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REGENT 1016; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

In 1950 Johnny Otis was the last guy in the world you’d want to play poker with.

I don’t know what his skill level was at cards, or if he even knew the difference between a straight and a flush, but I do know that he continually bucked the odds – the sheer law of averages – throughout this one magical year.

In the two months since starting his association with Savoy Records he’s scored national hit records with both The Robins and Little Esther and had strong regional hits with others, and now he’s back with yet another new budding star who fills in the one gap in his team’s resume he could said to have been lacking, a male solo singer who had the voice to make listeners swoon.

In poker terms this was like drawing to a pair of aces with a king kicker and landing a full house. If you were another rock artist on the scene in the winter of 1950 it might be in your best interest to cash in your remaining chips and look for a different game – like marbles or tiddlywinks – in another part of town rather than trying to compete with the vast stable of stars Otis was putting together.
 

 

You Just Left Me On The Shelf
When assessing Johnny Otis’s musical entourage in historical terms, Mel Walker probably is the guy most easily overlooked, at least among the featured names, for a multitude of reasons. The first of course is that he died far too young and thus unlike Little Esther who scored hits in the 1980’s or Big Jay McNeely who was still blowing up a storm on saxophone into the Twenty-First Century, or even The Robins who went on to kinda morph into The Coasters, one of the most enduringly famous hit making groups of the 1950’s, their legacies had a much longer shelf life than someone who passed away in 1964, ten years after leaving Otis’s crew after his first drug arrest in 1954.

The other reason for his modern obscurity might be that while Walker was almost exclusively a balladeer and while very popular back in the day those who are crate digging in the future for early rock sides tend to like the more uptempo or racy sides and so his output gets put back on the shelf by many.

But Mel Walker was arguably the best pure singer in Otis’s entire organization, technically superior to Little Esther, his frequent co-star on duets, and possessing an instantly identifiable voice that provided a perfect contrast to the other singers in Otis’s band.

You also need to keep in mind Johnny’s background as the overseer of a live revue at his own Barrelhouse Club where he discovered Walker. The goal of these shows was diversity, each act bringing something different to the table so that over the course of a night every possible taste in the audience would be met. His instrumentalists included wailing saxes of James Von Streeter and frequently Big Jay McNeely, the sinewy guitar of Pete Lewis, the nimble piano of Devonia Williams and a rock solid rhythm section to hold everything together.

There was also comedians on stage, telling jokes but also delivering musical “skits” that were funny enough to draw laughs, yet musical enough to not be entirely reliant of the punchlines to sell their wares.

But it was the vocal talent that began to take precedent, especially once Otis’s recording career got underway as more traditional songs – sans the visual side of the equation you’d get at the club – were what listeners expected. That’s what made singing Little Esther in the fall, and Walker in the winter, so vital for Johnny’s continued success, especially after he and The Robins broke off their partnership around the time Cry Baby was released, featuring those same Robins – doing business as the Bluenotes here – as the backing voices to Walker’s alluring lead.
 


 
 

I Shouldn’t Waste My Tears
The record wastes no time before dropping you into a dreamy motif as Lewis’s slurry guitar is backed by Williams’ teardrop piano notes sounding as if they’re cascading from the heavens.

Walker enters the picture almost immediately after the mood is set, his sleepy baritone keeping in line with the accompaniment, intentionally or not (I assume it was, since it’d be hard for Otis NOT to be aware of the effect his singing had on listeners). That drowsy voice though is hardly a negative, even as it has a tendency to cause your eyelids to droop as you follow along. But it’s not so much putting you to sleep as putting you in a trance, breaking down your resistance in the process and getting you to willingly acquiesce to him steering you in whatever direction he chooses.

On Cry Baby the choice is to put you slightly off-balance, as the perspective he offers is a shifting one – “They call me cry baby” he starts out, immediately upending the more expected third person focus and instead laying the blame at his own doorstep.

It’s disarming in a way to hear him be so self-critical right out of the gate, as the song is as much a confession as it is a narrative, yet Walker is self-effacing enough to get you to sympathize with him more than pity him scorn him for his perceived weaknesses.

Unfortunately because the lyrics are fairly rote it requires all of Walker’s abilities in delivering this to pull that trick off throughout the song. It’s not that the details are lacking, but rather there’s nothing surprising about any of it. You can predict the plot if not the actual lines themselves that are being used. Call it songwriting by the numbers if you want, it’ll be easy enough to follow but it will hardly provide any moments of real insight or memorable twists.

