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FEDERAL 12065; MARCH 1952



Well, give them credit for this much… when they wanted to present a new Little Esther to the public, they sure didn’t hold back or pull their punches any.

It’s a tight race to see which development is more surprising… the source of the material or the manner in which Esther was convinced to sing it. Regardless of their intentions though, what couldn’t be disputed was the talent they were working with, something that may have been in some doubt since her arrival at Federal Records but which makes itself apparent the minute she opens her mouth here.

It may not get her what she was desperately in need of now, which is another hit, but at least it makes for a more interesting view on the way down during her fall from grace.


At Your Beck And Call
Sometimes the best thing you can do when you’re in a rut, be it creatively or commercially, is to bring in somebody to give you a new perspective.

Of course you have to have a viable alternative for whoever you’re currently associated with, especially when that original associate was so successful in the past. But when you’ve been working with the same person for a long time as Johnny Otis had with Little Esther, and as of late the results haven’t been up to their previous standards, then what harm can it do to have somebody else provide a fresh approach?

So on this side Otis didn’t have a hand in writing or arranging the song though it’s still his band backing Esther and he’s still contributing other songs on the session. But when the guy overseeing the session happens to be Henry Glover and he’s got a song of his own to give her, who could complain? After all, he’s got plenty of cache in his own right as a writer, musician and producer.

Here’s the rub though. I’ll Be There wasn’t intended for her originally. In fact it was a song he just cut with another artist on the King label a month earlier… The Delmore Brothers, a close harmony country duo.

Right away you start to worry. We’ve heard of some crazy ideas before but if they’re going to have Little Esther sing this as if she were at a barn dance or something, that’s taking things a little too far just to try and change her luck.

Thankfully Glover has no such intentions and while the resulting record was hardly a commercial success, it provides ample evidence that her failure to consistently connect while on Federal Records was probably not quite the unmitigated disaster we’ve sometimes made it out to be.


No One But You
Since she arrived on the scene as a 13 year old in late 1949, Little Esther has been unlike any other singer you could name.

She didn’t have a pretty voice or a powerful one. She wasn’t sultry and had trouble sounding coy. Her range was narrow, her tone was odd and she sang through her nose as much as her throat. Yet she was remarkably effective with the right kind of material that allowed her to sidestep her technical limitations by focusing on her interpretative abilities, something that Johnny Otis took great pains to ensure in his compositions for her.

Obviously since this was written by Henry Glover – and meant for somebody else in an entirely different field besides – none of that entered into the equation. He re-arranged it of course, but then let Esther have free reigh to sink her teeth into I’ll Be There like nothing she’d done before, proving that she had more impressive set of pipes than we’ve all given her credit for.

The Delmore Brothers version obviously is going to make for fascinating comparison, as they’re working with the same song in the same studio with the same producer within the same season (late October for them, mid-November for her), yet the two renditions are as different as night and day.

Whereas the brothers sing this in keening harmony, the thin lilting twang in their voices backed by harmonica and acoustic guitars as the pace never moves past a slow gait, Esther completely re-imagines it, speeding the tempo up slightly and ramping up the drama from about a 1 to a 9, completely changing the meaning in the process.

Whereas the Delmores are modestly hopeful but content in their plea, Esther is caught up in the rapture of love, albeit slightly tinged with desperation, almost as if she’s dreading it’s going to suddenly disappear. Her voice soars at times and despite the wider range she has to display here, her tone has never been better, remaining firmly in control throughout the song as her intensity increases.

Unfortunately, while the musical arrangement is far different than the country version, Glover does allow it to get away from him with in the archaic horn charts, giving it a classier sheen that undercuts Esther’s mood by trying to match her volume and projection. It’d work better with a push/pull dynamic like they use sparingly with the mellower jazzy sax solo, providing a more reflective aura that her outward appearance is trying hard to quell.

But while the backing track certainly isn’t going to be a magnet for rock fans seeking something with a little more bite to it, they won’t bother to notice too much once she starts singing because this might just be the crowning vocal performance of her early years and a sneaky emotional tour de force to boot.


I’ll Always Stay
We all take perverse joy in mocking most of the attempts by record labels to make rock renditions of pop songs, and conversely when the pop music market seeks to whitewash rock originals, but occasionally something good comes of adapting outside sources – especially when the person spearheading the idea in question was responsible for the original as well and wants to put a different spin on it himself.

While The Delmore Brothers version sounds okay for a country tune of its era, though certainly nothing special, Little Esther is the one who makes I’ll Be There come alive, imparting it with genuine feeling that transcends the written words and showing that her lost in the wilderness years was not due to faltering abilities by any means.

While one hit did get recorded at this session, her only Federal chart-maker in fact, Ring-A-Ding-Doo, that was a weak song propped up by pairing her with old cohort Mel Walker on the record, violating his Savoy contract in the bargain which brought it a certain notoriety among their fans.

But THIS was the clear gem of the day and as the session came to a close you wonder what Johnny Otis thought seeing his favorite singer turn in such a stellar job on a song he had nothing to do with.

He should’ve been proud, because sometimes even those closest to the artist in question have to just take a step back and view things as a fan.


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