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Here we’re introduced to a truly gifted singer whose all too short career makes her one of rock’s first tragedies.

But unlike so many great artists who were cut down in their prime only to see their legend grow after their untimely early death, Kitty Stevenson, who hardly had any name recognition outside of Detroit to begin with, became little more than obscure name on a handful of records lost in the mists of time.

It was an unfair fate for someone who in her prime made other great singers (whose names have hardly been forgotten) afraid to follow her on stage and whose skimpy recorded legacy, starting with this, more than holds up seven decades down the road.


Get You Off My Mind
If her name is recalled at all today it’s for her association with Todd Rhodes as the first of his star female vocalists which also included Connie Allen and LaVern Baker, or for being the mother of William “Mickey” Stevenson, legendary songwriter, producer and Motown’s first A&R director.

Those are some big names in the annals of rock music but in terms of talent Kitty Stevenson was every bit their equal.

She possessed a powerhouse voice with a deceptively light touch and always retained a total grasp of the mood, the lyrics and the underlying sentiments in the material, much of which she wrote herself. Stevenson was someone who by all rights should’ve been a star but professional misfortune and personal tragedy conspired against her and in 1952, just when she should’ve been reaching her peak, she was cruelly taken by cancer at the tender age of 28.

Luckily she got started young and thus still had plenty of time to graduate from singing in clubs in the mid-1940’s to appearing on record before the decade was out. Her first sessions came in December 1947 just before the recording ban went into effect (or at least that’s what the official paperwork claimed) but when the company who recorded them went out of business a month later the material had to wait until 1949 to get released on a tiny label with virtually no distribution… the first of many stumbling blocks she’d face in a career that seemed cursed from the start.

It’s widely accepted that the band behind Stevenson on these early cuts was Todd Rhodes, but since he was signed elsewhere his band went uncredited. That’s okay, for truthfully they’re what’s holding back Blues By Myself as they’re revealing the stylistic limitations of an arrangement conceived just as rock was changing the rules around them.

Stevenson on the other hand seems hell-bent on establishing some new rules herself that are looking forward with the utmost confidence.

Satisfy My Soul
The basic musical components here aren’t bad. Rhodes’s piano contributes a strong open interspersed with a neat guitar figure, but once Stevenson comes in the horn section is showing their allegiance to the recent past with parts that are too modest for the rock era as well as the content of the song itself. Their higher pitched moans sound sickly rather than erotic which for a song that’s so upfront about its sexuality makes for rather uneasy support.

Actually the song had an even more suggestive title in its first printing – Sleeping By Yourself – but this being 1949 when sex was a dirty rumor that had to be dispelled lest unwary listeners be exposed to – and possibly corrupted by – such suggestive language and real life situations, the title was quickly changed to the more ambiguous Blues By Myself, even though the contents and the accompanying message remained the same.

Stevenson, who also wrote it, certainly has no trouble depicting the emotional suffering of someone who lost their lover to someone else, singing in frank unambiguous terms where each soulful ache comes across in her vocal textures without needing to resort to more explicit displays to drive home the meaning to those who hadn’t gotten past first base yet.

According to her son, who was 13 when she passed away, Kitty was someone who didn’t drink or swear in everyday life but she clearly was at least familiar with those who did, as she details these “seedier” aspects of life (drinking to forget her man who is shacked up with someone else now that they’ve parted) and goes well beyond the mere words and instead brings to them genuine understanding as if she was someone who lived out each moment herself.

Though it never moves past a medium tempo and contains no moments for her to break out with an anguished cry, Stevenson never loosens her hold on the song, squeezing out each and every emotion along the way to keep you riveted to her performance without drawing undue attention to herself in the process.

It’s Lonesome, It’s Lonesome
Fifteen months in between a recording session and a release date in normal times is a lot to overcome, but during the heady days of the late 1940’s it was an almost insurmountable obstacle because of how rapidly rock music came together, shedding its outdated arranging touches and coalescing into something more streamlined and powerful thanks to the reception of some of 1948’s biggest hits in the field which showcased the tenor sax more than the trumpets and the massed horns seen here.

Had Rhodes’s horn section, who were as skilled as they get, been just a little more ahead of the curve for the time this was recorded then there’s little doubt Blues By Myself would be a much more cherished record by early rock crate diggers who managed to unearth it.

Or conversely had it been released in January or February of 1948 instead of sitting around another year to gather dust, then that too would change its perception even with its slightly archaic touches that would’ve been less noticeable against similar sounding records of that period in time.

By the spring of 1949 however this kind of placid accompaniment just wasn’t going to cut it anymore despite some moments where things do click pretty well. The instrumental break features a really nice guitar for instance that draws out the tension by playing one note where three or four would easily fit. The lines are sharp as a stiletto in an alley and the chill they send down your spine as they slowly pierce your flesh are almost as intense.

But rather than follow that up with a languid tenor solo as this is begging for, they ease off the pressure and relax again… Or at least the BAND relaxes we should say, for Stevenson is still emotionally strung out as she heads for home, stretching out her lines in similar fashion. She’s never anguished, never distraught, never unraveling in front of us, but her resolve to keep her internal pain at bay remains tenuous.

That’s where she earns all the kudos you want to dish out, as listening to her struggling – but ultimately succeeding – in keeping herself together as the song plays out is the musical equivalent of the third act of a Hitchcock thriller… you’re waiting with white knuckles and baited breath for her to lose her grip but somehow she manages to hold on through sheer determination and grit.

You can dock it some as a composition for cribbing some lines from other songs and harp on that unfortunate musical mindset that puts it a few years out of date, but as a vocal performance it is absolutely first rate and for Kitty Stevenson it provides all the early evidence you need as to her tremendous skill set that seemed destined to make its mark sooner or later.

Sometimes I Wonder
The female contingent of rock ‘n’ roll singers of the 1940’s is rather skimpy compared to their male counterparts, and in both hits and lasting acclaim they lag even further behind, but in terms of vocal talent, especially their nuanced readings of material, they far outdistance the fellas.

Yet even when the likes of Albennie Jones, Big Maybelle, Tina Dixon and others shine, there’s often something holding them back… be it a label unsure of what to do with them, or a band not up to the task of fully supporting them, or simply an audience either unaware of their presence or inexplicably unimpressed by their gifts in a style that was still sort of hashing out what this music was and who it was intended for.

Add Kitty Stevenson to that list of great “could’ve beens”. Blues By Myself may be nothing more than a decent song and a slightly better than average record for its time thanks to its slightly hoary vintage, but the figure at the center of it all far outdistances everything else about it.

“If only” are two words nobody wants to hear about themselves for it implies a lifetime of missed opportunities and bad breaks, but sadly in Stevenson’s case that’s what came to define her… rock’s potential first female superstar… if only she’d gotten fate to smile down upon her for just a few minutes.


(Visit the Artist page of Kitty Stevenson for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)