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EXCELSIOR 540; APRIL, 1949

 
 

 

Forget for once the name adorning the record label, for while Johnny Otis is indeed present and accounted for on this side he certainly isn’t the focus of the song.

Also for the time being forget the name The Four Bluebirds, a one-off designation used for the singers on this record who didn’t like the name and would never use it again.

We’ll get to all of that, and all of them, in due time here, but the real focus of this review is an artist from even further back. A singer maybe, or perhaps a harpsichordist, or was it the cello?

It doesn’t matter really. Whatever he played, whistled, or hummed along to was secondary to his other pursuits of geology, biology and taxidermy anyway. No, not Wynonie Harris. A little earlier than that actually. A fellow by the name of Charles Darwin who for all we know may have been utterly tone deaf and hated music altogether but he did manage to hit upon something that factors in heavily to the subjects of today’s record as well as the development of rock ‘n’ roll in a roundabout way.

In case the name escapes you he’s the cat who came up with The Theory Of Evolution and so Darwin, who last made the charts in 1882 when he died, gets slipped in the back door of this review because it’s an appropriate record to delve into the theory of musical evolution.
 

 
Natural Selection
For someone who’s only been releasing records in this field under his own name for about five months we’ve had no shortage of opportunity to talk about Johnny Otis – drummer, bandleader, songwriter, nightclub owner and anything else you’d care to name – as he’s been churning out records as fast as the printing presses could spit them out, this already being the twelfth side he’s been directly associated with.

So we can dispense with the background on Otis save for the briefest of recaps to touch upon the most pertinent information in regards to this record which centers around The Barrelhouse Club he and his partner Bardu Ali opened in Watts. It was there that rock ‘n’ roll received its first nightly showcase as his house band included such luminaries as Pete Lewis on guitar, Devonia Williams on piano, and for awhile Big Jay McNeely on saxophone.

Both Lewis and McNeely had gotten noticed at the club’s amateur night competitions and were immediately signed by Otis to serve as featured players in his band. McNeely soon parlayed that into his own separate career as a headliner with his own recording contract, though he’d still sit in with Otis on the bandstand as well as on a number of recording sessions for the foreseeable future.

It was also those talent shows which provided Otis with the vocal group we’re meeting today for the first time, a collection of singers whose presence in rock ‘n’ roll will last in one form or another for well over a decade including some historically vital records as well as a spin-off group which will be one of the staples on the rock scene in the late 1950’s. So yeah, it’s a pretty important meeting we’re having now and so here are the introductions.

The Four Bluebirds never actually called themselves The Four Bluebirds. That was just a name Otis thought up when he needed one to stick on the label, for even though he himself was the credited artist he was usually pretty good about making sure the featured vocalists got the name recognition.

Part of this was common courtesy I hope, but part of it was no doubt a little self-serving simply because he could then promote them at his club and people would actually have some idea of who they were, provided of course they’d heard the record.
 

Which Group Does Charlie Darwin Sing In?
So here’s where we’ll start to get into our first brush with Darwinism – the evolutionary theory in case you weren’t taking notes – as The Four Bluebirds was clearly conceived to follow in the tracks of The Ravens, the most prominent rock vocal group which gave us the building blocks of the entire “bird group” phenomenon that would infest rock ‘n’ roll over the next ten or twelve years with scores of acts naming themselves in similar ornithological fashion starting with The Orioles who were sitting high in the perch now as well.

It’s doubtful Otis envisioned this decision as anything that would have ramifications for a decade into the future, but rather needing a name chose one that was remotely connected to the two hottest groups on the rock scene.

But the group itself began as The A-Sharp Trio consisting of Ty Terrell, Billy Richard and his brother Roy Richard in Oakland a few years earlier while still in school. After graduating they headed to Los Angeles, wound up at Otis’s Barrelhouse Club where they finished second in a talent contest (to the aforementioned Pete “Guitar” Lewis) and were hired to sing three nights a week at the club.

When another singer, baritone/bass Bobby Nunn came along as a solo act Otis was impressed and inspired. Seeing how popular The Ravens were with Jimmy Ricks, their incomparable bass voice, out in front, Otis convinced them to throw in together. Trios weren’t the trend in rock ‘n’ roll and with two tenors and a baritone making up The A-Sharp Trio they certainly had a place for Nunn to fill their sound out. Little did the others probably realize that – as with Ricks in The Ravens – Nunn would be asked to shoulder the heaviest vocal load.

Just so we can wrap one aspect of the evolutionary thread up a little neater before we get to the record itself, The Four Bluebirds would quickly choose their own name, The Robins (another bird group!), and under that name they’d score hits, most locally but some nationally, over the next six years until Nunn and Carl Gardner who’d joined the group in 1954 (yet another Johnny Otis “discovery” ), jumped ship with writers-producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who had signed The Robins to their Spark Record label and gave them their most noteworthy material during that time, when the production team headed to the East Coast and Atlantic Records and formed The Coasters with Nunn and Gardner as its core. The Robins then continued as a West Coast act for a number of years.

But all that’s in the future, what matters now is the present and their first record together, My Baby Done Told Me, albeit as The Four Bluebirds and under Johnny Otis’s aegis.

Despite the tangled web of names to sort through to get to the key artists, when you do there’s plenty to suggest that the Bluebirds or Robins (whatever you want to call them) were already giving every indication that they’d be around for awhile.
 


 

Won’t Need You No More
Now we come to the second – and probably far more important – aspect of the musical evolution theory at play here, namely how the record itself sounds.

Based on the idea that Otis brought Nunn into the fold with the hopes of creating a viable Ravens alternative for listeners on the West Coast, we have the obvious prototype to compare them to and there’s no shortage of similarities to focus on here.

