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FEDERAL 12065; MARCH 1952



Well, there’s always this risk when you try something different, isn’t there? When frustrated by diminished interest in a star thanks to a repetitive mood in their songs you decide to shake things up in a radical way and hope that people gravitate towards the novelty aspect of it if nothing else.

But the reality is that when you’re swinging for the fences like this, placing your hopes on a boom or bust moment, more often than not it goes bust.

This one definitely went bust, although maybe that’s because there was a lot of booming instruments that wouldn’t let you focus on the teenage girl in the middle of the maelstrom of conflicting sounds.


One Of These Days You’re Gonna Stumble And Fall
What made Little Esther special throughout her career – not merely confining it to when she was so young which made it seem even more impressive at the time – was her ability to burrow into a song’s emotional center and extract its most vital elements and present them in unique and disarming ways.

This approach though had its limits. For instance it tended to work better on slower material where her contemplative delivery would be accentuated by the sparse arrangement, letting her underlying state of mind rise to the surface in the silence between lines.

There was also the concern of having her mousy voice overwhelmed by rambunctious musicians if the producer wasn’t careful in finding the right balance, meaning that one instrument, say a slowly unwinding guitar, a softly moaning saxophone or delicate piano or vibes, were all that were really needed to accentuate the mood while letting Esther handle the rest.

Apparently they forgot all of this on Better Beware, thinking that because her year long tenure on Federal Records had resulted in a string of commercial duds that the formula itself was growing stale rather than the fact the songs she was given were mostly of lesser quality than what Johnny Otis had provided her while she was on Savoy. So that’s when they all decided, including Otis who wrote this, to completely overhaul her sound by doing the exact opposite of what worked so well in the past.

It’s not an unusual turn of events, for when any producer, no matter how skilled or how successful in the past, is faced with growing disinterest in a formerly hot artist they tend to overcompensate, fixing things that don’t need fixing and do so in the most radical ways possible rather than simply tightening things up in the margins.

As a result, this record not only won’t be able to pull Esther out of her tailspin, but it’s likely to sink her further into the quicksand of musical irrelevance.


My Head Goes Reeling
Frankly it’s amazing that when confronted with the idea of adding a more vibrant musical element to someone’s records so many producers in this era look outside of what actually is proven to work in rock ‘n’ roll at the time.

It’s almost as if they’re offended that other people came up with something that connected with an audience and they want to prove the public’s tastes are somehow “wrong” and so they’ll throw a lot of outdated ideas or absurd perversions of the dominant approach thinking that it’ll amaze and delight everyone who hears it.

That would certainly explain how they’ve decided that what Little Esther needs to connect with rock fans who’ve abandoned her for more jumping and provocative records by Ruth Brown or Margie Day is to put her with a horn section that sounds as if they’re on stage at a Las Vegas nightclub and then combine that with the bluesy guitar of Pete Lewis which takes the term “mixing like oil and water” to the extreme.

The horns that open this record don’t belong here at all. They’re gallingly offensive to a rock fan’s sensibilities, a vile repudiation of all the honking tenor saxes and gritty rhythms that were currently driving rock ‘n’ roll, replacing it with a blaring artificiality that makes anything Esther is going to say seem hollow and insincere.

At least they got one thing right however, Better Beware is the perfect title for unsuspecting listeners because of how it basically dismisses the essence of rock ‘n’ roll as if a 65 year old musical director was enlisted to incorporate rock into a staged presentation at a gaudy awards show in the 1960’s.

Sitting uncomfortably in the spotlight is Esther who tries not to act overwhelmed by this onslaught of noise and does her best to to match their false exuberance – or maybe the exuberance IS real, but it’s certainly misplaced – with one of her more strident vocal turns.

None of this works. Not the band, not Esther, not the song itself which is a brash declaration of love that would send any man fleeing in terror from her. She comes across as desperate, delusional and possibly demented and even when she pulls off a nice technical transition by downshifting to a quieter passage the most likely response you’ll have listening to this is a panic attack.

To show how bad it is, the only part of this mess that sounds reasonably good is the instrumental break that abruptly discards the noisy din they started with and magically transforms into a small combo jazz band with a smoky tenor sax blowing low with cymbals and some drum fills before segueing into a more rocking tenor workout followed by Lewis’s sharp guitar solo.

That they manage to shift from one to the other without the seams showing, both aspects coming across reasonably well in a musical sense, shows that the people assembled on the studio floor were competent at their jobs… which means it’s too bad those behind the control room glass were out to prove they were a motley collection of loons, crackpots and imbeciles.


No Use Ignoring
Trying to envision a more suitable fit for this record in another genre is an exercise in futility.

It’s too schizophrenic for jazz, too off-the-wall for a swinging bachelor pad motif, while the few rock elements – the tail end of the sax and guitar break – makes it harshly inappropriate for the kind of showroom stages the rest of it might work in and so you’re left with a record that has no identity… other than utter confusion.

Here’s what you can take away from Better Beware

You better beware when writers, producers, arrangers and record labels lose faith in an artist… you better beware when those same people distrust the public’s judgment regarding what currently works… you better beware when they try and reinvent the wheel to solve their self-inflicted problems… and you damn well better beware when they don’t look in the mirror and realize they themselves are what needs to step away and let someone else take the reins.

Little Esther’s career peak is over but her talent hasn’t disappeared and it’s up to those around her to draw that talent out, or to find more creative people than she was now saddled with to do it for them.

This record may wake the dead but it sure as hell wasn’t going to revive her career.


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