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REGENT 1017; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

With the sheer amount of records Johnny Otis was releasing since signing with Savoy in late 1949 there’s bound to be something to fit every conceivable stylistic niche in rock ‘n’ roll.

Then when you then stop to consider all of the mouths he had to feed within his troupe of singers and instrumental hot-shots, each of whom were getting their own releases – at least as the featured performer under Otis’s name – all of whom needed material crafted for their particular skills it’s frankly amazing that he found time to sleep.
 

 

See What I Was Putting Down
Though both of his two sides covered here to date – the first under the name Leon Sims – were better than average, Redd Lyte was probably the most limited of Johnny Otis’s featured acts when all was said and done.

A genial emcee at Otis’s Barrelhouse Club whose ability to handle the occasional vocal was just part of his job description, his primary role was on stage was being quick on his feet, ad-libbing intros, cracking the occasional joke or taking part in comedy skits, filling time in between sets and generally just keeping things moving and not allowing the energy to drop.

Johnny’s loyalty to him was admirable once Otis turned his attention to his recording career, but on record those kind of skills were not exactly in high demand and so Lyte began to sing more, mostly uptempo sides where his lack of technical ability was less of a detriment and he could be bolstered by a jumping tempo and the musical prowess of the band hitting on all cylinders.

But singles have two sides to them and as was the case on stage where diversity was the key to a good show, Otis knew that offering something different on each side was advantageous to spreading the word about his group’s widespread abilities so unless Johnny wanted to use an altogether different lead and split the credits accordingly – something which carried the risk of confusing record buyers – he needed to find a way to balance out the boastful proclamations Lyte used rather effectively on Little Red Hen with something more subdued.

To that end Going To See My Baby works fairly well even though with his nasal delivery this kind of thing is hardly what he does best. Lucky for him that’s what guitarists like Pete Lewis are for… to divert your attention with something more compelling.
 


 
 

Dream About Her All Night Long
It might strike some as patently unfair to start of the musical segment of the review by focusing on someone other than the singer who would soon see his place in the pecking order be supplanted by more skilled singers who’d start wracking up bigger hits in the near future, but while Lyte at least got his name in bold print on the records featuring his work, the same usually wasn’t true for Pete “Guitar” Lewis, save for a stray instrumental single or two. Yet it was Lewis who was fast proving himself to be the indispensable glue that held together so many of these records in all sorts of styles thanks to his incendiary guitar work.

On Little Red Hen we saw him slashing notes in a quick and efficient manner that might not have gotten the spotlight but which provided the most compelling musical feature of the entire track. He could play fast and loose or slow and tortured, he could just chip in with those accent notes, or even stay well in the background and add little more than distant atmosphere, or, as is the case with Going To See My Baby he could set the entire mood, dragging both the listener and Redd Lyte himself into a dreamy somber haze that adds unusual twist to what is essentially a love song.

Lewis’s guitar takes center stage here from the first notes you hear playing a slow introspective-sounding intro backed by Devonia Williams’ lightly percussive piano, all leading… where? To a darkened room where Redd Lyte sits alone with a bottle and his thoughts, despairing over being dumped by someone he truly cared for?

Nope, think again. He’s not morose at all, in fact he’s elated because he’s on his way to hook up with his beloved – who apparently, in spite of the ominous feel established by the music that something is bound to go wrong, actually loves him too!

That the two sides, musical and lyrical, don’t mesh is the song’s inexorable flaw… but notice I didn’t say fatal flaw because both Lewis and Lyte are simpatico in their deliveries throughout this, leading you to almost believe Redd must’ve grabbed the wrong lead sheet and was singing the next song on the slate rather than the morose ballad this is shaping up to be.

But incongruous thematically or not, they sell this with admirable consistency, Lewis’s guitar weaving delicately around Lyte’s melancholy vocals. Considering their disparate levels of aptitude it’d be easy for Pete to overwhelm Redd and render him all but irrelevant on his own record, but Lewis is deferential in his playing, keeping his distance when Lyte advances the plot and only stepping to the forefront to bolster his delivery in brief turns between lines.

So much of rock to date has featured – and in fact celebrated – the flamboyant instrumental solos in vocal records, where musicians are placed on equal footing with the singer, each one attempting to forcibly pull the spotlight onto themselves which if done well can make for explosive results but oftentimes led to the more powerful instruments seizing control of the record outright.

Here Lewis avoids that altogether, instead relegating himself to the role of accompanist, an equally vital attribute but one with far less acclaim. Yet the song transcends its limitations thanks TO those respectful and measured contributions by Lewis who never deviates from the job at hand for an ill-considered stab at artificially getting noticed.
 


 

Sing To Her This Lovely Sweet Song
One of the common pitfalls in songwriting is in the frequent use of musical clichés in the place of more original storylines.

This is a time-saving device at its core, taking generalized feelings that are familiar to anyone who’s heard their fair share of songs, and applying them to new material regardless of how appropriate it might be for that plot.

Going To See My Baby falls prey to this which – as we said – conflicts with the downbeat singing and playing the record features. Because Redd Lyte and Pete Lewis in particular are on the same page we tend not to notice the clash quite as much – unless of course it’s our job to analyze these records like bugs under a microscope – but it’s there to see for anyone who cares to look for it and once you do realize the sentiments don’t match the presentation then it can’t help but suffer in your appraisal of it.

Lyte’s busy telling us about his girl and how much he’s looking forward to seeing her, albeit in rather bland and strictly by-the-numbers descriptive language, yet he sounds apprehensive and at times downright worried about their upcoming meeting.

This is where you’d expect the twist to the story and had they given us one, even if it had also been lifted wholesale from another clichéd song, then the two elements would at least be compatible, but instead the only bump in the road when they meet is her complaint that he doesn’t come around often enough. Yet there’s no sense of any duplicity here, like he’s got some other girl he’s seeing, nor does she come across as angry or ready to give up on him, but rather she seems to be longing for him with the same smoldering undercurrent of desire and is just hopeful to see that he feels just as strongly about her.

At best this is merely miscommunication between these two, some romantic gamesmanship gone awry where holding back in showing the full extent of your feelings for someone risks having the other person mistakenly think you don’t care. But since Lyte informs us that he’s got every intention of telling her he’s crazy about her – and in fact does so in the last half of the song – there’s no reason for all this angst. It’s not necessarily a wasted sentiment, but it definitely is a misplaced one in terms of the song.

It’d have been easy to bring everything in line by simply changing the word “see” in the title to “miss”, then they could’ve easily altered the story just by having Lyte look back on his failed relationship, putting the blame on the fact he was hesitant to show her how much he really wanted her and stayed away hoping it’d spur her interest in him more only to discover she gave up on him and went off with someone else. That’s such an easy – and obvious – editing job you wouldn’t even feel comfortable asking for a co-writing credit for suggesting it.
 


 

I’ll Be Around
Maybe Otis was kicking himself when a few weeks after this was cut he brought Mel Walker into the fold, a singer who had the kind of soothing tones that might’ve worked wonders with this, but even so any improvement would probably only be a matter of degrees as the concept itself was limited by design.

Far from being a total waste though Going To See My Baby actually was still a serviceable B-side, whether as a ballad to offset an uptempo romp on the top side or as a showcase for Lewis who was a dynamic musician who had the misfortune to be a guitarist in an era of rock still dominated by saxophones.

It may not be anything too special but by giving Lyte – and by extension Lewis – a different type of song to sink their teeth into at the very least it gives listeners something different to make sure they appeal to virtually every possible taste.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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