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Whenever an artist falls from the lofty position they once held commercially it’s only natural to ponder why.

Usually it’s fairly easy to surmise… perhaps too much time has passed and the original fan base has been usurped by a slightly younger audience with no allegiance to earlier stars. Then again maybe the artist is starting to become repetitive the more they release, showing they had just one or two good ideas which has become old hat by now. Sometimes their initial rise was due to a shockingly fresh novelty aspect and once that wears off they’re left with nothing more to offer.

Occasionally it might be an artist becomes distracted by other pursuits, be it an acting career, romance, drugs or just spending the money they’re making and relaxing for awhile, losing their edge in the process.

In Little Esther’s case the switch to another label would seem to be the cause, except the same producer, the same band – albeit under a different name – and in many cases the same songwriters were responsible for her work on Federal as they were on Savoy.

So while the reason is uncertain, the facts aren’t… her star has fallen and each time out you hope to hear something that will revive her popularity and each time out they fall just short.


I Guess I Missed My Cues
All of the aforementioned possibilities are still in play theoretically, yet few of them, if any, hold up under scrutiny.

Little Esther’s run of success lasted all of one year. Her first hit, Double Crossin’ Blues was released at the start of 1950 and hit the national charts the first week of February while her last hit to date dropped off those same Billboard charts the second week of January of 1951.

In between she scored five other Top Ten hits and three of those seven songs spent a combined fourteen weeks at the Number One position, giving her a year unlike any other rock act so far.

But her time on Federal has nothing much to show for it. Heart To Heart, a duet with The Dominoes made some regional listings this summer, but by that point they were the stars, not her, in the public’s mind.

With such a short time span between her highs and her lows there’s little chance an entirely new fan base came along to replace hers, nor have the sounds dominating the landscape changed too much. If you chalk the appeal of her personal style up to novelty – that high mousy voice singing with a maturity far beyond her years – that tends to sell her talents short, even though that might be the likeliest bet as even the last few months on Savoy the hits got smaller, even if they didn’t dry up altogether.

On Federal she hasn’t radically altered her approach but it doesn’t come across as stale either… more like the songs themselves are just not quite as sharp as her best work prior to this had been, something which is certainly true for Cryin’ And Singin’ The Blues, a good performance and a decent song, but not a great performance and not a great song.

Is that all there is to it? A difference of a few better lyrics, punchier choruses and some better solos? Is it really just a matter of degrees on every song, or does reversing this trend require something more than just tightening things up around the edges?


Gettin’ Frantic
Since I asked the question, I probably should answer it.

On the whole it DOES seem to be something that requires more than just a few tweaks. One or two subpar offerings is easy enough to dismiss, but aside from her work with The Dominoes, nothing she’s released on Federal has come close to matching her typical sides on Savoy.

But then again, none of these songs have been able to feature Johnny Otis’s lush vibes which were such a integral part of her records since Otis, though still present in the studio and often writing the songs or leading the band, was unable to play because he remained signed to their past label. The other musicians she was used to were still on board because they weren’t signed individually, nor would you be able to rightly tell WHO was playing piano or drums or saxophone unless you were hiding in the broom closet and snapping pictures.

Otis’s vibes though were far too distinctive to be missed and so maybe that, and that alone, has changed the entire ambiance of her sound.

Generally I dismiss that, but on something like Cryin’ And Singin’ The Blues the addition of a vibraphone might go a long way to giving this a different feel. Instead the horns try and fill in those spots at times and gives us nothing interesting in the process with their bobbing and weaving in between the stanzas.

But let’s put that absence aside from a minute and focus on what’s here and why the collective talent assembled still fail to produce anything very memorable.

For one thing while we get some good individual lines scattered throughout the song, they don’t tie together well. The story is pretty simple as Esther is bemoaning the loss of her baby, but while she’s sad and lonesome, longing for him for what seem like pretty carnal reasons, they don’t push this angle nearly enough.

They hint at it and Don Johnson’s trumpet squawk after she announces “He’s my satisfier” is clearly meant to imply just what it is she misses, something no vibrophone would ever be able to convey, but with Pete Lewis’s guitar, Lorenzo Holden’s tenor sax, Walter Henry’s baritone or Leard Bell’s drums, you had plenty of more potent options to choose from if you wanted to really drive that point home, yet they all were left on the table.

It’s an arrangement that constantly fights itself, throwing too many instruments into the mix rather than deciding on just highlighting one or two, making it a noisy track that doesn’t hold much excitement. That, along with lyrics that remain just a little too vague to really turn your head, means it’s all Esther can do to keep the song from being dismissed out of hand. She does so well enough to appreciate, but not even she can elevate this past an average song for its time.


Know What I’m Talkin’ About
When it comes to singers who don’t write their own material, it’s not just the quality of the compositions that will determine their fate, but also how well suited they are to their strengths.

This one succeeds more or less on the latter… Esther definitely sells it well, she’s got command over the pacing, injects some racy thoughts behind the words, her tone and her cohesion with the band are both fine, but the details of the song itself, not to mention the arrangement, are letting her down

What that tells you is Little Esther may not be at fault for her declining fortunes after all, nor are fickle fans the ones to blame. Cryin’ And Singin’ The Blues is second rate in the qualities that others brought to the session, while Esther’s performance is the best thing about it.

So while we can – and should – cut her some slack, that only re-phrases the question which still is vexing us the longer it goes unanswered… why after seeming to be able to do no wrong the year before, are the same people seemingly unable to do right when it comes to her career?


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