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It’s inevitable, though not always enjoyable, that the behind the scenes machinations in an industry as sleazy as the record business will creep into an exhaustive, in-depth look at The History Of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Usually these are brief interludes at most, sometimes they’re even able to be dealt with in the space of a single paragraph within a review of an artist’s latest record… no different than explaining a shift to a new label or the arrival of a new producer or music director at a company.

Background information in other words, something to paint a fuller picture.

But here it IS the picture… not to mention the frame and the gallery the artwork is hanging in… and as such, even though there is a record to review as well, the main story has less to do with music and more to do with what happens when disreputable liars, cheats and scoundrels meet with an eye on ripping each other off.

Ahh, the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll at its finest!


Soon Night Will Fall
We’ve already laid some of the groundwork for this tangled story when Mel Walker, the last of Johnny Otis’s associates still under contract to Savoy Records as 1951 gave way to 1952, suddenly decided that since everybody else in that collection of singers and musicians had left the company, why shouldn’t he as well.

Okay, let’s educate Mr. Walker and try and lay out the differences for him, so everything is understood. We won’t even charge him legal fees for this service.

Little Esther had been the first to break her deal with Savoy at the end of 1950, normally a breach of contract except that she’d signed it as a minor without legal representation, making it null and void. She landed at Federal Records with their contract meeting all of the legal stipulations required.

The next to leave was Johnny Otis himself, but while he certainly wanted to fly the coop with Esther and go to Federal in early 1951, he was forced to stick with Savoy through the end of the year because he’d inked a two year pact that had yet to run its course. Once it did he was free to go, except he double crossed Federal who’d been told he was coming to them, and signed instead with Mercury who offered him more money. That should’ve been a warning to Mr. Walker.

Now you understand Mel’s dilemma here. He’d been recruited by Otis, who also wrote his songs, arranged them and led his own band in the studio, none of which he was comfortable doing for Savoy now that he was out the door. Johnny could still write the tunes, as he did for Esther at Federal, and even conceivably have his musicians, who were not under contract elsewhere, play behind Walker at Savoy as they were still doing for Esther. But because of Otis’s hatred for owner Herman Lubinsky, this was unlikely.

Good ol’ Herm, you may remember, had lied to, then stole from, Otis during their tenure together, first telling him upon signing that if Otis could get him one hit (he gave him TEN hits) he’d increase the royalties from 1% to 3%. He never did. Of course he likely never even paid the 1% either, or at least underreported the sales, so you can see why Otis wanted to get as far away from Savoy as possible… joining the exodus of so many other talented artists and producers who left for similar reasons.

But Walker hadn’t been part of Otis’s troupe when Johnny first signed, so when he joined up a few months later was under a separate contract. Then after Lubinsky lost Esther he naturally didn’t want the same thing happening with Walker, his other big star, and so he gave him a bigger deal for another two years and Walker inexplicably agreed to it. As a result he was stuck there, fair and square.

But Otis, who pointedly had nothing to lose in all this, convinced Walker to jump ship by declaring bankruptcy, which is a shady legal maneuver to get out of paying debts. They naturally viewed the contract as an onerous debt to an equally onerous crook, but the legal system views it differently… it’s an obligation and one not eradicated by bankruptcy proceedings.

Walker nevertheless joined Otis at Mercury last June, released a bunch of records and even scored a hit this past summer, and now was seeking another with Brown Skin Butterball, heavily promoted by the major label who may argue they were unaware by the duplicity all around them, but more likely they were merely unconcerned by it as long as they got some sales out of the affair.

Lubinsky had already been in court twice this year for similar matters – losing the case he brought against Esther, but winning (unjustly) a case against Bobby Nunn, who had been brought to Savoy by none other than Johnny Otis as part of The Robins and was now told he too was stuck with the label as a solo singer.

In the Walker matter however, Lubinsky, though a sniveling cheapskate and petty tyrant who deserved all of the bad fortune he could get, was justifiably upset at this break of a valid contract and filed suit against Mercury and in late December, just as this record had been on the streets for a few weeks, the judge ruled in his favor.

Mel Walker’s escape from captivity was over and he’d been ordered back in his dank and dreary cell.


