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What we have here is a swirl of outside events, musical conflict and burning ambition being funneled onto a record in which all of those components are easily visible… or audible as it were.

Though they sometimes strain mightily to rein it all in and occasionally these disparate elements are at odds with one another in the presentation, the talent and the enthusiasm of everyone involved make the end results irresistible and shows that every so often you can come away with something enduring, circumstances be damned.


What You’ve Done To Me
It’s been a wild year and a half for the participants of this recording session. Todd Rhodes, a veteran bandleader nearing fifty years old who found the Fountain Of Youth in rock ‘n’ roll starting in 1947 which led to him being fought over like a bone between two dogs, one (Sensation Records) a scrappy mongrel puppy, the other (King Records) a larger purebred used to getting its way.

The battle over Rhodes contract wound up in the courts where it was ruled that the small Detroit label indeed had the rights to him for another year. With every intention of moving to the bigger national based King as soon as he could, Rhodes was reluctant to give Sensation any of his best ideas in the interim, but with a long wait ahead of him before he was free to leave he probably realized he needed to put out something good to keep his name from being forgotten in the meantime.

Enter Kitty Stevenson, a local singer who’d been performing with Rhodes’ band on stage for a number of years already, but since Rhodes on record had been essentially an instrumental band (with a handful of sides that used the members as a vocal ensemble) Stevenson had yet to officially make her first appearance on record with them.

Actually they’d backed her surreptitiously on Vitacoustic in late 1947 under her own name but when that label promptly bit the dust the resulting songs made their way to Old Swing-Master where just two singles were released in 1949 in limited quantities without much distribution or promotion… but I digress.

So maybe realizing that he could kill a few birds with one stone, Rhodes brought Stevenson into the studio to presumably help him fulfill his contractual obligations to Sensation while at the same time helping her to boost her own prospects AND in the process perhaps help him by making her an even bigger draw for their live shows together.

If those goals were accomplished – and by most accounts they were – then it was in no small part due to It Ain’t Right, which despite its theme of neglect, heartbreak and deceit is a romping, joyous track that has you wishing you could take a time machine back to 1950 and head into The Flame Show Bar one night to see them in their element because this is a scorcher.


A Lovin’ Spree
The song was written by the group’s guitarist Emmet Slay who got some vocals himself during this stretch, further confirming the belief that Rhodes was spreading around the spotlight to get him through the contractual obligations.

Why Slay didn’t take It Ain’t Right, a song whose animated musical track has a vibrant melody and stomping rhythm, is a mystery. Yes, the lyrics work better from the female perspective, but if you’re looking to make your own mark as a potential singer as Slay would, you don’t let things like gender roles stop you when you have a song with this much promise.

But luckily for Kitty Stevenson – and for us – he ceded the microphone to her and as impressive as she was when starting out on Blues By Myself, on this far different song she absolutely sparkles.

Well, actually… maybe it’s not fair to call it a “far different song”, for while sonically it unquestionably is – all brassy uptempo strut and swagger – thematically it’s really fairly similar to that earlier tune about being dumped by the one you love.

That’s the first conflict found within this record, the way that the meaning is completely subverted by the performance to the point where you’ll be forgiven for thinking this is celebratory rather than an expression of despondency and dejection.

Rhodes and company certainly aren’t being ambiguous about it either with the raucous squawking trumpet-led opening which – as improbable as it seems (especially to trumpet averse rock fans) – is galvanizing, somehow making the bedlam it’s inducing seem entirely fitting for what follows in spite of the incongruous nature of what Stevenson is about to tell us.

You Told Me That You Loved Me
Here’s where you just throw all of the accepted rules out the window, for while the story is indeed a harangue about being mistreated by her ex-boyfriend, Stevenson sounds absolutely liberated vocally. She’s throwing barbs at the guy, envisioning the sweet revenge she’ll get down the road when he wants her back, and whether it’s that attitude which is fueling her self-empowerment, or if she’s just defiantly responding to the band who seem to be egging her on in almost mocking tones, the song explodes with infectious energy throughout.

This might not be Kitty Stevenson’s most technically impressive vocal – then again it might be – for there’s not a whole lot of nuance needed to be shown which was one of her greatest attributes on deeper songs than this, but it undoubtedly is her most winning performance.

She positively glows as she sings, radiating a life-affirming spirit that pulls you in as she’s bound and determined to show the world what she can do. Songs tackling this well-worn theme are always trying to get us to merely feel sorry for the girl whose heart has been broken, to sympathize with them, but Stevenson does that one better by getting us to rally around her instead, in essence being so vivacious that we want her for ourselves.

Talk about a switch! It may not make much sense thematically but it sure works organically and that’s what really matters.

Give It Up If You Wanna See Me
The band are of course complicit in this upending of the song’s basic message, as they’re playing with an almost gleeful fury in the introduction. Howard Thompson’s trumpet is so brazen that it’d almost qualify as intentional sabotage of the content if it weren’t immediately picked up on by everyone else.

The backbeat is unrelenting with both drums and hand-clapping adding to the rhythmic drive, while Rhodes is stabbing keys on the piano like he was making shish kabob and it’s all topped off by the band offering vocal replies to every line Stevenson delivers, alternately acting as a stand in for the accused as they feign shock at her claims of abuse, and then they abruptly switch to a chorus of prosecuting attorneys leading the witness to the dramatic reveal that will clinch her case.

It’s chaotic to the point of lunacy at times, yet it never fails to hold together. The groove doesn’t let up, the pieces fall into place with surprising skill – even Thompson’s trumpet solo following the appearance of the more expected saxophone in the break seems like it shouldn’t work but he pulls it off somehow – and the sheer momentum of the overall performance steamrolls whatever awkwardness is found in its construction.

It Ain’t Right was tailor made to wrap up the final set on the bandstand, something designed to get the crowd re-energized so that when the joint closes down at the end of the night the patrons will head outside to catch a cab home smiling broadly and telling each other they’ll need to make sure to go back next weekend for more of the same. Self-advertisement at its finest.

Though it’s certainly true that it’s a record that has a lot of parts that on the surface wouldn’t seem appropriate for rock, its hell-bent enthusiasm and insolent attitude ensures that it fits into the playlist seamlessly and shows that no matter what they threw at her, Kitty Stevenson could handle anything with aplomb.


Just You Wait And See
To be honest there was nothing that Sensation Records could’ve done to stave off their inevitable decline short of getting an influx of money from some oil leases or diamond mine to allow them to distribute their records nationally and promote them into hits, then sign – or re-sign – their artists to long-term contracts with enough money up front to keep rival companies from their door.

But records like It Ain’t Right shows why Detroit would become such a hot-bed of rock ‘n’ roll by the 1960’s when Kitty Stevenson’s son Mickey would help to lead the Motown empire to the top of the music world.

They’d gotten lucky when contracting Rhodes in 1947 from the vibrant local club scene and then got unlucky when he proved too popular to hold onto. But while they had him – and those in his orbit – they managed to put out some great records of which this one… as mixed-up as it surely looked on paper… stands out as something special.

Turn it up, forget about everything wrong swirling around it, and lose yourself in the sound of the Motor City at the dawn of the Nineteen-Fifties, a sleeping giant waiting to be roused.


(Visit the Artist pages of Kitty Stevenson as well as Todd Rhodes for the complete archives of their respective records reviewed to date)