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The further along in life you go, the more you realize that you rarely learn something truly surprising about somebody you’ve known for a long time.

It’s not impossible of course… not everybody reveals every last detail about their hobbies, talents and tastes along the way, but when you’ve come to know a person for awhile it’s rare that you’ll be caught off guard by some bit of information being sprung on you unless it’s a highly personal embarrassing secret they went to great lengths to keep hidden.

Maybe a brief but intense interest in square dancing… a short-lived infatuation with tawdry romance novels… a stint in a Tijuana jail… a vote they once cast for a Republican in an election… ya know, things that will forever taint someone’s image and result in scorn and derision from their friends.

Most of the time though, things that somebody does really well do not escape without notice, yet here’s a case where it almost did for Mel Walker.


I Know You Used To Love Me But That Was Long Ago
Which do we get into first? The aforementioned shocking revelation about vocalist Mel Walker’s hidden talents, or the particulars about the song itself, irrespective of who’s singing it?

Well, I hate to build you up for an immediate payoff and then leave you hanging, but it’s going to be the latter in this case because that might just lead into the explanation for the former.

If you look at things such as writing credits on the label scans provided here, you see three familiar names that haven’t been billed together as of yet. Leiber, Stoller, Otis, as in Jerry, Mike and Johnny.

In the future their shared credit on a certain song would be a lifelong point of contention resulting in a lawsuit that eliminated the last of those names, but here on The Candle’s Burnin’ Low nobody seems to dispute their partnership.

Either that or nobody cares enough about the record to take issue with it.

Regardless, for a short time in 1952 and ’53 the up and coming writing team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller enjoyed a pretty satisfying working relationship with all-around talent Johnny Otis – bandleader, writer, producer, instrumentalist and sometime singer who oversaw a vast retinue of performers.

It was through him (presumably anyway) that they hooked up with Ralph Bass at Federal Records and wrote songs there for Otis’s charge, Little Esther, as well as Federal’s latest signing Little Willie Littlefield and others. It was also how they landed at Peacock Records writing for Big Mama Thornton which caused such a kerfuffle.

In the meantime though, they worked this up with Otis for his primary singer on Mercury, Mel Walker and after so many songs that Johnny wrote himself which played into Walker’s sense of languid romanticism – or its emotional flip-side, lethargic hurt – Leiber and Stoller threw that playbook out the window to come up with something completely different.


Buy Myself A Fine Tombstone
With Pete Lewis’s guitar taking on a slightly different tone than usual – higher pitched, yet somehow fuller and more resonant with a deft shimmering quality that lingers in your ear – there’s something intrinsically mesmerizing about the track before we even hear Mel Walker come into the room.

It’s still slow and slinky by nature, but it’s no longer pensive as so many of his cuts had a tendency to be when Otis was the only creative mind at work and once Walker opens his mouth we find out why.

This is not the Mel Walker we’re used to hearing at all. For one thing he’s growling his lines, rather than crooning them, dropping his voice down for a more guttural projection. In spite of that however it’s not to make a forceful demand as you’d expect. Instead he’s voicing resignation over the fate of a once strong relationship that has run its course.

Though there are no clever witticisms to be found in The Candle’s Burnin’ Low that Jerry Leiber would soon be known for – in fact he may sell the story itself a little short – but as a mood piece it’s hard to beat and there’s just enough information revealed in colorful ways to get the point across. The title line in the first stanza frames this almost as if it’s simply a single date that is nearing conclusion as Walker bids her a goodnight before he turns that on its head to suggest the long-term romance is over.

There’s no artificial drama being injected here, at least not more than can be surmised by listening to the conviction of Walker’s decision in his voice. He’s dejected enough to suggest he’s going to camp out in a cemetery rather than endure another night at home in an otherwise empty bed – thereby informing us of her unforgivable transgressions in a roundabout way – but he’s clearly not on the verge of an emotional breakdown over this turn of events.

He’s hurt and a little angry for sure but he still has some semblance of self-control, which is why that tonal shift from his usual delivery is so vital in making this work. He isn’t trying to get her to change her behavior, not hoping to talk himself out of walking out on her, not even attempting to make her feel guilty and miss him when he’s gone, but rather he’s unequivocally stating the obvious which is he can’t live with himself if he remains living with her and so for his own mental well-being he’s cutting ties completely to go off and be alone.

Well… he DOES have some moral support in the form of the band who give the arrangement a somewhat menacing presence that sounds as if it’s lurking in the shadows courtesy of the intertwining piano and guitar. Otis’s vibes are nowhere to be found and the horns make only the briefest appearance and are kept low in the mix which adds to the uncertain feel this has throughout the song.

Chalk it up as the official statement of a spurned lover who has a sturdy enough backbone to make a firm decision even if his legs are a bit unsteady as he walks out the door.

It wouldn’t be right to say that something this atypical was the best Mel Walker ever sounded, but it’s not far off to say that sounding this way adds another dimension to his artistry which makes his all-too brief career that much more formidable in the long run.


I Guess It’s Time For Me To Go
There’s no shortage of interviews, scholarly analysis and published information about the three famed writers on this. Johnny Otis wrote multiple books on his own and Leiber and Stoller had a “as told to” autobiography put out that contained a lot of good stories in it conveyed in the first person.

Yet none of them, as far I know, ever commented on the genesis of this brief working relationship, let alone made even passing reference to The Candle’s Burnin’ Low which contains a great out of character performance by Mel Walker on a smartly evocative production stemming directly from the type of song the three of them wrote in tandem.

Only one of them remains with us, Mike Stoller, and somehow this vital information could go to the grave with him. They’ve all talked at length about the Hound Dog legal wrangling and the personal fall-out that stemmed from it, but what about the story of HOW they actually got together, who was the protagonist, how did they work together (I’m assuming Mike and Jerry wrote the songs and Johnny “polished” it up, or provided more of a formal arrangement in the studio) and in what capacity was Otis was taking them with him to the various record labels he was working with?

It may have been short-lived and ultimately acrimonious, but that’s only because it was an incredibly productive period that ended with an immortal record and we know how success – and the financial spoils that come with it – has an unfortunate tendency to create enemies out of the participants who all want more of the money and more of the credit.

This however is something maybe none of them made much money on, nor do any of them seem to have sought an undue amount of credit for, yet as a record – while not immortal – it’s pretty damn great all the same.

More than that however, it provides a rare opportunity to find out something surprising about a singer we’ve thought we’d come to know inside and out in the two years before this. But it turns out even after hearing Mel Walker sing on twenty-four sides, we didn’t have quite the grip on his vocal talents as we assumed.


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