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Any lingering doubt regarding which rock artist effectively “won” 1950 was effectively settled with this release, a record that hit #2 on the national charts, giving bandleader Johnny Otis and his assorted vocalists including Mel Walker, their tenth Top Ten hit of the year.

But the record also marks a transition point in the musical spectrum that wasn’t glaringly obvious at the time but in retrospect shows why despite being so widely popular as the 1950’s dawned with no shortage of talented singers, musicians in addition to the top flight writing and producing skills of Otis himself, their success with specific approach to this music was bound to result in a premature end to their reign atop the rock kingdom.


Just Got The News Today
Even if you had never listened to a single record released over the past few years in Black America a quick look at the song titles and reviews during that time would show that it was pretty obvious something was afoot in that corner of the industry.

By the end of the 1950 it seemed every company was going out of their way to come up with songs that used the term rock or rockin’ in an effort to tie them in with this movement that had swept through the younger audiences, showing just how quickly it passed into common usage in the community that gave birth to it.

Now it’s a regular occurrence to see the term appearing in reviews to describe records, as well as in various band names and of course song titles and lyrics each week. As is typical for any business once that happens you have people jumping on the bandwagon, trying to garner some shallow attention from its usage.

Johnny Otis’s Rockin’ Blues doesn’t quite qualify in that regard, after all, he’s one of the leaders in the field and has been almost from the very start, but his brand of rock ‘n’ roll does differ from much of what else has been making waves over the past year or so thanks to his jazz and uptown blues influences.

So while the title of this record seemed to have promised something more raucous at a glance it turns out to be a look at the far more somber side of the music.


Right Now I’m Not That Way
Mel Walker was always somebody probably destined to be slightly overlooked despite his success. First he was overshadowed by Little Esther in their duets, even though he more than held his own with her, then on most of his starring solo roles he portrayed a sad guy which suited his voice but not his looks or his athletic background which would seem to make him more of a dashing ladies man than a sad-sack who is always dealing in misery.

Though he’s gotten some lead artist credits in the past, this finds him getting secondary credit on the label to Johnny Otis.

Yet make no mistake about it, Rockin’ Blues is undoubtedly a Mel Walker record with assistance from Johnny Otis, not the other way around. That might sound petty considering Otis wrote, arranged and produced it, but the focal point is clearly Walker from start to finish… his voice, his delivery, his emotions, all of which are in top form here.

Otis’s fingerprints though are still all over this, from the trade-off between Dee Williams’ piano and Pete Lewis’s guitar in the intro, while horns softly moan behind them, immediately snapping you out of any fanciful idea this is going to… you know, rock you.

The differing meaning is quickly explained as Walker announces he’s “sitting here rocking, trying to rock my blues away”, so he’s essentially replicating the feeling of being cradled in his mothers arms as a baby to sooth him when he’s got gas or is a bit cranky after a feeding. It’s a somewhat awkward image picturing him in an actual rocking chair, almost catatonic as he rocks back and forth with a blank expression on his face, but he moves on to more important things such as why his girlfriend left him which put him in this position to begin with.

As with all of these breakup stories in rock, there’s a lot vague explanations as if the singer themselves isn’t sure of the reason they were dumped, but the records aren’t being sold on their details, but rather the way in which they tug at the emotional heartstrings of listeners, either the girls (in this case) sympathizing with Walker and wishing they could be the one to comfort him, or the guys in the audience who are reliving their own recent breakup that left them feeling the same way.

Because Walker is convincing in his role we don’t even mind the fairly generic descriptions of his state of mind. His job is to convince you of its authenticity, provide a melodic thread to pull on and impress you with his aching vocal delivery, all of which he does rather easily. This kind of song was in his wheelhouse and shows he didn’t need a co-star or an energetic backing track to deliver the goods.

Left Town Last Night
Now about that backing track… the one that seems to subvert the meaning of the term rock by its deliberate pace and mournful shadings… this was where Johnny Otis showed his age.

It’s not that this arrangement is outdated for 1950… the record’s success alone tells you that it isn’t… but rather it’s no longer cutting edge as some of his ideas in 1948 and 1949 had been.

Rockin’ Blues owes a lot to the music that Otis came up with, the urban club scene where polished West Coast bluesmen played the same venues as small jazz combos, maybe even sat in with one another, and that cross-pollination of styles resulted in the template for a lot of Otis’s work as a bandleader.

We get Lewis’s bluesy guitar licks featured prominently throughout – a good stylistic choice because it mirrors Walker’s despondent mood, but one that is not quite as exciting as one played at a more blistering pace.

There’s also the horn section playing tight charts in tandem which is a jazz attribute and one that is also effective here because any wild solo or even an improvised line behind Walker would stand out too much and throw the song out of balance.

In many ways it’s a cocktail blues arrangement on steroids… a bigger band playing more emphatic parts, but the basic structure is similar enough to draw comparisons.

Even the solos, Williams and Lewis trading off before she drops out and two dueling horn lines, a trumpet and the saxes each taking their parts separately, replace her is something that is really evocative but sounds slightly out of step with the records that are about to shake up the rock scene over the next few months.

It all works well enough, there’s not a hair out of place here yet it still sounds organic by nature, yet it’s also easy to see how this could be eased aside when the next big trend lands because of its more overt connection to even older styles.


Sitting Here Rocking
Everything changes, sometimes faster than we’d like it to, and in music these changes are often accelerated, especially when there’s a sudden influx of talented and ambitious younger acts moving onto the scene. If those sounds the next generation are heralding connect right away then it immediately dates the older ones who’d set the precedents only a short time earlier.

Johnny Otis, Mel Walker and company aren’t quite at that stage yet, but as evidenced by the way the title suggests one thing and delivers something else, Rockin’ Blues has a much different feel to it than what a song by that name would almost surely contain next spring or summer.

If you sensed the changes coming just around the corner you could definitely see why this specific sound was going to fade from view in due time but for now it was more than enough to find an audience.

Maybe some of those people were in fact expecting something different by looking at its title, but because Otis was on such a hot streak it probably could’ve been called almost anything and still succeeded.

Oh yeah, that the record is also damn good in its own right surely didn’t hurt its cause any.


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