Yet Walker delivers all of this as if he were breaking new thematic ground and does so with sublime skill, almost enough to get you to overlook at least some of the standard theme he’s saddled with by Otis.

Maybe it was Johnny just trying to see what the kid was capable of and didn’t want to waste something really profound on a newcomer with no recording experience. Or maybe Otis was already succumbing to the onslaught of material he needed to satisfy Savoy’s demand for releases… so much so that this was actually put out on their Regent subsidiary at the same time another Otis record on Savoy was being issued with even more to come over the next few weeks. Talk about flooding the market!

Yet they were able to do this precisely because of Walker… and Esther, and The Robins and all of the spotlighted members of the band, since they could be given label credit alongside Otis himself, thereby letting Johnny’s rising name recognition act as the draw while each member of his outfit got the featured spot to try and make a name for themselves. If nothing else, Mel Walker does that here, even as he’s got to share some of that spotlight with the aforementioned band which is put to good use in their own right.
 


 

Wash My Tears Away
Since this is hardly a dynamic track the instrumental elements of the record are going to have to be more subtle by nature, which could be why Big Jay McNeely is just taking a supporting role rather than bending the song to his own nefarious means.

But Cry Baby is hardly lacking for keeping McNeely mostly under wraps because that just gives more space for Pete “Guitar” Lewis to strut his stuff on some razor-edged lines that stand in stark contrast to the wispy backing he provides behind the vocals.

Lewis never shifts out of second gear on this but his work is all the more captivating for that restraint. His solo isn’t long and is more drawn out and even elusive than it is direct and to the point, but the effect it has is to keep you leaning forward, anticipating the next move, then pulling back or switching up so you never get a firm grip on him and tie him down. Some of his lines seem almost suggested, fading into the ether before their notes fully sink in, thereby adding to the dream-like perception they started with. Meanwhile Williams is chipping in with sporadic runs on the treble keys, similarly hinting at a mood more than definitively stating it.

In the future this is precisely the kind of song that Otis would step to the forefront with his vibes but they’re completely absent here which helps to set it apart from much of their work which follows, though of course when this was released audiences had yet to have much evidence of what would soon become Otis’s main instrumental flourishes now that he’d largely given up his seat behind the drums.

But while the sparse arrangement is a benefit to the delicate ambiance of the song, the same can’t be said for the late arriving Robins behind Walker during the last stanza as they serve as a sort of echoing Greek chorus chiding Mel for his admitted failures with women. It’s just a few lines, they’re not out in front really, but they upset the balance of the performance just enough to make you wish they stayed away, or maybe let McNeely blow a haunting distant counterpoint to Walker’s final refrains instead.

Seeing as how this was their penultimate recording session with Otis (they’d cut two tracks the next day the second week of January before their rift ended their mutually beneficial relationship just as it was taking off commercially) it makes their rather subdued performance here all the more bittersweet. Because Bobby Nunn’s commanding low voice isn’t even in the blend it doesn’t even sound like The Robins, but rather giving the impression this was the earlier A-Sharp Trio that existed before Nunn joined up with them last year.

Like the other shortcomings here, their work isn’t anything off-putting, but it’s also not quite adding anything of note to the song, giving the impression that this was something of a test-run for Walker which helped to establish the basic motif of the hits of his that would soon follow.
 

 

I Still Love You Baby
To that end though it does it’s job well enough, giving us our first look at Mel Walker on a song that for the most part is suited for his style and shows the band is capable of delivering this kind of subdued track with relative ease.

The mistakes aren’t egregious by any means, more like slightly misjudged, but you have to admire the fact that Otis didn’t try and cram in too many other unnecessary parts for musicians just because they were being paid to play on the session. Its stripped down ethereal sound is the greatest attribute of Cry Baby and in serving up Mel Walker as someone eminently capable of handling this different type of song it further expands the possibilities Johnny Otis had to choose from going forward.

The rest of the 1950 and really the next two years, nobody would have such a deep arsenal of weapons at his disposal as Otis. Though this isn’t the best that Walker was capable of, Otis and company were so hot that this became a Top Ten hit a few months down the road and gave notice that the guy with the biggest pile of chips in front of him at the table had a pretty solid hole card on this hand.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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