As always with instrumentals, especially by bands who usually have what it takes to lay waste to a three minute record with their musical firepower, titles are everything.

A great title acts like an irresistible lure to curious souls, conjuring up a scene they hope the contents of the record might be able to aurally recreate. In some cases the title can be a bit of a mystery, leaving you to wonder what surprises it might contain.

On this record Johnny Otis, overseer of arguably the top band, certainly the most versatile with the deepest array of soloists, give you a title that will turn your head and make you stop in your tracks, digging out a nickel to punch its number on the jukebox, or seventy nine cents to buy and take home to listen until you wear it out.

When you get it home though you might wish the named it something a little less exciting because while it’s still pretty good, it can’t quite live up to its title.


Stepping To The Plate
There’s a surprising amount of things to unpack here, starting with the fact that this was just about the oldest recording that Johnny Otis could’ve put out at the time, making not so much a look at his current band’s talents, but rather a wistful look back at what they were before stardom hit them in the face in the ensuing months.

Head Hunter was laid down on December 23, 1949, the second session Otis cut for Savoy Records after signing with them at the end of November.

That first studio date, on the first day of December, was a just short of a double session producing six sides, two of which were huge hits including their earth-shaking Double Crossin’ Blues which put them on the map.

By the time they came back in just before Christmas though only one of those records had been released, the Top Ten hit by The Robins, If It’s So Baby, yet that was still a few weeks away from any chart action.

So this meant that they didn’t yet have a handle on just how popular they’d all soon become nationally. There was no doubt in their minds they were really good, they’d been one of Los Angeles’ top attractions at Otis’s own Barrelhouse Club in Watts for the last two years, but the proof was always in the pudding and the pudding just hadn’t had time to set in the fridge yet.

That means in many ways this is the last chance we’ll get to hear them before their own success changed their thinking, a band untainted by praise and one which had even more heavy hitters on board than in the months that followed.

The soon-to-be departed member of Otis’s outfit at this time was never officially a band member, but rather had been an early habitué of his club after impressing everybody at an amateur night performance in late 1948.

A month later McNeely, not Otis, was the one signed to Savoy Records, where he released his debut, Wild Wig that same month, and followed it up with the chart topping, groundbreaking and trendsetting The Deacon’s Hop in January 1949.

He would continue to jam with Otis when he was available however and a year after his breakthrough, yet before Otis’s breakthrough, he sat in with his friends for this session.

Though Savoy’s owner Herman Lubinsky had been annoyed at losing McNeely just as his records soared up the charts – having only signed him to a contract calling for eight sides – he probably didn’t even know that Big Jay was on this record since it was cut in Los Angeles under the supervision of Ralph Bass, his top A&R man.

There wouldn’t be anything he could’ve done anyway, as McNeely was under contract elsewhere at the time and thus couldn’t be promoted as the star of the record, even though he takes a lead role on Head Hunter.

The truth is though, while he plays well, the fire and brimstone performance we associate most with Big Jay is not really apparent here, which leads us to wonder who thought wasting such a great title on a more moderate performance was a good idea.


Knock Down Pitch
But as stated, it’s not bad by any means, just somewhat subdued by his own high standards, as the entire horn section is riffing in tight formation before Pete Lewis takes the first spotlight – and steals the show – with some scintillating guitar that sounds as if he were fine tuning a garrote for some late night strangulation.

The horns return with their riffing in unison before McNeely steps to the dish and takes a grinding solo where his tone is just a touch too high, robbing it off the depth and power it could’ve used. He’s also not quite as smooth in his transitions as we’re accustomed to, making this sound a little sluggish at times.

As he goes on – and it’s a lonnnnng solo – he throws in some good ideas, switching up the melodic base multiple times, but there’s nothing he returns to in order to form a solid base for the song to build off and provide an instantly familiar touchstone for listeners to get their bearings.

Head Hunter winds up being the musical equivalent of unrolling a ball of string… everything is attached to what preceded it, this isn’t just a random series of unconnected riffs in other words, but there’s no direction to it.

You follow the string where it leads only to find out that some four year old kid is holding the end of it with a devilish grin on his face. You can’t get mad at him for his aimless fun, but you wish somebody with some forethought had picked it up before the kid got his hands on it and led you down a dead end.

There’s not even a second Lewis turn to bring back the same intensity that it started with, as instead all of the horns jump in – after backing McNeely with their own independent lines for the rest of the song – and it closes out with an orderly progression that seems to be an anathema to what we’ve come to hope for any time Big Jay is at the helm.


Dust Yourself Off
Considering the personnel on this track it’d be reasonably fair to call this a wasted opportunity, even if the end result is hardly without merit.

The song wasn’t written by McNeely after all and while Johnny Otis, who doesn’t even play on the record, was an excellent songwriter and bandleader he wasn’t a horn player and McNeely’s compositional skills on the horn were second to none. How much he contributed to the arrangement is unclear, but by the sound of it Head Hunter has a pretty well drawn out game plan so it’s not likely he was asked to shape this too much, if at all.

What makes this worse for us, knowing as we do who is featured on it which is something record buyers at the time would be oblivious to, was the fact that McNeely hadn’t gotten a single release of his own in months! For someone who was scoring hits for much of 1949 and setting stages on fire everywhere he played, the sudden silencing of his horn on record the latter half of 1950 was downright baffling.

Maybe he wasn’t guaranteed of notching hits every time out anymore, but record companies were releasing stuff by talentless hacks every week and to have Big Jay on the sidelines for an extended stretch, not even stepping foot in a studio for ten months (while Aladdin sat on two sides of his they had in the can no less!) was incomprehensible.

Luckily he’d sign with Imperial this very month and set about remedying that, but in the meantime this record – even if he wasn’t publicized as playing on it – at least had the potential to bring his sound back to the forefront.

It didn’t of course, nor did it truly deserve to, but it’s nowhere near as uninspiring as we probably made it sound. It’s just that when you have this much talent assembled at the peak of their powers and don’t hit one out of the park, sometimes you wonder if they got a little gun shy standing in the box waiting for the next pitch.


(Visit the Artist page of Johnny Otis for the complete archive of hs records reviewed to date)