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SAVOY 855; JULY 1952



Wait a minute… what’s going on here? Didn’t we just see Johnny Otis… on another label no less?

In that review didn’t we go into detail about how acrimonious the split between he and Savoy Records had been, especially now that he’d “stolen” Mel Walker from his old label and taken him to Mercury even though Walker was still under contract with Savoy?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure we did.

So why are we now staring at another record by him on Savoy?

Oh yeah, I know why… because this is the record industry where the one thing that can override the deep-seated bitter resentment of label owners is the scent of a dollar and if Otis was going to be scoring a hit elsewhere, then Herman Lubinsky sure as hell wanted to capitalize on it any way he could.


Runs Into Me
I suppose you can see why it took Savoy a year and a half to issue this… and then only when there was an outside chance at stealing a few sales if unwary customers simply asked a clueless clerk for “Johnny Otis’s latest record” and got handed this instead of his current hot platter on Mercury.

Not that those buyers should have too much to complain about, for while it’s not Call Operator 210, the budding hit sung by Mel Walker on that other label, this is brings us the unexpected return of Redd Lyte, the long discarded vocalist whose role in Otis’s stage show had long since been usurped by Walker’s presence.

To be fair there’s no question that Walker was a much better singer than Lyte all things considered, but then again Lyte was a better MC and comedian than Walker, not that you were getting either of those qualities on Gonna Take A Train.

Instead you were getting a solid, slightly bluesy, downcast ballad that perfectly suited Lyte’s more strained and hoarse vocal chords. Since Walker was with the Otis conglomerate at the time this was cut back in January 1951, and had sung most of the material over that three day session, you might say that Johnny was merely throwing Redd a bone, trying to keep him happy and sort of spread the wealth around while they could do no wrong commercially.

But no, I don’t think that’s the case exactly. Sure that might’ve been his intent when coming up with the song, but once it was down on paper it’s obvious that Lyte, not Walker, was the ideal choice for singing this.

It may not have much chance to be a hit, certainly not by the summer of ’52, but it’s a lot more than simply a throwaway. In fact, to Herman Lubinsky’s utter surprise, it may even be more than that.


The Finest Thing In Town
Maybe you’re the kind who wants to say that with the vaunted supporting cast he’s working with here just about the only thing Redd Lyte has to do to make this work is not get laryngitis when the red light goes on in the studio.

Okay, fair enough, but merely delivering the lines in a competent fashion would probably expose the source material for what it is… hijacked lines from a thousand and one other songs welded together with a fairly rudimentary bare bones arrangement proven to work through years of practice in roadhouses from coast to coast.

That of course is a tradition in blues-based compositions throughout history and nothing to get riled up about, but there are some who might take exception to it a little more if not for Lyte’s impeccable delivery which makes the familiar stanzas sound original and even a bit unexpected thanks to his sense of dramatic presentation.

Still, it’s pretty hard not to credit the deep reservoir of sources for Gonna Take A Train wherein we have a guy down on his luck who is bemoaning his lost love using cliched phrases about the way his ”love come tumbling down” while making non-judgmental comments about inter-breed sexual relations between dogs to make his point.

But it’s Redd’s performance that makes it all feel fresh… the stop-time pauses Otis throws in for effect and the sterling guitar work of Pete Lewis who plays only those notes which are absolutely necessary to maintain forward momentum, while the horns do likewise behind him to suggest a fuller melody than we actually get.

It’s a record where you could almost claim the arrangement was nothing more than insinuated, as every ounce of fat has been stripped from the skeleton leaving nothing but still twitching sinewy muscles to carry the day.

There may not be a single note that hasn’t already been through the wringer in similar songs, nor any whiff of originality to be found in a single lyric, but man, oh man, do they squeeze out every last ounce of meaning from both throughout the record, as the music is as sturdy as an oak and the story is as reliable as a children’s fairy tale.


It’s Been A Long, Long Time
If you’re looking for something novel in your records – as we often are around here – this won’t cause you to even turn your head or bat an eye.

It’s recycled from recycled material and barely dressed up much to look new.

But if you’re looking for the best way to use those tried and true sources then you can’t possibly find fault with Gonna Take A Train, as it puts every single element to use here and allows each of them to reach their full potential, provided they don’t attempt to break free of the song’s rather limited framework.

Because of those last three words… the rather limited framework, which denotes a lack of imagination, ambition and even effort on Johnny Otis’s part… it’s tempting to penalize it a little for being content to clear a low bar.

Yet if you happen to notice how high they actually clear the bar maybe your opinion of it will change, as it did mine.

What started off as a fairly nice, slightly above average, renewal of acquaintances with Redd Lyte soon became a very good example of a formula that rarely gets old.

But with each successive listen it got even better than that. Every guitar note falls perfectly and lingers behind in a satisfying way… every swell of the horns brushes against you with the right amount of pressure and pulls you forward… every vocal cadence by Lyte hits all of its marks in meaning, emotion and tone. Even the subtle pauses between certain lines add infinitely more suggestiveness than a lone second of silence should be permitted to in mixed company.

Sometimes we’re prone to forget just how prolific and proficient Johnny Otis’s crew was at their peak with Savoy, but here, well after that heyday has passed, we get a chance to go back and see for ourselves what we probably took for granted all that time.

This is a second rate song with a third tier vocalist that came together on an afterthought single long after they all left the Savoy stable, but somehow, someway, in spite of such limited goals from everybody involved – from Otis to the disgruntled label that was finally getting around to issuing it in a desperate bid to attract belated notice – it’s frighteningly close to perfection all the same.

Cliched though it may be, sometimes in music it’s the simple things that endure.


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