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Rock ‘n’ roll has been home to many intriguing figures over the years. Some make the music their permanent home and are widely known for decades after their career ended, while others are merely temporary visitors, soon moving on and usually forgotten.

The latter scenario would seem to be the case with the wonderfully named La Melle Prince, who recorded just one single in this field as a 23 year old and then faded from view. But she didn’t disappear from music altogether and it’s what she did nearly two full decades later and how drastically in contrasted with what she showed here that makes her story so interesting.


When I Get Low And Don’t Know What To Do
Over the course of her career Le Melle Prince didn’t make a lot of records but she sang in virtually every style under the sun, beginning on stage with jazz great Lionel Hampton in the mid-1940’s and leaving her biggest mark as a country artist in the late 1960’s, reputedly the first black female country singer of any distinction.

That quirk, saying as much about how restrictive that genre was than anything, means she’ll likely never be completely overlooked, but it’ll almost certainly be as a minor footnote.

Yet for those listening to her classy country records produced by Owen Bradley on Decca in the late 1960’s the thought of her delivering such a shameless rocker early in her career as this… one in which she’s using a far different vocal tone, an energetic delivery, surprising insight along with sly undercurrents of wickedness… was almost hard to believe.

On paper Get High may be little more than a stereotypical ode to all night parties that rock thrived on, but under the unassuming surface lays the hallmarks of a top flight record. The theme was just a well-worn starting point to allow Prince to sell it with a vocal conviction while producer Maxwell Davis pulls out all the stops to see to it that she might become a star.

That it didn’t happen is just one of those unfortunate quirks of music that makes navigating its history so unpredictable.

I Get My Kicks
The first thing that should catch your eye looking at the record itself is the writing credit. La Melle Prince wrote this herself, something which tells us that she was far from being shuttled into rock by Aladdin Records simply because it was their most fruitful market.

For somebody who went from jazz to country and only barely stopped off at the rock café for a cup of coffee, Prince shows she intrinsically understood what made the music so appealing, for not only does she give us the kind of scenario that was relatable to the audience but she faithfully inhabits the character to the point where you’d doubt she could pass a breathalyzer test after hearing this.

The term Get High nowadays refers almost exclusively to drugs, but back in Mid-Century America it was the primary description for getting drunk. Now of course chronic alcoholism is not anything to be made light of, but the boozing being sung about here is more of the unwinding variety… an end of the week release where letting yourself go sometimes requires an accelerant that comes in a bottle.

Prince runs down a few of the options at her local bar but she’s already got her eyes on the bottle of wine and although you generally sip wine rather than guzzle it, she doesn’t sound as if she’s averse to at least swilling it just to help speed matters along here. Even if you’re stone cold sober while listening her enthusiasm throughout the record is contagious as she races through the lines with a gleam in her eye while still managing to somehow maintain control of the melody and rhythm. If anything the fast pace keeps her focused as she and the band trade off exclamations as if trying to outdo each other.

But before you get to thinking that this is nothing but uncorked hedonism with nothing to offer but a fleeting buzz brought about by the excitement she stirs up, let it be said that her lyrics are more insightful, or at least more descriptive, than these kind of odes to late night debauchery usually are.

Prince fully understands and accepts the trade-off she’s making to relieve herself of whatever worries she has that fill her days and seems to be aware that it’s not just a temporary distraction but that it will have consequences. She doesn’t delve into it much of course, after all what drunken rock fans want to hear a lecture about their own poor choices in life, but this does at least hint at the psychological aspects of using booze as an escape more than you’d expect for a song that is gleefully partaking in the celebration as much as this one does.

As for helping to establish that celebratory mood we turn to Maxwell Davis, the veteran bartender setting us up for another round.

Mixology 101: Make You Blow Your Top
The structure of this song is pretty straightforward. There’s no elaborate set-up, no unusual bridge, not even any stop-time vocals or slow grind finish. Prince clearly had a melody she liked and like most (presumably beginning) songwriters stayed on track rather than try and get fancy.

A lot of skilled producers would bristle at being tasked with coming up with an interesting way to frame it, believing simple equals uninteresting, but not Davis.

He knows the key to putting this across is to not attempt to upstage her by showing off his deeper musical knowledge, potentially crossing her up in the process. Instead the arrangement he came up with for Get High focuses on doing just that – getting high via an arsenal of horns all blasting away with sort of a loose-limbed precision, their parts overlapping and giving the impression at times that they’re going to fly off the rails at any moment.

They don’t of course, this is Maxwell Davis we’re talking about after all, but compare this to some of the more mannered group horns we’ve heard in the past on so many records when everything was so rigidly laid out that it all sounded artificial. By comparison Davis keeps this teetering on the edge of drunkenness – tying it in nicely with the subject at hand – yet never sends them over the legal limit to make a mess out of things.

The horns compliment each other even as they intrude on one another’s parts, the baritone never clashes with the others even as it stands out in between, on top of and behind their lines which shows the entire band’s discipline.

As for Davis, he gives us a pair of solos that are energetic and propulsive, yet they ground the song too by easing back on the tempo just enough to give us a breather without slackening off on the spirit.

Know What To Do
The number of songs that have mined the same basic ground as this in rock so far is too long to list, but within a few weeks time we’re getting two from Tiny Bradshaw, a singer with the same exuberant nature that Prince shows here.

All are getting the same score, yet not all have the same qualities which make them excel. In many ways the Bradshaw cuts, I’m Going To Have Myself A Ball last month and Breaking Up The House this month, are better songs. That is, they’re more tightly constructed, building their stories through more traditional means than this slice of life song by someone with a lot less experience – as a singer and probably as a late night reveler – than Bradshaw.

Yet La Melle Prince in many ways is the more authentic artist to be doing this kind of thing and consequently this a more emblematic record for the scene in which she found herself immersed in, brief though it was. Get High is a little too frantic, thus a little more unfocused, but if you’ve been to many drunken parties you realize that’s the more realistic atmosphere.

But that’s not in any way to put her in competition with a veteran act like Bradshaw or his equally good records, but rather to show that for a relative novice, both in the studio and in rock itself, Prince tapped into something so elemental that it winds up reflecting the very audience who was meant to consume this.

Maybe that explains why that audience missed out on this… they were too busy pounding their drinks back to notice, but based on this one side alone you’d like to see what else she could’ve come up with in the same vein before heading off into a completely different world altogether.

So we’d better take this chance to raise our glass to her, because after tomorrow we won’t be getting another opportunity.


(Visit the Artist page of La Melle Prince for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)