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MERCURY 70038; NOVEMBER 1952

 
 

 

Ah yes… now it’s starting to make sense.

First they try and soften you up by making you more amenable to hear pop-styled rock songs on one side of a single by a noteworthy artist… then on the flip side they go right ahead and just have that same artist cover a pop song outright.

This is how indoctrination works.

But it doesn’t work here… and thankfully, it didn’t work on the rock fans the major labels felt were socially inferior to them back in 1952 either.
 

 

How Else Can I Tell You?
Let’s start out with a surely unexpected compliment for the song itself.

Though pure pop, the original Joni James version is actually a fairly solid melodramatic exercise which shows mainstream pop music was beginning to mature a little bit when it came to expressing romantic longing.

Rather than simply adhering to perspectives of innocent sweetness wherein virginal girls raised in households where their parents surely slept in separate beds and gave each other nothing more than smooches on the cheek in front of the children, James is aching for a particular guy in ways most music of this era refused to do.

Lew Douglas’ string section adds to the cinematic sweep of the record for sure, but it’s James’ longing which is pitched midway between idyllic visions of love and taboo fantasies of pure unbridled lust that makes this so effective. It’s pop as sung by a woman who’s had sex before, obviously enjoyed it, and wants even more… making the record a tacit acknowledgment of human sexuality that was a revelation for its day.

Whether that show of genuine emotion was influenced at all by being exposed to rock ‘n’ roll where such displays were commonplace, or if it was simply a natural confession of feelings coming from someone with actual blood flowing through their veins, I haven’t the slightest idea, but James’ song hit #1 and is unquestionably an excellent pop record for its era.

But that doesn’t mean Why Don’t You Believe Me is going to make an equally good rock record because in order to surpass the urgency shown by Ms. James it means the vocals by newcomer Ada Wilson are going have to ratchet up the intensity to the brink of orgasm to make this work in a setting where such things are expected. But just a quick scan of the lyrics which remain slightly chaste in nature, shows they aren’t going to be able to support that shift very easily.

Which leaves it to Johnny Otis and his band of merry men to try and fill in the blanks and reveal the sordid desires the words themselves only hint at.

Instead he decides to keep it clean and with that fateful choice the record hasn’t a chance… which all things considered is probably for the best.
 

It Just Isn’t Fair
As good of a vocalist as Joni James was, you’d hope that someone representing rock ‘n’ roll would have an inherent advantage in displaying the emotional investment of a song over a pure pop act, no matter how much that pop act broke with tradition when it came to going above and beyond expectations in that regard for her field.

But unfortunately that’s not the case here, for while Ada Wilson doesn’t take this backwards and dress it up in frilly lace, she also doesn’t pour on the anguish and yearning as James did, making this version decidedly less powerful than the pop hit.

Yeah, I can’t get over it either, making Why Don’t You Believe Me the first time where the rock version is nowhere near as intensely sung as the original pop rendition.

Not that Wilson sings it badly by any means. Her voice is slightly shrill, but still pleasant enough and she handles the melody with understated grace. There’s a few moments where she puts a little more of herself into the lines, but then eases off too quickly and releases the grip on your heart. That of course is the one thing she can’t do if the song is going to make you understand how much she wants this guy.

The result is the song’s meaning changes ever so subtly. Whereas James was desperate to have him and years later will still be anguished over not getting him, Wilson merely hopes to get him and you sense if she doesn’t then she’ll move on with her life and get over him in a few days at best.

Johnny Otis for his part is hardly helping Wilson make clear her feelings, as he may not have the lush dramatic strings that James had, but in many ways his arrangement is even more traditionally pop sounding because he doesn’t take advantage of the instruments he does have at his disposal such as guitar, piano and tenor sax.

Even if he mostly stuck to the white bread arrangement, he still could’ve given it an injection of soul with an erotically sensuous tenor solo which might’ve revealed some of the smoldering desire she reputedly has for this guy. Instead he chooses to let the sax blow soft pillowy notes without a solo of any kind, as well as going heavy on the cymbals rather than let the drums act like a ticking time bomb, and completely underuses the bass which might’ve created a palpable sense of throbbing anticipation and saved the record for irrelevance.

But let’s be honest, there was probably no way this song was going to be an effective rock performance no matter what he did, short of completely overhauling the presentation. Yet we know that kind of radical reimagining of the material wasn’t on the table because obviously it was something chosen – whether by the label or by Otis himself – for all the wrong reasons to begin with. They never wanted a rock renovation out of it, merely a pop variation and to be sure, that’s exactly what they got.
 


 

You Can Keep Or Break (This Record)
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, Mercury Records was a pop label through and through and while they made occasional attempts to break into rock they enjoyed only sporadic commercial rewards for their efforts even as they signed some good artists along the way.

The reasons for this were obvious to everyone but them apparently. As an aspiring major label specializing in the pop field they didn’t have the network of distributors, or capable promotion men, to get their rock offerings heard. Without better returns they began to reconsider their musical choices. It was always obvious to outsiders that the label didn’t expand into this field because they felt rock ‘n’ roll was a rich source of artistic expression that deserved wider exposure, they did it because rock was a growing market that they wanted to take advantage of for purely mercenary reasons.

When their biggest signing to date, Johnny Otis, failed to recapture his earlier success they got worried and with something like Why Don’t You Believe Me hoped that he might get a few pop spins that would get him some fleeting name recognition in a field which they felt more comfortable in.

Of course that was unlikely, even if Otis WAS white from a purely genetic perspective, but moreover it was just as improbable because this version of that song, as much as it tries to be acceptable pop music, isn’t as well done using those toned down parameters as Joni James.

Now toss in the fact that Mercury’s own Patti Page had also released a version, well… you can see why Mercury never even bothered promoting this.

That’s okay, you didn’t really miss anything.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
The Five Crowns (December, 1952)