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SAVOY 812; AUGUST 1951



Wait a minute… what IS this?

Yes, I understand pop music existed – and thrived – in 1951, but not for artists like this.

It certainly wasn’t fair that this road was cut off to them and I’d be the first to say that taking the bull by the horns and trying force their hand to change that inherent cultural bias that relegated virtually all black vocalists to jazz, blues, gospel and rock fields was a show of determined strength… in theory.

In reality however it was a doomed plan. Not just destined to be ignored, but it also threatened to have a negative impact on those who’d grown up looking elsewhere for their musical fix, for if suddenly artists like Johnny Otis and newcomer Linda Hopkins were setting their sites on a different audience, a different demographic altogether, one where you were NOT welcome, what does that say about you?


What Have You Got To Say Whether I Live Or Die?
It shouldn’t have to be this way. The myth of America is that it is a diverse melting pot, a land of opportunity that greets all people with open arms and open hearts.

But it never has been.

Once those with European backgrounds became situated in this country they established laws, customs and widely accepted cultural standards to reward those who looked and sounded like them and penalize everyone who didn’t, something which exists undiminished to this very day.

In music circles the stakes may never have been life or death and there was usually opportunity available there that was not found in say… the banking industry, college admissions or in the court of law, but it was still segregation based on race at its core and pop music in the mid Twentieth Century was as segregated as it got.

I know, there were always a few big names who were exceptions to the rule. Nat Cole, The Ink Spots, Sarah Vaughan, The Mills Brothers and Billy Eckstine. Meanwhile older jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Lionel Hampton had attained a measure of universal acclaim once they were able to be presented as past innovators rather than current musical revolutionaries and thus the “threat” of what they were doing was removed from the equation.

The fact remains though that pop music was operating as a way to reinforce white society’s view of class and cultural superiority and to try and consciously penetrate that realm if you were a black vocalist meant largely agreeing with that perspective by consciously singing in a “white” style.

There was no question that Linda Hopkins could out sing any of the female stars in pop in 1951. Patti Page, Doris Day and Kay Starr were all fine singers but none had the pipes of Hopkins.

But in their attempt to prove this, Johnny Otis and company frame I’ll Ask My Heart in a way that fans of THOSE singers would understand. Listeners who, lest we forget, literally would refuse to eat at the same table as Hopkins, or drink from the same water fountain, or even address her as “Miss Hopkins” in formal situations.

Those are the people you’re trying to appease?

Why bother?


I Don’t Think Love Can Kill
Because of this unfortunate state of affairs in the country when it came basic human decency in 1951, this record can’t be simply looked at in a bubble, as if no outside forces were at play when it was released which will invariably color the way you viewed it – no pun intended.

If it could be taken strictly as a recording, regardless of style or circumstance, we’d be happy to say that Hopkins sings it very well, that at certain points melody is really pleasing, and the band is hardly showing any discomfort with toning things down for a swanky nightclub setting.

Using purely pop benchmarks I’ll Ask My Heart would definitely be above average for the day. It’s got the kind of discreet and orderly arrangement that lends enough atmosphere to the record without detracting from it. The fuller arsenal of horns are used sparingly and with a light touch and even Leard Bell’s dry drumming adds to the delicate ambiance that defined pop music of the day.

What allows this passage into rock – although just barely and more for sociological purposes – is how Hopkins injects just enough soulfulness in her vocals to distance it somewhat from the strict pop rules in vogue at the time, although truthfully it’d be hard for someone like her NOT to sing with more emotion than the starched shirt pop singers who let the melodies dictate their every move.

But therein lies the problem for Hopkins thinking she can connect with that crowd.

Forget about the racial barriers which she obviously can’t overcome and focus instead on how reined in pop singers were at the time. On one hand you had the likes of Georgia Gibbs navigating the melodic high-wire on While You Danced, Danced, Danced, where any deviation or embellishment from the written notes would send the song sprawling. On the other you had Jo Stafford on Shrimp Boats or Rosemary Clooney on the monster hit Come On-A My House where the vocals are merely part of the gimmicky nature of the arrangements… that’s not an insult, those songs work in that fashion, but that’s what pop music was all about at this time.

Because of that one of those options are what Hopkins would be forced to strictly adhere to in order to be taken seriously in this realm. Yet this song doesn’t have the smooth hummable melody of the former to become an ear-worm for lonely housewives nor does it have the quirky catchiness of the latter songs to become a novelty-esque hit.

All it’s got is Hopkins trying to please people who are largely oblivious to the fact there can be deeper emotional stakes in songs and since that generally doesn’t factor into pop success in 1951 Hopkins’ greatest strength becomes irrelevant to how it’d be received and you’re left with simply a fairly nice song with a fairly sweet arrangement played and sung fairly well… all done for a populace who refuse to treat you fairly.


Someday I May Not Be Thrilled By The Sight Of You
One of the most important aspects of grading these things is the term “context”.

Take the very best rock records of the past year and put them twenty years in the future and they’re not getting perfect scores, they’re probably not even going to rate above average anymore, not because the contents of the record have changed, but the context of the music certainly has.

Similarly take a great blues, jazz… or yes, pop record from this year and evaluate them in a rock context and their scores will be dismal, not because they’re bad records but because they’re bad records for rock ‘n’ roll.

I’ll Ask My Heart is likewise a bad record for rock ‘n’ roll because it wants to be a pop record. It may be a decent pop record, but nobody buying it, or digging up their spare change to hear it on a jukebox, is expecting a pop record when they lay their money down and that’s the problem. If we see Johnny Otis’s name on a single we expect to have it fit into the rock landscape and this intentionally does not.

Making it more troubling is the fact that in making this stylistic move the unstated subtext was that the audience this song was intended for was somehow better, more desirable and provided a greater reward, financially or just in terms of respect.

You might argue that Linda Hopkins had every right to move into pop and run roughshod over those artists who held the upper hand over her by virtue of skin pigmentation alone… and I agree with that. On a level playing field I’d want to see her kick their ass.

But it’s not a level playing field and as has already been shown by jazz, and will be shown by rock in a few years time, you never pull even in music by conforming to THEM, you get ahead by making THEM conform to YOU.

To do that in 1951 it means you keep on rockin’ and do it so well and so often that the music soon becomes too big to hold down any longer.

Linda Hopkins had the ability to do that. Instead she met them on their turf and was promptly ignored and dismissed… by them AND by us.


(Visit the Artist page of and Johnny Otis as well as Linda Hopkins for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)