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SAVOY 777; JANUARY 1951

 
 

 

A year ago this month Johnny Otis staked his claim as the top all-around talent in rock.

Though he didn’t sing on record (yet) he did practically everything else… scouted and signed the artists and musicians, wrote and arranged most of the songs, played drums or vibes and was the de facto producer to boot.

Hit after hit after hit (x10) followed during the calendar year of 1950 but he was facing a good deal of uncertainty as the new year dawned with the recent defection of his top vocalist and the usual shifting interests of the public at large.

So what does Otis do in response to this? Well, he just kicks off 1951 in much the same way as he did last year – with a huge hit.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.
 

 

Sure Miss Your Arms Tonight
You wonder whose idea the label credits were on this one.

Normally that kind of thing was left to the record company itself, maybe a producer, but aside from the naming of a band or vocal group or something, the artist generally has little say in the matter from one record to the next.

But Otis’s vast conglomerate of vocalists, showcased band members and various other quirks – such as The Johnny Otis Congregation when he officiated over Wedding Boogie last November – meant that each time out you were apt to get a different name, even though it was the same people on the records.

The reason why this question is pertinent here is because ever since Otis’s top two vocalists broke through last winter we’ve seen Little Esther and/or Mel Walker either headlining the records or sharing co-lead credit… but not here.

Esther has departed to Federal Records, taking advantage of her being underage when she signed with Savoy to break her contract and follow producer Ralph Bass to his own imprint under the auspices of King Records, leaving a huge hole in the Otis’s recording outfit.

But Mel Walker is still with him and has plenty of hits to his credit, yet despite taking the lead on Gee Baby all he gets is small print “Vocal By:” in the upper right hand side of the label.

Was this Otis’s doing… perhaps wanting to better establish himself as the hit-maker no matter who is joining him (not that he hasn’t gotten at least co-lead credit each time out already), or was this Savoy’s doing, figuring that Otis was the one constant and therefore the best person to promote in order to draw in listeners?

Whichever is the case it was hardly fair to Walker who delivers his best and most alluring vocal ever on this side, stating his case that no matter who he was working alongside he shouldn’t take a back seat to anybody.
 


 
 

Set Your Soul On Fire
There hasn’t really been a record quite like this so far in rock’s three plus years on the scene. It’s exotic, hypnotic and weirdly melodic with a slow trance-like vibe where every piece of the arrangement falls effortlessly into place, all topped by Walker’s addicting lead.

The distinctive surging rhythm actually has multiple layers to it, all of them overlapping during the main sections of the song. There’s Walker’s vocal which carries the most prominent one, ebbing and flowing more than rising and falling since he’s sticking to a range of about three or four notes for the verses.

Then underneath that the horns are playing a similar rhythm but it’s staggered from the vocals so the beats don’t land at the same time. Obviously the horns have a much different tone than Walker as well as exhibiting more range in what they play, going higher up in a circular pattern while the baritone sways gently in place underneath to lock it down.

They switch up as the vocals do, stuttering their parts, almost replicating what drums would play in a simpler song, and when they come out of that as Walker also stretches his vocals beyond the compact pattern he’d been sticking to prior to this, the horns start to cry in a drawn out manner, the trumpets coming to the forefront now before everything reverts back to the simpler starting point.

As if that wasn’t enough there’s Pete Lewis’s guitar playing accent notes in between the horns, popping up only momentarily, never out in front, but ear-catching all the same when they appear.

Gee Baby is so well constructed and so proficiently executed that it stands in stark contrast to the widely popular head arrangements so much of rock was reliant on.

Every instrument that comes into play – including two trumpets trading off in a haunting back and forth duet during the break – is in top form. This was a tightly drilled band with intricately worked out parts, all of which were designed to create a captivating mood, a slowed-down bastardized tango of sorts, dripping with mystery and intrigue all so Walker can lull you into drowsy complacency allowing him to sidle up beside you like he was a ghostly apparition and take what he wants from you without any resistance at all.
 


 

Dreaming Out Loud
Considering Mel Walker would soon be dealing with a heroin problem – maybe he was already hooked when he recorded this – it’s probably not the kindest thing to say that he sings this as if he were strung out, but that’s clearly the effect they’re going for. If that’s the case then why not embrace the image it presents and be glad that in spite of the junkie’s tempo this sets you’re able to snap out of it as soon as the record ends without suffering any withdrawals or long term health problems.

Everything about Walker’s performance here is mesmerizing. His warm inviting tone that’s wrapped around subtle menace. His lurching pace that pulls you further and further in until he’s got you tight in his grasp and you can’t shake free. That slight smirk he seems to have while spinning his story about heartbreak, almost tipping you off that it’s all a trap to get back at the one he’s addressing in the lyrics for what she did to him.

He inhabits this character so fully that you lose your sense of perspective in the process. Usually, even with the best songs dealing with the pain of a lost love, you can see where the singer enters and exits the stage, the moment where they put the makeup on and slip into the mindset to convince you that all is lost.

The exceptions to this rule generally come with records featuring some vocal histrionics because expressions of inconsolable grief serves as a distraction to the internal shift of the artist, but on Gee Baby Walker is lost in misery from the start, despondent to the point of being catatonic until he’s got you where he wants you and then starts to pull at the loose emotional threads and unravels them at his leisure.

This isn’t a song where Walker seems to want your sympathy or your pity and I sincerely doubt he’s looking to reconcile with his girl and live happily ever after with two kids and a picket fence out front.

He’s playing for much higher stakes than that. He wants her soul for eternity and after hearing him spin his seductive web I think he might just get it.
 

When I Think Of You
We’ve said it before but it’s worth reiterating after such a powerhouse display… Mel Walker was one of rock’s premier early stylists, a singer of depth and nuance whose honeyed croon consistently revealed far more than meets the eye.

With a flurry of hits in an all too short time in the public eye there are naturally a lot gems in his catalog but Gee Baby is his personal masterpiece, the best song and arrangement he’s ever had to work with on his own which he matched with the strongest performance of his career.

It’s gripping from beginning to end, yet like a lot of records that don’t get your head bobbing and feet moving it asks a lot of you to get into the right frame of mind before cuing it up and then probably multiple focused listens to fully absorb what it’s getting away with.

But when you’re in that zone the record’s brilliance becomes inescapable… it’s emotional larceny at its finest.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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