MODERN 20-748; APRIL 1950



If you’re bandleader Johnny Otis who was between long-term record deals and merely seeking a way to give your new teenaged vocalist some experience in a recording session and you need four cuts to meet the demands of the company willing to pay you cash for your services, chances are you don’t want to waste four potential vocal hits in such an arrangement.

After all vocal tunes require more work when putting them together, starting with coming up with an appropriate topic and then crafting a story with good lyrics and making sure every aspect suits the singer’s perspective and skill set. But in a situation such as this you wouldn’t want to use all of your best ideas on a company that will have no incentive to promote their budding career prospects beyond those two singles.

So the wise bandleader chooses instead to give them just two vocals along two instrumentals to pair them with and puts more value in the experience she’ll get than any potential sales these records might get them.

Though chances are not as much time or craftsmanship went into those instrumentals as the vocal cuts, when you have in your band so many top shelf musicians it should hardly be surprising when it’s one of the instrumentals that outshines everything else you laid down that day.


Jamming… From A Distance
This is the sound of a band that has become completely comfortable playing with one another after a year working together in The Barrelhouse Club every night. It’s the sound of a group of musicians who are at ease deferring to one another to suit the song in question. It’s the sound of a bandleader luxuriating in having his choice of which of a dozen or more sounds to spotlight at any given moment.

And yet in spite of all that it’s NOT the sound of a hit record… maybe by design.


Good Old Blues is not quite a jam session, the arrangement is far too worked out for that to be the case, but it IS a designed to replicate one by letting the focus shift between the soloists throughout the record.

The primary star of it however is Pete “Guitar” Lewis whose fretwork is so light and fluid as the song kicks off after a pretty standard horn intro that you’re mesmerized by it and find yourself angry when he cedes the floor temporarily to a saxophone for a second soloing spot.

In many ways, most notably the tone he plays with, Lewis’s lines suggests a jazz feel as there’s no harsh chording like a lot of the best rock guitar work to date, nor is there any high tension sparseness that so many blues guitar lines featured. Instead the sound flows effortlessly from his fingers, almost as if they were visual notes floating in the night air like fireflies and free to be grabbed with your hands or to let glide by and wait for the next to come along.

Though there’s no definitive hook to stick in your memory the sounds he elicits don’t become any less captivating because of that, if anything you’re more interested in what will follow because it’s not laid out in predictable patterns.

When the sax comes in it takes on a much more direct line of attack, normally a surefire way to win us over, but we miss the aural ambiguity suggested by Lewis’s guitar and are impatient for him to return.

When he does however maybe our hopes are TOO high, for while what he plays is as adroit and sonically pleasing as ever, the effect is diminished, possibly because we’ve had the spell broken. Still a great display for his talents, but not quite a transcendent record from start to finish and not nearly straightforward enough to be a jukebox favorite.


You Shoulda Been There
These types of records are more often than not the kind to be easily overlooked and quickly forgotten but they’re often times far more revealing as to the musicians abilities than a more traditional single.

In the years since most great guitarists have plenty of examples of them stretching out on stage available to hear, whether on live albums, concert films or even hours of studio jams saved for posterity. But in 1950 the kind of semi-indulgent playing we’re talking about would exist only as long your own memory of the event from a club didn’t fade.

What guys like Lewis – or Tiny Grimes, Teddy Bunn or Tiny Webb for that matter – were probably doing most nights in most clubs they played was only sporadically captured on record and so when we come across a chance to hear that kind of unfettered playing it has to be savored.

Because this was done for a random session for a record label without any ongoing association with the artists and done merely to fill out the allotted four song session, you know that Pete Lewis was given free reign by Johnny Otis to come up with something he enjoyed playing rather than trying to conform to something with overt commercial appeal. As such Good Old Blues is as close as we’ll probably get to hearing him play for his own enjoyment due to the somewhat unusual circumstances.

Yet rather than be indulgent what Lewis came up with remains intrinsically appealing, even if only for more studious assessments of hardcore music junkies.

Seeing The Future In The Past
We’re still about five years away from the guitar’s full-fledged takeover as rock’s dominant soloing instrument and focal point of so much of its musical and cultural lore, and so the pioneers in the field like Pete Lewis are bound to be buried in the avalanche of what is still to come and in a way that’s understandable, even if it is unfortunate.

Yet Lewis, maybe largely because of who he was associated with, still hasn’t been completely forgotten in rock history and yet when he does get mentioned it’s mostly his more aggressive sonic assaults on the fret board that people will be referencing when bringing his name up.

But that makes his work on Good Old Blues all the more valuable, if only to put Lewis’s full range of styles into better perspective and give some idea to future crate diggers of rock’s earliest days that it wasn’t ONLY what you heard on a few selected singles that was responsible for their exalted reputation back in the day, but rather it was the stuff like this which was more often than not deemed not as commercial by the standards of the era where the true scope of their talents were seen.

This may not jump out at anyone as being something altogether startling in its proficiency, but for a style of music that reveled in making the simplistic seem earth shattering, this is all the more impressive for making the his stylistic dexterity seem simple even if the record itself was never anything more than a throwaway.


(See the Artist page of Johnny Otis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)