No tags :(

Share it




As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and no, we don’t mean Little Esther’s imminent departure from Savoy Records after a year which made the 14 year old the toast of rock ‘n’ roll.

Instead we’re referring to the fact that over the past calendar year Johnny Otis, Little Esther and Mel Walker have been an almost unbeatable tandem commercially and artistically. With Otis writing and arranging and Esther and Mel singing, either to one another in a series of playfully sparring duets, or individually on their own solo records, they’ve wracked up ten Ten Top Hits on the national charts and more still on the regional listings, a run that was totally unprecedented for rock ‘n’ roll at this point.

With one of the most versatile bands at their disposal the records have been tight economic affairs with no shortage of instrumental highlights to go along with their vocals. Even if their unique style wasn’t your bag, it was hard to dispute how well done most of it was.

Which might be why the music gods tripped them up in their attempted takeover of the entire music scene and had them release this single, thereby prompting another saying that is apropos for the record in question… “Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end”.

It Makes You Cry, Cry, Baby
Any way you slice it Little Esther was not your typical singing star. A young girl with a reedy nasal voice, not much power, range or resonance, and without the dazzling looks to make her vocal shortcomings irrelevant – at least in person – she was the definition of the terms “quirky” and “unique”.

Yet part of that uniqueness was her ability to get inside of a song, to unwrap it from the inside and make you feel the lyrics were ripped from her diary even if the scenarios they were expressing came from a vantage point in life that she was years away from experiencing first hand.

When framed right that voice was piercing and held all sorts of different textures to tickle your senses, from coy and playful to hurt and timid to determined and resolute.

Yet when framed badly it was occasionally painful to hear, off-key and in desperate search of the melody.

Johnny Otis, her discoverer, musical architect, protector and friend, knew this better than anyone and yet even he, possibly worn out from coming up with dozens of new songs for his entire vast retinue this year in between arduous cross-country tours, could fail to see when and where things were going wrong.

On Love Will Break Your Heart it all goes wrong from the start, giving us a how-to lesson in how NOT to make a record… even if you have the biggest stars in the business at the time to entice people into buying it anyway.

Maybe especially if you have the biggest stars in the business, whose reputations might be damaged by an ill-chosen performance for their final single of the year.


It’ll Hurt You So
There are definitely things here to admire, sporadic though they may be, but the standard to which we hold these artists is so high that a failure to reach it is going to be felt much more acutely than if random journeymen artists were to release the same record with the same flaws, so keep that in mind.

Before we get to the good, let’s start with the bad and that’s the fact that Mel and Esther are clearly not comfortable singing this in tandem. That’s not a knock against them as artists, just a distinction that has to be made to understand why this misses so badly.

When a singer is working alone they dictate everything around them, from the pacing to the melodic embellishments to more technical things like the key they’re singing in. Obviously that has to be in tune with what the band is playing, but it’s easier to adjust when you’re dealing with just those two things.

But throw in a third factor and now the balance is upset and for two singers with radically different voices to have to try and harmonize, even briefly, is a much more difficult proposition. On Love Will Break Your Heart this was clearly not accounted for as both of them are off-key for much of it, trying to accommodate the other I’m guessing, but failing to first find their own comfort zone.

They don’t blend well at all and it’s obvious from the first time you hear them together at which point Johnny should have stopped the tapes and re-conceived the entire song by letting each one handle a different part individually, or even having one sit out entirely. Had he done so the song might’ve been salvaged because the melody and some of the sentiments here are quite good. It’s a slow stately song with a nice ebb and flow to it that will stick in your mind if carried out well.

Imagine Etta James, another teenage singer that Otis worked with four years down the road, handling this instead and she’d knock it out of the park. But she was a much more versatile singer than Little Esther who’s being asked to let Walker handle an equal share of the load.

For his part Mel Walker, who has a better voice on a purely technical level most of the time despite his tendency to sing through his nose too much, is way off as well, even before Esther comes in, as he can’t find his mark on the first line which needed a re-take which he never was afforded. He pulls it together after that but still never seems at ease with this, struggling with the tempo and the meter, holding onto lines for an interminable amount of time after Esther has released it, something which would work well alone but not when someone else is already disembarked.

Now if you take this in brief chunks, just listening to them each do a single line on their own, it’s passable. Not great, but it works okay. But obviously that’s not how any of us listens to music and trading off the way they do you notice how they never match up. When they’re taking the same line at the same time the enormous gaps in their range is insurmountable and it becomes painful at times to listen to.


Just Won’t Seem The Same
But if the music gods taketh away, they also give a little, just to be kind, and for a few brief glimpses you see how special each could be.

Of particular note is Walker’s lead-in to the bridge, “Love will break your heart”, where he is in total command before Esther joins him, almost as if he’s forgotten she’s in the room.

When they wrap that section up together (“You’ll wish…”) they finally connect thanks to Esther modulating her voice and thereby bypassing the differences in their vocal chords by embellishing the melody and drawing attention away from their incompatibility. Those moments might not redeem this, but they ensure it’s not going to be completely savaged in the final account.

But Love Will Break Your Heart still can’t seem to get out of its own way and this time it’s Johnny Otis’s fault because lyrically he seems to have been alternately inspired (the overall theme is great, as it takes two world-weary spurned lovers – of other people I’m guessing – and has them recount their sadness in very realistic fashion) and lazy, putting some lines in that look as though they had to be placeholders that he couldn’t find a suitable alternative for.

Musically speaking, though there are no flaws in the performances themselves and the arrangement includes some nice fills on guitar by Pete Lewis while Johnny’s own vibes are a constant presence that helps give it a lighter feel, it’s also not doing much to alleviate the pressure put on the two singers by letting us shift our focus to something more captivating.

A languid tenor sax solo or some busier keyboard work behind them might’ve been just enough of a distraction to make this go down easier. Instead we’re left to watch two really good artists struggle to maintain their grip on the song. They just manage to do so through determination and professionalism, but it’s never a sure bet when listening to it.

Steer Clear Of Love
As we reach the end of 1950 it’s natural to look back at the year that was and celebrate the high points before getting ready for what’s to come next year, but this is not the way we want to remember these two.

Maybe it’d be wise to look further ahead than just 1951 for an example of how to sidestep these problems, as for the second time this week we’ll reference Shirley & Lee, a similarly mismatched male-female duo wherein Leonard Lee’s baritone might’ve clashed horribly with Shirley Goodman’s high pitched nasal whine, yet they navigated it smartly by playing off one another, rarely singing in tandem and even allowing plenty of room in between their lines to let the band subtly adjust, not to mention letting your ears have a chance to re-calibrate.

Esther and Mel already HAD worked well together in closer quarters, but Love Will Break Your Heart placed them both in an untenable position and left them there to struggle through it, like mice in a maze or bugs under a microscope.

Maybe it was time for them to go their separate ways after all, though neither would be as successful again without the other on the same label, let alone in the same studio at the same time. Or maybe this misstep could just be passed off as a case of artistic exhaustion from all involved.

But perhaps it’s best just to close things out with yet another saying, this one from Oscar Wilde, surely frustrated a music critic in another life, who said, “Hearts were made to be broken”.


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