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FEDERAL 12078; MAY 1952



After leaning hard to her jazz side on the spectacular top side, here Johnny Otis decides to use the kitchen sink approach and basically leave it up to Little Esther to navigate her way through elements of rock, blues, jazz and quite possibly strains of Celtic Folk Music, Tibetan Chants, Japanese Taiko and for good measure the Scandinavian Twist.

Who knows, maybe he was just emptying out his cluttered mind of everything he’d been listening to of late by putting it all on the B-side of one of the best songs he’d ever written, knowing nothing – no matter how conflicting these sounds were – was going to be paid much attention to anywhere by anyone.

Anyone but us that is.


Don’t Know What To Do, I’m So Confused
Sometimes it pays to have a one track mind. When it came to music, Johnny Otis most definitely did not.

A childhood big band fanatic who shifted into slimmed down jazz groups with more than a passing interest in hardcore blues before reaching fame in rock ‘n’ roll, Johnny seemed intent on never strictly following the narrowest parameters of ANY style he tried his hand in.

At times that was to his advantage, for he was able to bring hints of music from outside environments into the one he was primarily focused on, such as how he switched from drums to vibes when he mangled his hand and thus added some Lionel Hampton influence to his rock sides, which made them utterly unique on the 1950 rock scene.

But on songs like Bring My Lovin’ Back To Me which he and Rick Darnell wrote for Little Esther, the various stylistic nods are frequently at odds with one another and leaves poor Esther without a clear roadmap of how to approach this.

Should she take up the jazz mantle again and perhaps confuse rock listeners who might be afraid she’s leaving them behind? Or maybe she could show something completely different and dig into the bluesier side of this track by roughening up her voice and taking on a more backwoods mindset.

Or would it be best to aim right down the middle and just try and ride the rhythm and let skeptics know that she was still aligned with rock ‘n’ roll, even if Otis was making that difficult to prove with these kind of hybrid songs.

Instead, as often happens when faced with so many options, she sort of remained uncommittmed which ensures that the song won’t really appeal to any of the respective constituencies.


I Want You By My Side
When you hear Pete Lewis’s gutbucket guitar in the opening you wonder how on earth could this be anything BUT the blues, that’s how strong he elicits that distinctive atmosphere with his playing.

But then you realize that plenty of times a bluesy guitar has led to a rocking track and you refrain from being misled by first impressions. When Esther comes in however she’s singing in a breathy melodic coo which doesn’t seem to fit ANY clear-cut genre before shifting into a more rhythmic and harsher tone that is definitely geared more towards rock. Good… at least SOMEONE here knows who’s buttering their bread.

You just wish somebody told the horn section who are adding jazzy rejoinders to every line she sings, thereby guaranteeing that whichever of the three elements you prefer you will be disappointed with two thirds of the final result.

Way to go fellas.

Let’s stick with Esther though since Bring My Lovin’ Back To Me has her name on it and will be used – by most casual listeners at least – to judge her as an artist far more than trying to critique those who wrote, arranged and played on it.

To her credit Esther sounds pretty good for the most part, even if she is kept off balance by the shifting musical terrain.

But she also sounds justifiably confused at times too, unsure of just how to deliver certain lines that call for one thing while the music calls for something else entirely. When she delivers a pure blues line about coming back to her shack she can’t very well alter her voice to suit that perspective so she doesn’t sell it in the way she might’ve under different circumstances. Yet when she’s allowed to simply set her own melodic course she doesn’t disappoint.

For the disappointment we turn to everyone else… playing technically well perhaps, but conceptually they’re lost. The horns are the main offenders, not because they aren’t hitting their notes but because the notes they’ve been given are all wrong. They’re giving off a shallow club vibe throughout this… you know the kind, where they’re fully aware that most in the room aren’t paying them any attention and they’re simply filling empty air.

On a record however that’s a death knell and it’s up to Esther and Pete Lewis to try and re-focus things down the stretch. Lewis’s guitar work in the break (we can’t call it a solo with the horns blaring away) is much more in line with rock sensibilities than he was early on, but with so much else going on he’s almost drowned out even as that was the one part of the arrangement that could’ve dragged this back onto the main highway.

Instead by the time this wraps up you don’t know where you’ve been, what you’ve seen or why you were taken for such a ride in the first place. Maybe you heard a few intriguing sounds along the route, but none of them lasted long enough, or made sense in the context of everything else you encountered, so before the song fades you’re bound to forget most of them.


I’m In Need Of Sympathy
In nearly two thousand reviews I don’t think we’ve brought up the need for sounding boards in the studio, but this is an ideal record to point out just how vital they could be.

The person acting in that capacity doesn’t necessarily need to be a musician, songwriter or producer, it could be anyone with a good ear, from the engineer to the secretary to the janitor or some kid earning a few bucks as a gopher bringing food, drinks and girls phone numbers to the band.

At some point the one running the session, maybe sensing they’re not quite hitting on what they want, turns to this person and asks offhandedly, “So, whaddaya think?”.

If it were me… well, if it were me I’d say what I just laid out in the last thousand words you’ve read, but would probably edit it to something more succinct like, “It’s way too busy, throw the horns out”.

Maybe they wouldn’t listen but that’d be their mistake because that person hanging around is their prospective audience and they’re deluding themselves if they think all of the disparate sounds they tried pulling together for Bring My Lovin’ Back To Me is going to reach the wider public even though it confused the single interested representative of that larger body.

If they were smart they’d realize the sounding board isn’t trying to criticize them or make them look stupid, but merely hoping to hear a good record and knows better than those getting their hands dirty when the one they’re making isn’t meeting the criteria.


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