No tags :(

Share it




Where do we start with this one when it comes to trying to accurately assess its importance if not its quality?

We could tell you that this helped to launch the death record trend in rock which, while never becoming a huge movement, somehow lasted for a decade with a number of notable hits over that time.

How about the fact that it’s also among the first truly cinematic productions in rock history?

Or we could try and get you to understand the shock that something this dire was a huge hit in Los Angeles all summer long.

Well, since we have the time we might as well touch on all of those things and more because while this might not be one of the best records we’ll cover this year, it’s definitely among the more far reaching ones we’ll see.


So Many Tears I Cannot See
The life story of Harry Caesar is a fascinating one and a lesson in perseverance. In trouble with gangs as a teenager during which time he did a stint in jail, he went into the service upon his release from prison and started boxing while there. After his discharge his professional career as a pugilist lasted just one fight before giving it up and moving into music.

He was far more successful as a musician than he was as a gang member, a soldier or a boxer, but even so his music career resulted in just two back to back hits starting with this one at the very beginning of his career and he was more or less scraping for record deals by mid-decade.

By the dawn of the Nineteen Sixties he had started transitioning to acting and late in the decade he became a familiar face appearing in a lot of memorable television shows and films until he passed away in 1994.

That’s a full, interesting life… which is why it’s so ironic that in Going Down To The River, as well as its even bigger similarly themed follow-up, his character in the songs wants to END that life.

Now death in music was not a new thing, but suicide was still pretty taboo for a song to deal with. This wasn’t an ode to someone dying in war, or recounting some natural disaster, which were long-standing tropes in all forms of music. This was about somebody deciding to take their own life over the mere loss of a romantic relationship.

Heavy stuff, wouldn’t you say? But important stuff too… in a way.

Not that songs necessarily have to comment on real life issues, the fact that they can – and allow you to listen as an outsider looking in on a situation you never will experience, OR as someone empathizing with the situation because you’ve gone through something similar – is an important part of forging a deeper connection with some in the audience.

That probably wasn’t Caesar’s goal, it may just have been nothing more than a good story idea for him, but it winds up having a longer reach historically as a result of its desperate point of view.

If nothing else it’s certainly a lot more memorable once you’ve heard it than most of your average fare on the topic.

Walking Down A Lonesome Road
Let’s circle back to the atmosphere this record has and the unlikely nature of it considering that it was recorded for John Dolphin’s Recorded In Hollywood label. Now it’s doubtful this was one of those cuts he was famous for wherein he’d tell the artist he was auditioning them, record the practice session and issue it “as is”. But even in the best of circumstances he wasn’t the kind to spring for top notch studio musicians and first rate producer either which makes this an outlier… if not an outside production altogether.

Yet that’s sort of what we get here as what stands out just as much as the subject matter is the way in which it’s being framed with a stark arrangement wherein the piano is the only instrument playing for the first minute – and in what you might mistake for rudimentary fashion since he’s plodding through a single note at a time – which sets up the entire somber mood in a way that something more complex would destroy.

Then we get a flute, an odd choice for a rock song, or lots of other genres for that matter, but entirely appropriate for this as it reflects the spiraling despair of Caesar… almost as if he’s halfway gone already and this faint hauntingly dreamy sound is all that’s able to penetrate his senses.

Of course that description of the record’s decidedly odd musical backing means little unless you know the story contained in Going Down To The River, or as it became known and advertised as simply “The River”, wherein Little Caesar’s desolate mindset over a doomed love affair increasingly overwhelms him, driving him from merely experiencing sadness and hurt to being overcome with inconsolable anguish which he feels can only be vanquished by taking his own life.

For those of us who’ve never considered such drastic measures for any reason this obviously has a theatrical flair to it that might seem a bit much. Soap opera melodrama rather than straight drama. As a pure performance though it’s riveting because Caesar himself sells his grief with such conviction. No wonder he became an actor, for there’s never a single moment here where you don’t believe every word of this.

But in order for it to connect with listeners – even for those who don’t explore such dark corners of their own minds – you have to acknowledge those corners exist and maybe try and understand them, not from a position of relating to them per say, but simply to analyze them to see how emotionally bereft you’d have to feel to come to this decision.

Paralysis, a terminal illness, the death of a child or spouse perhaps would be things that might get you to relate to that level of fatalism, even if you’d scoff at such actions over something as seemingly temporary as a relationship ending.

But if you can somehow equate the powerless feeling you’d have in the more “serious” examples with that of the loss of someone you thought would be with you forever, especially because it was the other person’s choice to leave you and thus something you never saw coming, maybe Caesar’s response – though drastic – is more easily explained.

For even those who fail to sympathize with people in that state of mind, there can be little question his “character” here is living every word he sings. There’s no hope to be found in that voice, no rational thought that exists in his mind and no life left in him to even put up a fight to combat this all-consuming misery.

He’s already dead and that’s what makes it such a haunting record.


Say A Prayer For Me
There’s obviously a good chance, very good in fact, that this was popular in Los Angeles not because of the region having some sort of fatalistic outlook, but rather because it was SO unusual that hearing it nightly played on the hottest rock radio show in the city – live from Dolphin’s Of Hollywood record store window – got the curious to head down to pick up a copy for themselves, or to spin it on a jukebox to hear it a second and third time out of voyeuristic tendencies alone.

After all, this was hardly the kind of thing one was used to hearing and in 1952 you had few outlets besides the record itself to dwell over such existential questions as life and death.

But while it’s hardly an enjoyable listen, Going Down To The River remains an intoxicating one because of the analytical nature of hearing something so bleak come to life in a way that’s both realistic, yet also over-the-top in a way.

I know Mitch Miller pioneered staged productions for records in the pop world, but that was almost cartoonish by comparison, going for the novelty shock of hearing sound effects in a musical context, whereas this is nothing BUT music being used to create a vivid scenic landscape in your imagination.

Every element here, including Que Martyn’s mournful sax popping up at the end, comes across as very well thought out and considering that Los Angeles would arguably be where rock production became more “visual”, for lack of a better term, over the next decade compared to those from New York, New Orleans, Chicago or elsewhere, it’s not impossible to think that the popularity of this record in the City Of Angels played a hand in that evolution.

Maybe this is something that you would be reluctant to add to a casual playlist for 1952 rock records, for who in their right minds would dance or smooch or party to this kind of thing, but in order to appreciate the giant strides being attempted at the time and the subsequent developments in production and content that would infiltrate rock over the years, this is one of those records you have to hear at least once to fully comprehend everything that was to follow.


(Visit the Artist page of Little Caesar for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)