For starters My Baby Done Told Me isn’t too far removed melodically from The Ravens hit Write Me A Letter. Considering that The Ravens themselves updated it, or ripped it off if you prefer, for their next sizable hit Send For Me If You Need Me last spring it showed that the source material had some legs.

But it’s been a year and a half since the first of those (Letter) was delivered and in that time changes are afoot. Remember, music moves quickly, especially with something as cutting edge as rock ‘n’ roll and while The Four Bluebirds start off in full Ravens mode on the intro, right down to the standalone spots for Nunn in the Ricks role, there are very distinct differences that speak to how quickly things can change on the musical landscape.

For starters The Four Bluebirds, while nowhere near as smooth and polished as The Ravens, are far more prominent in the arrangement. If you want you can chalk this up to the conceptual influence of the slightly amateurish harmonies of The Orioles, the other big name on the rock vocal group terrain, which had made them sound far more endearing to their equally young audience. Or you can merely say that the others in this group were more assertive in making their presence known, as their youthful ambition had yet to be tamed for more professional aspirations.

Either way though the effect is striking and perfectly illustrates the evolutionary track we’re charting here in a big picture way on Spontaneous Lunacy.

When rock began back in late 1947 The Ravens, and many others entering this new field from horn players to solo singers, were products of a slightly older training ground which valued refinement. Yet with limited opportunities for advancement in the established forms of music we have what Darwin refers to as reproductive isolation, resulting in a new species forming.

That of course was rock ‘n’ roll and among the notable genetic differences the first wave of rockers showed was how they’d added a more uninhibited vibe to their music, ratcheting up the intensity and embracing the kind of unhinged emotionalism that older styles typically rejected out of hand which immediately set it apart from what came before. But even so their own upbringing (even if they had just viewed it from the outside when coming of age) continued to have at least some effect on their presentation, keeping it just barely tethered to some of the smoother attributes on the periphery of their deliveries.

But by this point that link to the more acceptable shadings of the past were fraying badly. With each new act to come along their influences were found in the first rock groups like The Ravens, not the pre-rock outfits that The Ravens themselves had adapted from, and that’s where The Four Bluebirds take another leap forward towards a vocal sound that would get ever more loose and unstructured as rock progressed over the years.

That more freewheeling sound is emphasized throughout My Baby Done Told Me, for while they’re not quite yelling or bellowing their parts they’re also not holding things back with a tight rein. They harmonize well but aren’t artificially smooth. Whatever natural flaws they all had weren’t ironed out over multiple takes and steam cleaned to have it sounding mild and harmless. They’re right in your face, sounding halfway between drunken enthusiasm and ominously leering.

All of which makes Nunn at the center of it all come across as almost lecherous, his deep rolling bass used for emphasis, closing out lines rather than setting up the story. In that way he’s like a heavy in a movie who makes every second of his limited screen time count with an air of sneering menace. It’s a colorful performance from all involved to say the least.
 

Survival Of The Fittest
Colorful yes, but original, not so much, as it borrows liberally from yet another Ravens song, Bye Bye Baby Blues from even earlier on Hub Records which had gotten a re-release last summer on King and charted briefly. The Bluebirds, minus Nunn, wrote My Baby Done Told Me themselves and it’s clear they were just piecing it together from records they were listening to as fans as well as what they might’ve been singing on stage once Nunn joined them earlier in the year. Otis apparently saw no need to explain to them the pitfalls of plagiarism at this point, instead letting their enthusiastic naivety shield them from scorn, if not legal proceedings should the record draw the ire of the copyright owners they were pilfering.

But Otis isn’t merely stepping aside completely and letting the singers stumble through this on their own, not when his band is providing solid support. It starts with Devonia Williams’s piano intro which kicks this off right, while the best contribution found within is the music that backs the cribbed ending, as they ramp up the cacophony with horns blaring in siren-like fashion (hello Big Jay, glad you could join us), almost as if someone was calling the law on these guys for their uncouth behavior. All of that gives the record even more of a rag-tag feeling that helps set the right mood.

That the group follows this with their best shared vocal with the swelling “True as the moon above, like the starts shine at night, she’ll treat me right” stream of consciousness patter shows that even during what seems like barely controlled chaos at times there’s always a little bit more than meets the eye. It certainly wasn’t smooth, it wasn’t trying to be classy, but it was the next stage of the evolutionary process and that alone made it notable. Just as Darwinism explains how the growth in population would lead certain species to become extinct when newer more “favorable variations” would push them aside, so it was in rock ‘n’ roll as well.

So while My Baby Done Told Me is little more than a pastiche of a far bigger name group on the surface, it stands out in retrospect not just for the ultimate fate of the participants, who’d take the name The Robins officially within a month, but because of how this record straddles the first two, or two of the first three, eras in the rock vocal group idiom.

It’s a transitional piece, one that strips the older model for parts and leaves it up on blocks on the side of the road as these guys haul ass down the street in a souped up hot rod, leaving the chassis behind to rust and eventually be hauled away. As for the newer contraption they built from it, well it’s still nothing great to look at, they need a paint job and seat covers for starters, but what’s under the hood rumbles with restless power and once that’s harnessed they’ll be a force to reckon with heading into the future.

Poor Charles Darwin, his advanced theories on mankind now reduced to serving as platform for discussing some unruly singers in a supposedly low class style of music. An ignominious fate to say the least. So I guess it’s probably a good thing he kicked the bucket sixty five years before rock ‘n’ roll came along and proved his theories on evolution correct.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Johnny Otis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)
 
 
(Visit the Artist page of The Four Bluebirds a/k/a The Robins for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)