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Before phonograph players really caught on as a staple of American households, the primary means for the popularization of new songs came from sheet music sales.

In the early decades of the Twentieth Century far more houses had pianos in them than record players, and most families had someone who could play other instruments as well, and so – as hard as it is to envision today – families would gather around and with the sheet music serving as their guide, they’d play and sing the newly popular songs on the market together.

Maybe that’s what they mean when, in the recording age, we still say that a composition was a “better idea on paper” than it wound up being on record.

Like this one.


I Found Someone Else To Give My Rockin’ To
For all of their success across the rock spectrum while penning hits for everyone from The Drifters to Elvis Presley during a fifteen year run as the top writers and producers in the field, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s most iconic working relationship with any artist was their run with The Coasters.

That’s where their unique combination of musical innovation and lyrical humor reached its apex, as the productions were like miniaturized films that took place in the mind’s eye where Leiber’s witty lyrics delivered scenarios which were embellished by singers who were brilliant comic actors while Stoller’s musical cues enhanced the humor while keeping the song tethered to the hit sounds of the day.

These “playlets” as they were dubbed, a takeoff on the stage production aspects they employed, had their roots in the radio shows Leiber liked as a kid, but also more recently records like One Mint Julep by The Clovers which was written by Rudy Toombs and laid out how songs could tell stories where the plot actually advanced beyond a simple theme while at the same time being funny enough to draw laughs, yet remaining musical enough to appeal to those who paid little attention to lyrics.

As that record had been such a huge hit a few months back it’s probably not surprising that Leiber and Stoller would start experimenting with something similar now that they were getting many more writing opportunities. But in doing so they confirm the truth behind such saying as “practice makes perfect” because Last Laugh Blues is far from perfect.

Though they seeds of their later work can definitely be found here, there wasn’t any sign of them earning a first laugh let alone the sense they’d be still doing this sort of thing a few years down the road to work up to a last laugh.

Stop Your Laughin’ Baby
When you think of some of the classic compositions of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, sometimes the humor actually gets lost in the shuffle.

Not their Coasters work, where it sits front and center (although that’s when their musical genius sometimes gets downplayed), but rather we tend not to focus on the jokes in songs like Jailhouse Rock or Drip Drop because the vocalists’ own personalities overwhelm the humor by design.

On Last Laugh Blues however there’s no question it IS the main point of the song and that both Little Esther and Little Willie Littlefield are fully aware of their roles in emphasizing the humor of the composition. But either they’re not good enough actors to make it work, or the humor isn’t funny enough for any comedian to get laughs from.

The idea itself is a good one and like so many of their best songs features a well-rounded story with a neat plot twist thrown in which gives it more depth, but in spite of that none of it captivates you – not the scenes themselves, not the characters, not the vocal performances, not the band and not the arrangement.

Musically the record is on shaky ground from the start, as the horns that open this are too rickety and old fashioned to pull you in. We actually get a Johnny Otis sighting on vibes (working undercover as William Jones on the session sheets so the breach of his contract with Mercury won’t be provable… except by those of us with ears) which of course harkens back to Esther’s heyday on Savoy, but that’s also a slightly outdated sound for 1952 rock so you can question how sensible it was to have it featured so prominently in the arrangement.

When Esther and Willie come in they actually set the story up fairly well, as she’s the one who wanted a long term relationship and in response he tells her she’s dumped and at the end of the second stanza, in the song’s best line, adds “get your foot out (of) my door” for emphasis.

That’s promising enough… and faintly humorous as he’s showing some ability to take on this character’s traits in a believable way. But he slips up in his delivery soon after, pausing to find his place, and the fact they didn’t ask for another take shows that this one wasn’t coming together as well as they hoped.

That’s hardly a surprise when nothing that follows even elicits a smile, let alone a guffaw, chuckle or side-splitting laughter. From there on in it gets worse as now it’s just becomes two people taking pleasure in seeing the other suffer and there’s nothing funny about it. The aforementioned plot twist comes out of nowhere, as Willie brags about a new girl and then is forced to admit she already dumped him, which is done solely to allow Esther to turn the tables and laugh at his expense, hence the title. Of course she takes that too literally and her endless laughter as the record winds down is contrived and annoying as hell.

None of this is helped by the fact the music side of the equation is rather listless too, well played on a technical level maybe but with those stale horns and nothing to offset them it’s largely uninteresting.

Whatever was on paper, they’d have been better off had they not used that paper to roll a few blunts before the session which might explain why they thought this one-note idea was funny enough to put to wax.


You Made My Life A Mess
We haven’t even discussed the elephant in the room which is this is now the second time they’ve tried pairing their recently signed solo star, Littlefield, with a female co-lead, something which doesn’t work aesthetically and makes absolutely no sense commercially.

But then again the record industry by nature loves to sell gimmicks because it has a built in attention getter that is lacking in most releases – “two stars for the price of one!”. Yet if they worried less about that and worried more about getting great performances on excellent material they wouldn’t need to find ways to try and dupe you into buying it in the first place.

Last Laugh Blues is a pretty dismal attempt all things considered, and so no gimmick is going to help it anyway. Without funnier lines to sing and without very appealing music, everything falls on the two singers forging a genuine connection to carry the record and when that doesn’t happen there’s nothing else to support it.

Though the other “gimmick”, if you want to call it that, the humorous story presented like a stage play, is far more promising, thus far Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller haven’t quite figured out how to make that work either.

Time to take out the notepad and scribble down some more ideas and hope that one of those winds up being just as good on record as it seems to be on paper.


(Visit the Artist pages of Little Esther and Little Willie Littlefield for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)