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FEDERAL 12023; APRIL 1951



Well now… THIS is hardly going as planned.

The biggest coup any label pulled off in rock’s three and a half year odyssey was Federal Records snatching 1950’s most valuable rock act, Little Esther, to anchor their roster just as it was launched as a subsidiary of King Records.

In the process they even managed to spirit away Johnny Otis – who’d discovered her, wrote her material and backed her in the studio – from Savoy without anyone being aware of it so there’d be no drop-off in her records and now, just two singles in, there was no sign that any of them had made records before, let alone seven Top Ten hits together in the span of a year!

What was going on here? Was this some cosmic payback for the legal finagling that pried Esther away from Savoy… were the music gods actually taking the side of Herman Lubinsky in an ethical dispute?!?!?

No! It can’t be!

Can it?

Who knows, but whereas Esther seemingly could do no wrong on Savoy with the same cast of characters, on Federal she seemed she could do nothing right.


Just As Bad As I Can Be
Of course, considering that we’d given Esther the highest praise imaginable for one side of her Federal debut, The Deacon Moves In, you might think something is askew in our reasoning here, but despite what the label credits claimed, for all intent and purposes that was a Dominoes record with Esther as a featured vocal guest, after all it was written by Billy Ward and featured the other Dominoes as equal stars and she was forced to adapt to their strengths and did so quite well.

But the flip side of that record, Other Lips, Other Arms, was the intended showcase for Esther on her new label with Johnny Otis’s crew backing her – under saxophonist Earl Warren’s name – and it was woefully uninspired to say the least.

Okay, you’re saying, that may be true but not ALL of their records on Savoy had struck gold remember so while you’d think they’d be sure to come out of the gates with something a little better to mark her arrival at Federal there was hardly reason to worry.


Now however there’s definitely reason to worry. Not that I’m A Bad, Bad Girl, cut just a few weeks ago in late March, was quite as bad as that first effort, but it’s hardly anything that would indicate this was a girl who made such an impact a year ago with nearly every single she released for six months straight.

A purely commercial downturn after so many singles of hers had flooded the market would be understandable, but this was an artistic downturn that was hard to fathom.

Though still signed to Savoy himself, Otis was still on board, hiding in the cloak room maybe and unable to play vibes on her records, but directing his top notch band as always. Ralph Bass, the producer who’d left Savoy to start up Federal and took Esther with him, was in the control booth overseeing the session. The company meanwhile had the distribution might of King Records behind them so it wasn’t a case of these singles not getting into the jukeboxes.

It was simply the fact they weren’t worth the nickel to hear them played.


I Don’t Know What’s The Matter
With Pete Lewis’s vibrant guitar and a descending horn line this doesn’t give any hint that something is about to come unglued. It might not grab you right away and force you to take notice but it’s a perfectly acceptable lead-in to a rock song in 1951.

But when Esther comes into the frame things are a little off… or should I say SHE is a little off.

Never a technical virtuoso by any means, Esther had always used her interpretive skills, her sharply honed vocal inflections and a deeper understanding of the story she was given to draw out the best in a song, but on I’m A Bad, Bad Girl she loses her way almost from the start, not in terms of what she’s singing, but rather HOW she’s singing it.

Her cadences are off, her timing is skewed, her sense of balance is out of whack. Too slow, too fast, too up, too down, she’s all over the place here, not so far gone that it’s out of tune, but when she’s always been so reliant on hitting her marks perfectly you see the effect of it when she gets slightly out of step… everything crumbles around her.

It’s strange watching it happen in front of you as she struggles to get in step with the music. The band is playing slightly too fast and when she hurries to fall in line it’s obvious her initial pacing on the very first line was correct. The band screwed up.

Of course she quickly exacerbated it on the next line by adding a few syllables too many when she extended the word “bad” to “bah-ah-ah-ah-ad”… eliminate the third and fourth syllables and it works fine… but from that misstep it just gets worse.

It’s not hard to fix though. Stop the tapes, slow everything down, start over. These things happen all the time during sessions, it’s no big deal – unless you try and plow through it.

For a few seconds Esther finds her footing as the band seems to ease back just a little and she gets back to the slower groove this requires and delivers a few really good lines – love the “goofy dust” reference – but just as you think they’ve righted the ship, it springs another leak, this one due to a poor arrangement.

I Had The Devil To Pay
Even if they had stopped the take, adjusted the tempo and started over, the record still wouldn’t work perfectly, though it’d be better than what we get.

The reason is they have the wrong personnel or at least the wrong emphasis throughout the song.

As you can tell by the title I’m A Bad, Bad Girl is a song that wants to present Esther less as the romantically wounded ingenue she usually was and more as the cause of a fractured relationship. As such it needs to be a little suggestive, maybe a little racy, but certainly it has to have some forcefulness behind what she’s saying.

The guitar might qualify if it were played with more bite, but Lewis holds back throughout this after that opening, removing a lot of the venom in the process. The bigger sin however is the startling absence of a heavy bottom – drums, bass, baritone sax, heavy left hand on the keys… anything to convey some power.

The stop time sections absolutely NEED drum kicks to sell them, but we get nothing of the sort. The horns need deeper resonance and quicker notes, a rat-a-tat delivery to give this some punch, instead we get higher tones and drawn out lines. It sounds too jaunty for the subject and by the midway point it’s as if they’ve all given up and they’re just playing whatever the hell they want.

Lewis is clashing with the horns, the piano is playing another song altogether and then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, we get a nasally male voice interjecting himself as the put upon man in the relationship, essentially the Mel Walker role, except he can’t sing and what was already a record struggling to keep its head above water now goes down with a final pitiful gurgle.


Don’t Want You Anymore
You can excuse the occasional dud in somebody’s catalog, whether it’s due to a poorly written song, a subpar performance or in this case a bad arrangement. But what you can’t justify is a new record company run by a veteran producer who still needs to be sure that company is taken seriously releasing two singles by his big name artist that are so badly flawed.

If it had been a fish out of water syndrome where she was unable to get comfortable in new surroundings, that’d be one thing, but they were in the same studio with the same band and same producer as always.

Similarly if they had been cutting a marathon session and ran out of ideas or just got tired and one of the last tracks was below their usual standard and only got released a year later as a B-side that’s no big deal either, but I’m A Bad, Bad Girl was the plug side of her second single for the company and was recorded at a typical four song session.

While it was contributed by a writer, Gladyces DeJesus, with a fairly limited track record it’s not the song on paper that’s at fault, the basic story here is fine and the melody is serviceable but the arrangement on the studio floor is atrocious and the blame for that falls to Otis and Bass, both of whom spit the bit here.

There are just enough decent moments – mostly Esther’s delivery on the stop time sections – to keep this out of the red but it’s still not anything you’d go out of your way to hear. Suddenly, to everyone’s amazement, it was starting to look as though the biggest coup in rock might wind up being the biggest bust before long.


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