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Time inevitably changes things.

In 1947 when rock ‘n’ roll began television was just entering the fringes of the mainstream, but now just five years later television was a household staple across most of America.

Each fall new fashions hit the market which make last year’s styles seem old fashioned and anything you wear from two or three years in the past are bound to seem garishly out of date.

Musically it’s the same thing. When Johnny Otis scored hit after hit with slow dreamy songs featuring the languid vocals of Mel Walker throughout 1950 it was fresh and interesting, but now just a few years later, while the output may still be soothing to the ears, these records seem to come from another universe and as such are going to have a much harder time cutting through the din made by all of the more up-to-date rock styles.


Just Remember What I Said
When looking back at records from seventy-one years in the past, it’s safe to say that very few people today are recalling those songs and their immediate reactions to them when they were initially released.

Instead, most who have acquired an interest in these things have done so long after the expiration date for these artists, songs and styles have passed. Because of this most of you are probably not simply confining yourself to small segments of history, or even focusing on a single narrow style within the larger rock world as you surely would’ve at the time.

Instead you’re free to cherry pick from across a wider spectrum, both stylistically (how many of you reading this also have an interest in country or blues artists from 1952? If you were around back then it’s doubtful you would have) and in terms of a much broader era and think nothing of it.

After all, if you like Johnny Otis and Mel Walker’s best sides from 1950 it’s hard not to also like their similar sounding output from 1952. To you they represent the same basic era, whereas at the time the distance between them seemed much farther apart.

All things being equal it’s easy to say that Gypsy Blues is good enough to compete with their best work from that commercial and creative heyday two years earlier, but it’s hardly being judged using those same standards when we’re talking about trying to connect with a sound that was popular a few years in the past.

In fact, it may reek of desperation to some that Otis and Walker would return to such an approach at this point, unwilling or unable to alter their outlook to take into account everything that’s happened since then, just hoping the same old fans, probably dwindling in number by the day, will pony up the money to keep their names remotely relevant.

This is ridiculous of course, good music should endure, not be made to feel obsolete in the blink of an eye, but that’s the thing we keep trying to tell you about time… it moves so fast while bringing so many new ideas to the table to be digested that it can’t pause to look back at yesterday no matter how well that earlier dish went over.


Don’t You Worry, Don’t You Fret, Don’t You Cry
One way you can tell this is revisiting an earlier prototype is how the musical side of this review won’t be surprised by a single feature of the record, nor even pointing out a new twist to the old formula.

That doesn’t mean the record is an inferior rip-off of past glories, or something unimaginative without the scarsest bit of effort being shown by anyone involved, but rather that there’s nothing here that is going to pique our curiosity before we fully absorb the end results.

That’s the problem with sticking to an accepted blueprint, you already know the layout of the house so to speak, therefore it already feels lived in when you enter it for the first time. Now for those first generation rock fans who were no longer setting the trends, something like Gypsy Blues was like a welcome visit from old friends. But for those on the front lines of establishing the latest hits, this offered them nothing that hadn’t been heard before.

Okay… so it’s going to take a hit for freshness obviously, which means to still make an impact it has to excel in the execution of old ideas and thankfully in that regard this shows Otis and Walker still have something to offer.

Rock has always loved exploring gypsy characters as a way to reveal backstory or render advice to the main character within the context of the song’s lyrics while suggesting something more mysterious than if that same information had been conveyed by the character’s buddy while sitting on a barstool.

Otis frames this image nicely, using Walker’s slower dramatic vocal intro to build suspense and raise the stakes before stepping up the pace just enough so that Mel’s anxiousness comes through loud and clear. All of this is backed by Johnny’s own vibes and some echoing drums giving it a pensive, almost foreboding feel, while the slightly dry and mundane horns try and keep things grounded.

The next shift occurs when after reassuring him, the gypsy badmouths Mel’s ex to him which comes with a more prominent piano and Walker’s own increased urgency, the strain in his voice seen in his slightly higher pitch.

They’re subtle touches by nature, as the song itself relies on creating a sense of nervous trepidation that is ultimately going to go unresolved. As such Gypsy Blues has to discreetly increase the apprehension so you won’t be let down by the lack of a more explosive payoff.

Walker’s voice is ideally suited for this kind of thing because he was ill-at-ease with the harder driving style that was now in vogue, and if Otis leans a little too hard on some tried and true methods in his arrangement, the tactics themselves are still gratifying when everything is working in tandem together.

Even the story wrapping up without really settling anything works to its advantage here, because it’s more about Walker coming to grips with this unwelcome reality that his girl is no good, as it is about getting over it.

That’ll surely come down the road, but like the record itself, there’s still a few miles left on this road that they’re determined to travel.


Gave Your Love Away
In Nineteen Fifty this would’ve gone over great. Almost anything they released during that magical year made the charts and this surely would’ve soared close to the top and been given a grade here that made such a commercial result seem entirely justified.

In 1951 this same record may have crawled into the lower rungs of those same charts as a lingering reminder of the magic Johnny Otis and Mel Walker could spin together when they were in sync. Our appreciation of it would’ve still be strong, but we wouldn’t have been quite so effusive in our praise since it’d now be a little behind the curve.

But in 1952 – getting into the tail end of the year no less – Gypsy Blues was met with an indifferent response in the marketplace where it failed to even make a regional listing, while our enthusiasm for it has to be more muted as well.

Yeah, it’s the same song we’d have loved two years ago, but it’s not two years ago and the rock environment has changed too much to be as welcoming for this sort of thing today.

We still do love the performance itself, admire the songwriting and mostly appreciate the arrangement – although some of the horn parts could use a shot of adrenaline – but it’s a bit like wearing summer clothes in the midst of a snowstorm.

The seasons have changed and you need to change with them or else you’ll find your artistic prospects are getting frostbitten the longer you stay outside as the temperatures drop.


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