, it’s Walker who accentuates it and improves upon an otherwise underdeveloped total package with sheer vocal charisma.

In the end this was probably a bit too good for a B-side, but maybe not quite good enough for an A-side, though it did crack the regional charts for San Francisco so maybe with a bigger push it could’ve held its own as a follow-up had it been held over for a later single.

But obviously we aren’t going to complain about getting two good Mel Walker performances right out of the gate on his reunion with Johnny Otis, even though ominous clouds were soon to appear overhead for them both.

For now however, the day is still sunny, the forecast calls for more good weather in the future and Mercury Records had no reason to suspect that the skies would open up before they knew it and drench their rock ‘n’ roll picnic before desert had time to be served.


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