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FEDERAL 12078; MAY 1952



There are some athletes through the years who were good enough to play two different sports professionally… there are actors and actresses equally adept at drama and comedy… there are writers who can pen both fiction and non-fiction with equal skill and yet society tends to be a little more comfortable when somebody focuses only on one thing and sticks to that exclusively.

I’m not really sure why.

Jealousy? Confusion? Or just a preference for one or the other they assume everyone should share?

Little Esther was capable of meeting the requirements of multiple disparate genres over the course of her career and while this ability gives her overall artistry more cache it may also limit the appreciation of her in any one of those styles.

Here she may just leave the devoted rock fan a little cold even as she astounds those who couldn’t care less about maintaining strict musical classifications.


A Strange Philosophy
We’ve repeated ourselves on the artistic stagnation… at times more of an outright decline… of Little Esther’s career once she left Savoy Records at the end of 1950 too many times to count, but we’ve yet to figure out quite why that was.

It could be that some of her best work on Savoy had featured Mel Walker as a duet partner, whereas just one on Federal did so since he was under contract elsewhere… and with that song, Ring-A-Ding-Doo, being a hit it may confirm that opinion.

It could also be that her Federal sides didn’t feature the distinctive instrumental touches that had made her records stand out before, namely the absence of Johnny Otis’s vibraphones providing a soothing aura behind her vocals, since he too was under contract elsewhere.

But the usual suspects when somebody experiences a drop-off in both success AND quality upon switching labels didn’t apply here because she’s wasn’t dealing with a new producer, new songwriters or new backing musicians, for at Federal Records she had the same old crew with her.

Johnny Otis may have been barred from playing vibes on her sides but he could still write and arrange the material and frequently did. His band was under no such obligations and so they were present on all of her sessions, while Ralph Bass, the producer who signed her back in 1949 and oversaw her biggest hits that followed over the next year on Savoy, had brought Esther with him to Federal when he was given the label to run, so that reason doesn’t hold up either.

What that leaves us with is one of two choices. Either audiences suddenly got tired of her voice or the songs themselves were just not as well written as before.

But that latter problem doesn’t describe Aged And Mellow, an original composition by Johnny Otis and Preston Love that is so expertly constructed that it seems to have been preserved in amber.

Or maybe that’s the problem this time around… it’s such a good song played in such a classy manner that it seems all wrong for those rock fans expecting something a little more grimy and disheveled to suit their tastes.


Why These Little Young Cats Ain’t Movin’ Me
The biggest shock of this record isn’t Little Esther’s performance itself. We knew she was an exceptionally talented singer, equally skilled at conveying emotional depth and intellect in her readings and when given an appropriate arrangement someone who had the ability to both blend in and and stand out at the same time.

No, the biggest shock is that she was the first to ever cut this song… it was written FOR her when it sounds like something that one of the classic female jazz singers of the preceding decade had already claimed it as their own.

In an alternate universe this is perhaps Billie Holiday’s defining record. Or an all-time standard that will forever be associated with Ella Fitzgerald. Maybe Sarah Vaughan would’ve made any other rendition superfluous. Or it could be that Julie London would’ve taken it for herself in time.

Surely it HAD to come out during that stretch when jazz was reaching its greatest heights with vocal performances. But no, this was not an older song brought up to date, it was a new song made to sound timeless.

The genius of this is it’s a composition that is precisely what it tells you it is… Aged And Mellow, and two better words could never be found to describe it, as the slow stately pace, the smoky late night accompaniment paired with Esther’s aching voice with a hint of shrillness give it the sturdiness of an ancient tree in the forest that was felled to build the cask to store the best whiskey ever concocted, probably kept in a stone castle from the middle ages to boot.

It’s utterly mesmerizing the way it unfolds with Esther gently leading you on, her pauses in between lines and hesitations between singular words saying every bit as much as the lyrics themselves which appear to have been carved in stone.

The perspective used by Otis here is something we just don’t see in rock ‘n’ roll at this point – or very often down the line for that matter – and even in jazz it’s an approach that is frequently tried but rarely works to this degree where a personal outlook takes on the scope of a larger worldview using very vivid description laying that mindset out in clear unambiguous fashion, Yet somehow thanks to the words chosen, the melody they’re attached to and the delivery of the artist, are made to seem far more vague… almost as if they’re being suggested rather than definitely staked out. A slight of hand trick that makes it even more captivating.

Each time you want to praise the song for an exquisite line (and truthfully almost every single lyric within qualifies in that regard) you don’t get the chance before you’re forced to turn your attention back to the brilliance of Esther’s performance as she makes each of those words feel lived in, thus relatable and believable even as she is claiming things regarding love and life which in reality would be absurd coming from a teenager.


Don’t Bother Me ‘Til Later Day
We’ve barely mentioned the band here which is Otis’s usual crew with standout work by Devonia Williams on piano, while the whole outfit show they are just as capable as jazz musicians as they are in the rock world. Ben Webster’s subtle tenor parts add immeasurably to the atmosphere behind Esther, but it’s co-writer Preston Love who delivers what might just be the single most perfectly realized alto sax solo on a rock artist’s record we’ve heard to date.

Languid, glassy with a hint of grit, melodic and soulful in a sneaky way, Love’s playing could calm a hurricane and get a tornado to lay down and rest.

There’s not a single extraneous note to be found anywhere in George Williams’ delicate arrangement and not a moment where band, singer and composition are not in total lockstep. Try as you might you can’t help but believe the improbable statements of a mere sixteen year old claiming to prefer men who are Aged And Mellow with the slow burning desire of a middle-aged chanteuse.

It’s a work of art in every respect and may just be the best thing Little Esther ever recorded.

But not for rock ‘n’ roll.

Hell, try as I might I can’t convincingly say this has anything to DO with rock ‘n’ roll other than the names on the call sheet. Then again it was a legitimate hit, landing on the regional charts in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philly and Atlanta across the summer months and jazz songs rarely, if ever, did that in the early fifties so this was a sign Esther’s fans (rock fans remember) were sticking with her when she came up with something worth their attention again.

For that reason, no matter how awkward a fit in the genre it may seem, I can’t possibly leave it out of the roll call of the ongoing career assessment of someone who has been with us practically from the start, soon after the rock train pulled out of the station when she was a 13 year old in 1949 and who will still be around releasing records in the early 1980’s just before her tragic death before turning fifty.

Then again she was always an old soul and a brilliant artist at her best and however unconventional this was for rock ‘n’ roll audiences to embrace as they did she deserves to be recognized for that. And yes, the little laugh she tosses in towards the end proves she too recognized it as the absolute best she was capable of delivering.

In spite of all the praise we can muster, this still won’t get the best score we hand out because we do have to acknowledge its stylistic differences to our main objective on the site, but don’t let that fool you. This is music in its purest form… no matter what you call it.


(Visit the Artist page of Little Esther for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)