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Love, you say?


Not after Mercury Records watched their latest Johnny Otis release get undercut by legal wrangling over singer Mel Walker, who jumped ship from another company months ago, and as a result whatever hopes they had in this record breaking through were cut short before the confetti from the New Year’s Eve party was swept up.

Surely this wasn’t what they had in mind when they signed the much heralded bandleader a year ago.


Try Me One More Time
Any way you look at it, Johnny Otis’s career was sputtering as 1952 drew to a close.

Forget about the fact that he was about to lose access to Mel Walker, who sings co-lead on this, as his brazen plot to steal him away from another label just came crashing down when a judge ruled in Savoy Records’ favor. The bigger story is the mere fact he felt compelled to try and snatch Walker away in the first place which shows how desperate he was to regain his mojo.

His celebrated move to Mercury Records had resulted in just one hit which had been propelled by Walker, Call Operator 210, a hasty cover record of Floyd Dixon’s hit no less, and his only truly great release came by way of young upstart writers Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller who chipped in with The Candle’s Burnin’ Low this past September. Outside of those he didn’t do much more to live up to expectations, let alone surpass them, as many of his own contributions while at Mercury were fair to middling at best.

It was plain to see that Otis was also still reeling from the loss of Little Esther who went to Federal Records in 1951 and waited for Otis to join her officially… until he spurned the label to come here for more money. To try and recapture the same feel on The Love Bug Boogie that he would’ve gotten with a Walker-Esther pairing, he turned once again to Ada Wilson, a good enough singer who had sung lead on his last release but who had no name recognition and thus when she didn’t pay off commercially, he would drop her too.

With all that baggage to his name, it’s hard to say Johnny Otis didn’t get exactly what he deserved… a tattered reputation and dwindling interest from a rock audience who had already moved on from him.

The thing is though, aside from all of this being easily avoidable if he’d only lived up to his word and put the interests of those around him at least on par with his own, his biggest problem was that he failed to realize it wasn’t 1950 anymore when it came to his approach to songs.

If he’d simply been more willing to update his sound to something like… well, something like this, maybe he could’ve stayed relevant a little longer.


The Way It’s Gonna Be
Don’t jump to any conclusions based on that last statement and think this should’ve been a major hit had the legal turmoil not affected its status. It’s good enough to be appreciated, but it’s no lost classic either.

But at the very least it IS something different from Johnny Otis, a song that takes into account the changes in rock’s arranging style over the past year or so.

Now to be fair, even when he was reeling off hit after hit in 1950, Otis’s approach to the instrumental tracks behind Little Esther or Mel Walker, or anybody else, was atypical for the day. He used a larger band than most and they had their roots in older forms of music. With his own vibes playing a huge role in the arrangements they were instantly identifiable for that reason alone, setting him apart from all other records at the time.

That was part of the appeal I suppose, as it does help to stand out from the crowd and that was inevitable considering so many of the parts he had, while good, were just not part of other ensembles… I mean a trombone? Even Pete Lewis’s bluesy guitar was hardly commonplace in rock during this era. So while it made his output distinct, it also put his records at risk to be easily discarded for being increasingly out of touch as time went on, which is what happened over the last year or so.

But for The Love Bug Boogie he seems to be making concessions to the prevailing sounds of today with romping saxophones playing short bursts of sounds as Devonia Williams’ piano fills in the cracks and Leard Bell makes sure the beat doesn’t let up.

Rather than add his own twist to this approach, the arrangement is more of a simple summation of what else was happening in 1952. But while he may not have been happy in doing so, it’s effective because of how straightforward it all is. The job of the musicians here is just to keep things rolling so that Ada Wilson and Walker can romp over it.

Of the two however it’s Wilson who captures your attention if not your heart, as her voice is strong, clear and poignant as she’s the one in pursuit of Walker who is not giving her the attention she craves. She sounds hurt yet determined and her only slip-ups come as the result of some bad pacing on Otis’s part as she has to figure out how to make too few words, all of them short no less, stretch out over too many bars, giving it a choppy feel at times. But when she can let herself go she does sound really nice and in control of things, both melodically and emotionally.

Walker takes more getting used to early on, as he seems to be running at half speed behind her, but once he settles in – and you settle in as a listener – he winds up delivering what’s expected, particularly in the bridge where he comes across best vocally, as that role plays to his best attributes. They have pretty decent chemistry, even if it’s not exploited like it was when he was with Little Esther.

The story is okay without adding much and the instrumental performances as a whole work alright, but the biggest mistake is in not putting in a sax solo in order for the singers to get a much needed break, and so the audience can get a much needed diversion from the same sound palette.

Yet while there’s nothing about this that breaks new ground, or even stands out as particularly stellar, it does show that Johnny Otis was aware of what was now selling and at least willing to go along with it to a degree, rather than rest on his outdated laurels.

That’s progress I suppose.


My Daddy Left, Didn’t Even Say Goodbye
We spent plenty of time on the review of the top half of this single criticizing Johnny Otis for helping to snuff out the careers of his two most successful vocalists – Little Esther for abandoning her at Federal so he could go to Mercury instead, and then Mel Walker who landed in court for following Otis here even though he was under contract elsewhere.

Maybe you couldn’t add Ada Wilson to that list of his homicide victims even though he chose not to have anything to do with her after a fairly strong effort on The Love Bug Boogie, since there was no guarantee she’d make it if she stuck with him. But he’s got one other casualty to answer for in his trail of reckless endangerment over the past two years and that’s the fate of Mercury Records.

Usually we don’t care much about what misfortunes befall individual record labels, especially major labels who tend to look down on rock ‘n’ roll, but at least Mercury DID try and break into rock with the best intentions. With a veteran bandleader like Johnny Otis who was coming off some huge hits and was a songwriter and arranger who’d shown a flair for finding good untested singers, they surely hoped to make an honest go of it in this genre.

Instead he flopped miserably on his own, stole someone else’s singer to save face commercially, then didn’t develop the singer he did find who showed promise and after landing them in mountains of legal trouble, Johnny Otis packed his bags and left for another label as 1953 dawned.

Though he undoubtedly had a hand in some great music over the years, we need to start asking ourselves if he was really so deserving of being feted for his accomplishments over the last half-century. Because the more you see behind the curtain, the more he looks like just another conniving record man out for himself.

For someone who prided himself on his allegiance to the black community his whole life, maybe his penchant for ripping people off and thinking of himself first and foremost while leaving his associates out to dry shows that deep down he was a lot more like every other white man in the industry all along.


(Visit the Artist pages of Johnny Otis and Mel Walker for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)