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MERCURY 8289; JULY 1952



If you were to look at the Pop Charts during rock’s initial rise over the last five and a half years you’d see virtually no rock songs cracking the listings of course, and while that’s to be expected when those charts are culled from outlets catering to the white adult middle class, maybe there’s an added reason rock acts had trouble slipping in from time to time.

There was positively no room for them when the Top Twenty was always crammed with multiple versions of the same few tunes!

Lest you forget, this was the era of the cover record in popular music, wherein a different artist on every label would immediately cut their own version of a rising hit to compete with the original and despite the glut on the market, as many as a half dozen might reach the charts.

Rock ‘n’ roll, a genre that put more value into personal expression than other forms, largely avoided that trend.

Largely, but not completely, as this song shows.


I’ll Take Care Of It On This End
If you were Johnny Otis in mid-1952 you might think everything was coming together for you at last.

You had name recognition from a ton of hits over the past two years and you were finally away from the evil clutches of Savoy Records. Although you totally screwed over Federal Records with whom you had a pretty obvious verbal agreement to join, you’ve managed to end up on a major label in Mercury who were more or less allowing you to produce your own records without interference and promote them with the full-force of their company.

Additionally now you had Mel Walker, your number one male vocalist from your salad days at Savoy, back in the fold… never mind he broke his contract to come here and will soon land in court as a result of that.

Yup, everything DID seem to be coming together for you.

Except it was an illusion because Call Operator 210 would be the final hit single Johnny Otis would have under his own name for six whole years!

Now that’s not to say that Johnny was out of work or not making any significant contributions to rock as a whole. He still was behind the scenes, but his own stardom – at least outside of Los Angeles where he’d host a rock radio show during the next few years – was on the decline and while we might not be able to convince you it was because of this record, or even the decision to cover someone else’s song rather than come up with an original, the fact of the matter is his original inspiration had run its course.

It’s not for nothing we posted this review right after his work with old buddy Preston Love on Strictly Cash, because in that write-up we mentioned how Otis’s jazz (and uptown blues) leanings from his own formative years had influenced his brand of rock ‘n’ roll and in the process had given him a unique niche at the time.

Well time marches on and today’s listeners were taking things further away from where Otis started, leaving this as the last word on that which once ruled the roost.


To Hear That Sweet, Sweet Voice Again
Just because we’re coming right out and admitting its time has passed, that doesn’t mean we’re saying “It’s about damn time” or anything. For while it’s certainly true you want to hear the next stage of any artistic evolution, sometimes the last stage still hasn’t wrung out every final drop of appeal.

The languid vocals of Mel Walker still had some juice left in it even if it seemed more out of step with the surrounding landscape of 1952 than it had a year or two before.

Being a cover version there’s obviously a very definite starting point they were working with here and Otis and Walker don’t take it miles apart from Floyd Dixon’s month old original. There’s a few more instrumental touches on their Call Operator 210 however, as Dixon accompanied himself on piano and must’ve kicked out everybody else out of the studio, and Otis’s additions with its shimmering guitar fills and Otis’s vibes bring at least some air into the otherwise stifling atmosphere the song otherwise inhabited.

But the odd thing is – not that we’re advocating it because Walker is ideal for this kind of performance – the song is performed as a dreary lament in both renditions even though the story is about the reconciliation of lovers who’d recently broken apart.

In other words, you actually COULD completely reinvent the song simply by focusing more on that aspect of the story, maybe starting it off with him down in the dumps when his baby first calls to try and come to an understanding, then as they talk things over and are making up you could step up the tempo, let Walker start showing his excitement and bring in horns and throw a musical party to celebrate their impending reunion.

Again, I’m not saying that would be better by any means, but if we believe the lie that cover versions were supposedly about artists putting their own unique spin on a song rather than merely trying to steal sales by imitating the original, this song provided the ideal opportunity to prove it, yet they did no such thing.

The fact they were rewarded for copying Dixon so closely, both hitting #4 on the charts, though Dixon stayed on those charts nearly three times as long, shows that sales, not artistic license, was always the number one goal.


Don’t Worry ‘Bout The Charges
To be fair, the Otis and Walker pairing has a little more going for it thanks to Mel possessing a better technical voice – even if the misery is slightly more believable coming from Dixon’s stuffy nose – while the varied arrangement with a nice Pete Lewis guitar solo gives this added color.

But while we’re certainly glad this exists and have no problem saying both versions of Call Operator 210 earned the kudos they got, it’s still disconcerting to see artists of this caliber cannibalizing one of their own in the quest for a hit.

Yeah, that’s right, I’m laying this at the feet of Johnny Otis even though you’d assume Mercury Records, especially since they were a major label who viewed cover records as a way of life, would be encouraging them to do so.

The circumstances however point to it being Otis’s decision because he knew he needed a hit to justify his heavily publicized Mercury contract, something his first two instrumental sides on the label had no chance of achieving.

Furthermore, since he was also the one telling the company that Walker was the singer that would give Johnny’s records a commercial edge, he had to make that pay off as quickly as possible, especially since he certainly knew they’d illegally broke Walker’s contract with Savoy… a move they admittedly believed was justified since Herman Lubinsky had broken verbal agreements with Otis regarding a royalty increase, but still not something the courts would look kindly on.

When the sales for this died down and Johnny couldn’t follow it up with anything to equal it – with or with Walker – it’s little wonder why Mercury was reluctant to dive head long into rock ‘n’ roll for a long time.

Mel of course would soon have his life and career derailed by drugs, while Johnny had to once again reinvent his sound by moving away from the sounds he’d helped to popularize, but shouldn’t that be expected? After all, it wasn’t 1950 any more, times had changed and they would have to change with them.

The good thing in the long run however was that rock ‘n’ roll was the ideal place to do that. Largely eschewing cover records, it was the first genre to practically insist on some level of originality and though you could borrow liberally from other areas, even revive older material in radical new ways, there wasn’t a lot of mileage to be gotten from merely putting your name on somebody else’s handiwork like this, no matter how well it was done.


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

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
Floyd Dixon (June, 1952)