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REGENT 1017; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

In many ways the concept of records themselves are an anathema to the social role that music fills in people’s lives.

So much of the joy and excitement of music is best experienced in the moment with the singer and band right in front of you while you’re surrounded by like-minded enthusiasts on the floor, dancing, singing along, screaming yourself hoarse or just soaking up the communal atmosphere the music provides. It’s a social event that binds people together with the connective thread being the sounds enveloping you in the moment.

Yet a record by definition must unravel the thread, pulling it from the fabric it otherwise would be holding together. That it still manages to connect with people, in some cases even more effectively than the more haphazard inconsistencies of live settings, speaks to the inherent power of music as a whole.
 

 

Stimuli (n.) a thing or event that evokes a specific functional reaction
Over the past two years The Barrelhouse Club in Watts was where Johnny Otis honed much of his approach to music, where he drafted a wide array of musicians and vocalists to put together his band, and where night after night they did their best to elicit a reaction from a willingly complicit crowd who’d come there specifically to be moved by the music they played.

Redd Lyte was the club’s emcee whose main job it was to see to it that the crowd was kept moving, often being called upon himself to sing the types of boisterous songs that may have been fairly rudimentary on paper but in the right atmosphere with the right band rocking behind him were surefire party starters.

Little Red Hen is a record that was conceived and even played in a manner in which that external reaction was expected – indeed almost required for it to work – and yet because it’s being performed within the confines of an otherwise empty studio the attributes which worked so well on a Friday night with throngs of drunken revelers adding to the cacophony the job in translating that excitement to wax was made all the more difficult… if not downright impossible.
 


 
 

Take A Tip
Because of that clear intent you could call this an experimental record in a sense, though I’m sure Johnny Otis and company weren’t thinking of it as such, but rather were simply trying to take what Redd Lyte did well on stage and find a way to sell it to the masses in the form of a record.

In a live setting its simple structure and rote lyrics would be welcome by the audience because they’d merely serve as a way to ground the song in something familiar so that Lyte’s manic delivery and the band’s rousing riffs would be free to carry you away.

To their credit all of the components necessary to reach that goal are in place here, from the slow seductive start that gradually adds layers in the form of other instruments (throbbing horns and stabbing guitar) which builds to the vocal that frames this illicit nocturnal rendezvous in a way that’s hardly ambiguous.

Lyte’s limited voice is a mild hindrance when taken in isolation but as merely one ingredient in a more robustly flavorful dish it doesn’t really spoil the taste. He’s suitably exuberant delivering what essentially amounts to a braggart throwing down his sexual qualifications while taking some of the “objectionable” sting out of it by loosely adopting the role of a strutting barnyard rooster in search of a Little Red Hen to “boogie” with.

You know what boogie means in this context, as do I, but the fact that boogie MIGHT conceivably mean dancing further blunts the stigma it might’ve faced. Remember, Otis was not normally one to sugar-coat things in his music but having recently seen a huge upswing in sales since he arrived at Savoy Records might mean he was wise enough to leave some of the story particulars open to suggestion. Besides, it’s always a good idea to lead the audience to the watering hole without forcibly dunking their head in yourself, that way they can be the ones to “get” the joke themselves rather than having it shoved down their throat.

As for those quips? Well, they’re pretty rudimentary, nothing we haven’t heard before, but they’re well-crafted, to the point and fairly unambiguous unless you’re the sheltered sort who takes every line at face value. While it’s feasible to question his true intent thanks to not going over the edge of decency with most of the lyrical payoffs, any deep seated uncertainty is done away with by his boisterous enthusiasm which leaves no doubt which part of his body is doing the thinking as he searches for a mate.

But Lyte’s role here is basically just to act as the tour guide for the record, someone to establish the general mood and point out some of the senic views along the route.

Like many fulfilling that role he might leave the most indelible impression on those who take one of these sightseeing tours through the alleys and barnyards he describes, but it’s those who are driving the bus whose job it is to get you where you want to go… and that means the musicians.
 


 

Some Boogie Fast…
What makes Johnny Otis one of early rock’s greatest producers/arrangers – arguably second to only Maxwell Davis at this point, with Dave Bartholomew coming on strong as of late – is that he’s equally adept at having his most complex arrangements stand out as he is at standing aside and letting simplicity be its own reward.

On Little Red Hen he takes the second approach, stepping back and allowing his top flight band do what they do best on a very tight song, one which gives plenty of spotlights for solos while still making sure their cohesion as a unit is on full display.

The intro is subtly powerful as Leard Bell’s drums start off in isolation and as he picks up the tempo other instruments join in, first Big Jay McNeely’s steadily pulsing sax followed by Pete Lewis’s guitar, like a flame from a blowtorch slicing off notes that are scalding to the touch. The rest of the horns fall in well in the background along with the bass and piano, all just laying down the basic rhythm for Lyte to start testifying over.

It’s a churning sound, each instrument’s parts working in tandem yet still have room to breathe so you notice them all, maybe just for one or two notes in the pattern but it’s all carried out with a remarkable efficiency. The “problem” is that while it’s got the live feel the song is clearly trying to suggest, once it establishes that atmosphere it can’t quite pay off with what follows since the very thing that’s missing – the communal give and take pushing things higher – is absent outside of your own imagination.
 

Some Boogie Slow
This flaw becomes most apparent in the solos as with all the high wattage stars in the band you’re looking forward to hearing them tear the roof off. Right on cue you get McNeely’s sax honking away in an extended break, but somewhat surprisingly it’s rather subdued by McNeely’s own lofty standards. It’s a fairly tight groove but there’s no honks, no squeals and no intricate melodic progressions either. It does its job well enough but doesn’t offer more than just the basics.

The other potential game-changer when it comes to solos is Lewis whose guitar is a constant sinuous presence throughout Little Red Hen, yet no time is allotted for him to take a stand alone spot of his own. Instead the other horns, two trumpets, trombone and more saxes, are featured in a rousing but slightly old fashioned capper to the proceedings, almost as if Otis’s fondness for the disappearing big band instrumentation was still proving hard to fully shake free of.

One curiosity about that part comes when Lyte calls out, “Johnny is rockin” which is followed immediately by a brief drum solo before Redd singles out the rest of the band as a whole which is where the horns all jump in. The only problem is by all accounts Johnny wasn’t PLAYING drums here, as Otis was still recovering from his hand injury from the fall and had given up his seat behind the kit to Bell.

Maybe it was just an ad-lib by Lyte – though doubtful considering the drum break was clearly worked out – or more likely a way to ensure that Johnny’s presence on the track, in one form or another even if it were just spiritual in this case, was assured. Record buyers outside Southern California probably had no idea who or what his role was but by now they knew that if his name was on the record chances are it was worth buying.
 

 

Jump And Shout Tonight
This record is no different… a good solid effort by all involved, singer, band and Otis the arranger alike, even though each one could’ve conceivably been better had they done just a little more in the second half, or maybe brought in some kids from the corner to act as the de facto live audience, even if their presence wasn’t heard on the take but rather to give the band the immediate feedback to elevate their performance even more.

But that kind of thinking was probably still too advanced for 1950 when Little Red Hen was probably viewed as more of a strategic release, something to give Redd Lyte his best showcase to date as a vocalist as well as being seen as a way to solidify Otis’s group as rough and tough rockers following bigger hits on ballads and more idiosyncratic material this winter.

Even with the market flooded with releases by Johnny and all his various frontmen and women over the past few months this one still charted in a number of regions across the country so its mission was accomplished, but surely anyone who saw this crew live knew that they did this sort of thing better in person.
 
 
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)