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REGENT 1036; MARCH 1951



If you are involved in creative endeavors you have to realize that not everything is going to live up to your expectations and over time it’s inevitable you are going to fail every now and then.

In fact, if you DON’T fail – spectacularly at times – it means you aren’t trying hard enough to really BE creative.

Thankfully we have verifiable proof that Johnny Otis, possessor of more Top Ten hits in a single year than any other rock artist yet seen, was not simply resting on his laurels and was in fact trying very hard to be creative with this latest release.

We know this because it is a colossal failure.


You’re Really Not There
Considering the number of songs Johnny Otis had to compose, arrange, produce and play on over the past year or so, it’s amazing more of them weren’t completely abominable.

There’s a limit to how many melodies and lyrics the human brain can come up with in a relatively short span, especially when Otis was also on the road for a good part of this time, not only performing shows night after night, rarely sleeping in the same bed for a week on end, but also trying to make sure that he and the band got paid, got well fed, didn’t get harassed by uniformed Southern stormtroopers wielding badges and billy clubs and that none of his band members impregnated the local preacher’s wife or daughter – or both!

The fact he found time to write more songs in addition to playing the old ones every show is rather remarkable.

Maybe that’s why a lot of his songs had lyrics about dreaming… the man just didn’t get much sleep and he was left to express his desires for a good night’s rest in his songs.

I Dream is one where it’d have been better off if he never wrote it down after waking up.

The idea itself might be alright, but he seems to have forgotten just what the talents of his two singers were… and more importantly, what their vocal limitations were because here he writes a song that emphasizes the latter and neglects the former entirely and the dreadful results stemming from such a misguided effort are all too predictable.


When I’m Wide Awake
With the delicate vibes on the intro suggesting a gentle lullaby you settle down, head on your pillow and expect to be led by your hand off to dreamland.

Instead you’re plunged into a twisted nightmare wherein two skilled singers find themselves possessed by an evil leprechaun (hey, this came out around St. Patrick’s Day… just go with it) where they’re forced to moan a wobbly melody as if they were being cruelly tortured.

Since that “hook” is the linchpin that holds I Dream together there’s no way around it – if it works, the song works, if it fails, the song fails.

And boy does it ever fail.

The problem is twofold. The first is neither Little Esther or Mel Walker have flexible enough voices to gracefully execute that passage – five quick notes with sustain – and make it flow naturally rather than sound like a car’s engine struggling to turn over on a cold morning. Esther’s voice is too thin and reedy while Walker’s natural delivery is best suited to something slower because his tone is deeper and nasally.

With other more technically proficient singers, maybe a classically trained soprano… well, it still wouldn’t have worked, though it would’ve surely have sounded a little better. But ONLY a little.

Not to get too far into the musical weeds here with technical mumbo jumbo, but let’s just say that Otis seems to have forgotten a few rudimentary laws of songwriting. For starters wordless passages are primarily a melodic device and the “oh” he chooses as his means of conveying this is too abrupt a sound to carry any melodic character on their own. An “ah” would be the more appropriate choice, but even that would necessitate another change, which is the length of the measure itself.

The notes are bunched together so tightly to fit into the space he carved out that you can’t hold any of them long enough to let them breathe. They pile up on top of one another awkwardly and it makes your singers look as if THEY don’t know how to sing, when in fact Otis screwed up in the writing.

Or more accurately, he screwed up his decision on how to utilize those notes, which is the second part of the problem.

No One Else Above You
This grating line he came up with that anchors the song was best suited for instruments, not voices. Reeds preferably, though a piano would work nicely too, even violins would make it tolerable.

That’s where Otis got the idea I’m sure, envisioning it for an instrumental hook following each of the vocal lines, but then surely realized that the vocals were too brief already and decided to append it to their lines instead, sort of a quirky vocal hook as it were. Instead it brings I Dream to a standstill each time they’re employed which is far too frequent.

He does double up on it with instruments at times, but they have to follow the vocal patter rather than establish their own flow which makes it even more uncomfortable sounding. The rest of the time the musicians are staggering around like drunks in the night, never sure what they’re really supposed to do. Otis gets a solo on vibes which is actually fairly nice in isolation, but then comes Esther plunging us back into the abyss.

The lyrical side of the song wasn’t awful, at least it had some tender thoughts being expressed, but as if they were determined to court more trouble we have to contend with Esther dreaming about Mel making love to her and since she’s underage there’s a chance they could all end up in court tomorrow which might get us dragged in as witnesses to this crime… and I mean the musical crime which may be far more serious than the statutory rape charge.


We Part When I Open My Eyes
One of the most important rules in writing songs is to know your personnel and while Little Esther and Mel Walker were both really good vocal actors, able to dig deep into the underlying meanings in ways that other singers envied, neither one was any great shakes on a technical level and this only exposes those shortcomings in a very embarrassing way.

I Dream is an awkward record any way you look at it. For a love song duet it sounds utterly forced, as if these two people didn’t know each other, couldn’t stand each other, or maybe they just hadn’t woken up fully yet.

The concept itself isn’t terrible, it’s got a nice enough theme and maybe Bing Crosby with the natural lilt in his voice could’ve pulled it off, probably with The Andrews Sisters riding shotgun, but even they would’ve been hard pressed to make it sound effortless.

There’s no doubt that Johnny Otis was overworked at this stage and the best cure for that is a long rest where you can clear your head and just let your mind go. But when you finally wake up keep whatever dreams you had to yourself next time.


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