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SENSATION 37; JUNE 1950

 
 

 

The term “so close, but so far” is inherently sad in many ways, as it typically means the subject at whom that saying is directed failed somehow when they could’ve succeeded if a few breaks went their way.

In the case of the tragically short career of vocalist Kitty Stevenson the term seems particularly cruel, as within two years of releasing this record she’d pass away at the age of 28, her vast potential never fulfilled on record.

But if she fell just short of attaining stardom as a recording artist a good deal of the blame must fall with her benefactor, bandleader Todd Rhodes, for while he gave her a notable platform with which to make herself known he also happened to undercut her effectiveness by robbing this song of the swaggering attitude it needed to fully succeed.
 

 

Must Be Ready At My Beck And Call
When we last encountered this pair it was back in April when they combined on the brilliant It Ain’t Right, a song that was supercharged by Kitty Stevenson’s vocal prowess and where Todd Rhodes held up his end of the bargain with an arrangement that gave her room to strut her stuff.

The two of them meshed perfectly and while the same might not be said of the essentially downcast lyrics and the upbeat packaging they wrapped it in, you were far too busy grooving on the performances to bother with such inconveniences as that.

With That’s The Guy For Me we have a different issue to contend with, for while this song matches the optimistic message with her equally energized delivery, the music Rhodes lays down behind it fails at times to keep pace.

All of which shows the unique and precarious dynamic between components within each song – singer, band, lyrical content and arrangement – are always the final arbiter of a record’s effectiveness and if just one of those is off and the balance is upset it can upend what otherwise should be a performance to celebrate.
 


 
 

Hold Tight, Folks
Okay, first the good… or should we dispense with any measured appreciation and simply say, “the great”… by which I mean Kitty Stevenson, who with just a few sides to her credit thus far has already taken her spot alongside the best female vocalists rock has to offer.

I know, I know, there’s not all that much competition so far, and the best of them in terms of who HAS made their first appearances on the scene, namely Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker and Big Maybelle, have yet to come close to hitting their stride so far, but even so listening to That’s The Guy For Me it’s not hard to envision Stevenson vying with all three for the duration of the 1950’s had she not been taken from us so soon.

She gets off to a rather slow start however thanks to the musical opening, more of which later, but the effect is to rein her in unnecessarily, to temper her enthusiasm as she starts off telling us about “the best type guy for me”. With the downbeat horns behind her she can hardly soar the way she wants to and dutifully she follows the arrangement even though it has the effect of dragging her down with it.

But once Stevenson gets her footing she seems to adjust on the fly, making the key decision to rise with excitement in the middle of each line before downshifting to meet the band at the next turn. It sounds simple enough – and really it is in terms musical theory – but it still takes a singer with the confidence and judgement to pull it off properly.

Maybe the road based analogy alluded to in the last paragraph comes in handy here. When driving you want to slow heading into a curve, then accelerate coming out so that you maintain control on the turn and are up to speed as fast as possible on the ensuing straightaway. But what Stevenson is forced to do is the opposite, having to stomp on the gas heading into that curve and then somehow ride the breaks while rounding the turn and slow coming out of it as if there was going to a traffic jam or a sudden red light waiting for you as you straightened out again.

Somehow, time and again, she pulls this off and keeps the car on the road, making it sound natural even though it’s anything but. The trickiest part might not even be the technical aspects of it, but rather is found on the emotional side of the equation as she needs to come across as revved up when talking about her guy as if she can’t contain her joy before being asked to do just that and pull back moments before she explodes into rapture.

If she makes any wrong move steering this thing the whole song will wind up in a crumpled heap but she gets us through the crosstown traffic in one piece without sending our hearts into our throats and that might be the most impressive part about it.
 

Cast His Spell
By this point I might as well – drive this analogy into the ground – no pun intended – as we lift the hood and take a look at the engine. (Hey, they were all from Detroit so this analogy is as appropriate as it will ever be on these pages).

By the way Stevenson handles this course you’d think she’s running on a good fuel mixture but the fact is while she makes the lyrics seem like high octane stuff, it’s hardly very refined. That’s The Guy For Me reveals its entire perspective right in the title and the rest of the song does little more than repeat that claim without adding much nuance or detail to bolster it.

She downplays this guy’s looks but plays up his seduction technique and sexual stamina without veering into the kind of racy euphemisms that would’ve given this a lot more kick. Yet by the way in which she suggests there’s more under the surface than she’s legally allowed to reveal the more effective it becomes. It’s never quite pushing the theme too hard unfortunately but she’s pushing it just enough – and consistently enough – to get by on the implications alone, which is to her eternal credit.

Of course all of those feints and hints would’ve been unnecessary had Todd Rhodes remembered just who he had in the driver’s seat and got out his damn toolbox and done a better job tuning this engine up because the parts are all there to have this wind up in the winner’s circle if not for the out of date band mentality affixed to the record.
 


 

You Can Have All The Rest
As too often is still the case in rock at this time the horn section is responsible for the low horsepower they’re working with here. Despite a few good tenor interjections this is essentially a big band chart grafted onto a rock record and it fails miserably when those horns are allowed to take the lead.

The opening exchange gives no hint as to who or what is to follow and even when Stevenson gets That’s The Guy For Me headed back in the right direction with her sassy attitude the horns aren’t stepping on the gas behind her vocal surges, choosing instead to constantly pump the breaks and slow things down, something they couldn’t have done more effectively if they tossed an anchor out the back window to hook a passing lamppost or tree.

The drumming by Benny Benjamin is solid but even when they hit the straightaway and Stevenson is egging them on vocally they don’t have the muscle to get out in front of the pack, they’re like a four cylinder engine trying to keep up with her driving a V-8. It’s rare you see a singer forcibly pulling an entire band behind them but here’s this woman strapping them all to her back and trying her best to get them to keep up.

Not even she can manage that trick, but the fault lays entirely with them because if they’d simply swapped out the horns and let the tenor off the leash then it would’ve freed Stevenson to cut loose even more and the results would’ve transformed the entire record.
 

Knows What I Like So Well
It’s a funny thing, Todd Rhodes, a bandleader with tons of experience and a surprising amount of flexibility when it came to updating his own sound to meet the demands of a new era and new market, finds a singer who instantly could’ve taken them all to the next plateau in rock.

It seemed like a match made in heaven, yet she happened to come along at a time when Rhodes seems to be wrongly re-assessing that market, perhaps out of spite against the record label with whom he was at odds, or perhaps intent to bide his time without wasting too many of his best ideas before landed at his desired destination.

Of course he couldn’t have known that Stevenson’s time would be drawing to a close and so surely he must’ve felt they’d have plenty of opportunity to build on this and take what worked on That’s The Guy For Me and craft a better frame around it.

Sadly that wouldn’t be the case and already for the second time in the three releases we’ve covered we have to bemoan how close Kitty Stevenson was to making her presence known with a great vocal only to be forced into the breakdown lane by faulty mechanics as the checkered flag began to wave in the distance.

So near and yet so far indeed.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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