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Trying to keep everybody happy if you find yourself in charge of a lot of people with different desires and abilities is never easy.

For bandleader Johnny Otis who oversaw a dozen or so musicians and singers in his outfit, the means with which to dole out spotlighted performances on record were somewhat limited.

The big draws, Little Esther and Mel Walker, were going to get the majority of the releases and so Otis had to find ways to ensure that each soloist in the band – saxes, guitar, trumpet, piano as well as himself on vibes – felt they weren’t being slighted by divvying up the instrumental breaks while still making sure the parts fit their respective songs.

Then there was the case of other vocalists. The group had just taken on two more who’d had their first sessions in October that were soon to the see the light of day all while Redd Lyte, who’d gotten a few releases over the past year, was still hoping to get his first hit.

This wasn’t going to be it.


Since I’ve Got You On My Mind
For those who need the reminder, Redd Lyte was originally the emcee at Otis’s Barrelhouse Club, a guy who could keep the showing going by cracking jokes, singing or engaging with the band or audience between sets. As a thank you Otis had him cut a few sides, none of which were bad, though none of which were particularly great either.

In the winter of 1950 everything changed once Double Crossin’ Blues hit like a ton of bricks, making a star out of Little Esther and turning Johnny Otis into someone who now controlled a growing musical empire. The arrival of Mel Walker around this time gave them an equally potent male star to feature and with plenty of instrumental firepower to display it meant someone like Redd Lyte could be left out of the loop.

But to his credit Otis didn’t let that happen. While part of this undoubtedly was to keep a vital part of his now-touring live show from becoming disgruntled, another factor was simply that Lyte could provide something that Walker could not – a bluesier voice for the down home audience members, a more enthusiastic shouter to get the patrons worked up and in the case of Cool And Easy it allowed them to tackle material that wasn’t compelled to treat love as flirtation, elation or sorrow, but rather reflected the pain and anger those who no longer had it often felt when thinking back on what they lost.

That diversity of output Otis needed ensured that Lyte wouldn’t be cast aside any time soon.


Mine Until The End
At his best – a relative term to be sure – Redd Lyte was a reasonably effective shouter, romping through the likes of Little Red Hen, fueling the instrumental workout that framed his vocals. He wasn’t a detriment to the song by any means, but he wasn’t adding much more than enthusiasm.

On the ballad Going To See My Baby he managed to sort of croon his way through it, letting the melody he sings with carry the song more than his vocals ever could.

But here on Cool And Easy he’s asked to split the difference which unfortunately doesn’t mean he’s bringing the best of both deliveries to the table.

Right away he starts to try and croon again yet he’s already fighting against it, trying to add gravity to a part that demands to be treated lightly. His voice strains too much in the opening and while he dials it down somewhat on the ensuing verses, you sense his uncertainty, knowing as he does that he’s outside of his comfort zone.

The song takes a quick leap into a more intense vocal section that finds him having to hoarsely scream to convey the conflict in the song, but here too it’s not an upbeat enthusiasm he gets to display, but rather a pained anguish that you certainly believe is genuine, but it could just be because his vocal chords have reached their limit and are about to rupture in his throat.

To put it in a nutshell, what Redd Lyte does fairly well this song doesn’t ask him to do and replaces it with the kind of thing he struggles with. Hardly a good sign.

But Lyte is nothing if not someone who gives it his all and he keeps plugging away, trying to compensate for his technical limitations with emotional commitment and to that end he’s just getting by. The song is never easy to listen to, not the way he seems to be passing a gallstone at certain junctures, but he’s not giving up on trying to make some headway with the material.

That tenuous grip he has on the song over the first half starts to dissipate by the second half, but if we aren’t won over by the results, at least we can appreciate the effort.

Now Everything Is Fine
What works about this song – not quite redeems it, but at least makes it go down easier – is the basic building blocks it’s constructed with.

The lyrics might be fairly rudimentary (and Lyte under the name Floyd Hollis co-wrote it, so that almost certainly means the words), but the story itself is solid enough as he uses the Cool And Easy theme to show how his mindset shifts in reaction to his situation.

He starts off in a relaxed state of mind as he’s singing this like a kiss-off to an ex-lover, saying how at ease he is without her in his life. But then he gets riled up thinking about her transgressions and starts bellowing like a mad man before trying to return to the calm tranquil state of mind again.

It’s a good idea but requires more of a deft touch to really work, as we tend to notice his ranting more than the cool aspects he’s touting in the quieter moments.

Better equipped to handle these changes are the band members, specifically how Otis is used to convey the laid back outlook with his vibes while Devonia Williams keeps things from boiling over by constantly stirring the water with her work on piano. When things do start to get overheated by Lyte’s frequent harangues that’s when Pete Lewis’s strangled guitar and some timely bursts of energy from the horns jump into the mix and serve to emphasize his troubles.

Lewis in particular shines with a really nice solo that’s constantly on edge making it sound as if he too is on the verge of cracking up but somehow holds together all the same.

But even with a tight arrangement there’s still not enough melodic attributes to offset the harsher aspects of the song and make it stick in your mind. You remember the intensity of the performance but very little about what it contains.


Everything Is Rosy
Ultimately this was little more than a bone being thrown to Lyte and the band who were featured on Head Hunter, the instrumental flip side.

That was the essentially the deal, formal or otherwise, Otis seemed to have with Savoy/Regent. The label was focused on getting as many hits out of the Little Esther and Mel Walker sides while Otis knew he needed to keep everybody else reasonably happy with sporadic releases of their own.

Cool And Easy was never going to make Redd Lyte a household name, but nor was it ever intended to. As long as he felt appreciated he’d show up for work and keep things moving on stage, lighten the mood when tensions rose on bus trips or backstage while his payoff for such duties was getting to sing song or two along the way.

They weren’t what Johnny Otis’s bunch would be remembered for in the end, but they didn’t detract from the things that made them all stars either and so it’s not hard to see the benefit these records served even if you wound up leaving them out of your personal playlists more often than not.


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