Sugar Coated
Now at last the record… which after such a convoluted lead-in is bound to be something of a let-down by comparison.

Still, let it be said that Johnny Otis was the creative heartbeat of Mel Walker, providing him with a string of songs ideally suited to his laid-back mellow vocal persona.

Unfortunately this isn’t quite one of them.

Oh, it’s not bad actually, but it’s far from their best work together starting with the inane title, Brown Skin Butterball, which immediately conjures up a turkey dinner, something I think most girls would take offense at being compared to.

Now the Butterball company didn’t start selling turkeys until 1954, but even so the name itself suggests someone rather plump, and while fat girls need love too, generally speaking they’ll appreciate it more if you don’t point out their weight in the title of a love song!

Beyond that faux pas however, the song has a nice enough feel to it with slow resonant echoing drums and a weary alto sax providing the main atmosphere for Walker’s rumination on his girl.

It’s really more of an image of contentment than burning love, though that’s more the song’s structure at work rather than his own feelings towards her. While some of the lyrics are rather touching, even going so far as to try and provide poignant examples of his fondness for her girth when it comes to keeping him warm on winter nights, the problem isn’t in the picture it paints, but rather it’s the way the song paints it using that awkward phrasing which leads to other problems.

Words need to “sing well” in order to be used as lyrics, especially when we’re talking choruses and hooks that are the main inflection point of a song, and Brown Skin Butterball doesn’t flow well, doesn’t have a poetic feel in any way, and doesn’t sound much like a compliment no matter how tenderly Walker tries to deliver it.

When the primary identity of a record is its weakest aspect, and the song isn’t going to bowl you over with instrumental prowess (the alto solo isn’t very compelling), even though the parts fit and are played well, you have an uphill climb. Because it’s also not going to distract you with vocal histrionics there’s nothing left to do BUT pay close attention to the lyrics and each time the title phrase is uttered it loses the tentative grip Walker’s performance had on you and slips further away.


In The Cold, Cold Winter
The fallout from all of this – the song not being so good that it was in great demand; the legal decision handed down that stopped Mercury from issuing it (though since it was already released, surely they didn’t cut off supply if there were those who still requested it), and most importantly the fact that Mel Walker would no longer get to record with Johnny Otis – meant that this two and a half year magical run was officially kaput.

And it was entirely Johnny Otis’s fault.

Nobody, certainly not me, would willingly defend Herman Lubinsky unless under extreme duress, but he was absolutely within his legal rights to bring Walker back in the fold.

Johnny Otis had every right to despise Lubinsky and consider him a thief. He’d have been entitled to hang Herman out a tenth floor window by his ankles in exchange for the payment owed him, a la Suge Knight in the 1990’s. Heck, I’d have opened the window for him myself had I been around back then and would loved to have seen if his hard head bounced off the pavement or just went Splat!!! if Herman though he was bluffing and refused, only to have Johnny go through with it and drop him, giving him the express route to Hell and eternal damnation for his many crimes.

But Otis instead made sure that HE followed all of the rules while being the instigator in everyone else breaking those same rules and facing the penalties for them. His latest scurrilous behavior wasn’t even done with Walker’s best interests in mind, but rather to try and salvage Johnny’s own sinking commercial fortunes since he had no success to speak of without either of his two top vocalists in tow… and don’t forget he went back on his deal with Federal to take more money from Mercury which meant Esther was suffering to a degree without him “officially” backing her now too.

Some friend he was!

As a result both his and Walker’s careers were now at a stand-still. Otis would jump from the frying pan into the fire with Peacock Records before starting his own label and finally reviving his fortunes in the late 1950’s with Capitol. Walker however would never score a hit again, be jailed for drugs and die far too young. I’m not saying that might not have been Mel’s ultimate fate anyway, nor am I saying that Otis wasn’t the primary reason he became big in the first place, but Johnny was also the reason why Mel wound up with a wrecked career before he even reached twenty-five years old.

In any story where Herman fucking Lubinsky comes out looking best, you know there’s some vile shit going on and when it comes to the tragic end of Mel Walker, it’s Johnny Otis who has the most blood on his hands.


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