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FEDERAL 12036; JULY 1951



When you’re going well in life – or in music – you come to expect that whatever you touch will turn to gold.

But when your luck begins to falter after such a prolonged period of success there’s a tendency to try and over-correct, try many different things to snap you out of your lull, but then if it too doesn’t meet with success you abandon it and try something else, robbing you of consistency.

Little Esther was entering into that phase of her career now and so there was often vastly different approaches tried from one song to the next and even when they hit upon something that showed promise, when it failed to connect they’d quickly abandon it for something else.


Mine All Mine
Trying to pin down Little Esther’s vocal style – or at least find contemporaneous rock singers to compare her to – has never been easy.

Her idol was Dinah Washington, a non-rock jazz-blues hybrid vocalist of renown who was a bit unclassifiable in her own right, although her backing music tended to be more uptown classy – listen to I Won’t Cry Anymore, a big hit for Dinah this year and you can see how radically different the setting was for her than it was for Esther.

But Esther wasn’t singing much like rockers Ruth Brown or Margie Day either, vocal powerhouses whose records packed a wallop.

You couldn’t necessarily take the same approach with Little Esther without running the risk of overwhelming her and not surprisingly her most successful sides had been medium paced torch songs or feisty duets with Mel Walker. So Johnny Otis had to pick his spots to ramp up the tempo or to pile on showstopping instrumental touches as he tries on Looking For A Man (To Satisfy My Soul) to break her out of her recent doldrums.

This is a sassy performance where she’s flaunting her availability to any man in the vicinity. She’s loose – in more ways than one – and singing with a casual carefree spirit that is really engaging while the band is on equal footing with her. Though you could argue it was atypical for her stylistically and maybe that’s why it didn’t connect, it’s definitely the most engaging she’s sounded on record – solo – while on Federal and a nice change of pace even if it fell on deaf ears at the time.


To Call My Very Own
In many ways this arrangement is a little TOO stuffed, as we have multiple competing sounds to deal with throughout the record which doesn’t allow for it to take on a singular identity. But while some of the transitions aren’t as smooth as they could be be and a few instruments are somewhat incongruous when heard together, it’s still a pretty tight upbeat sound which rolls along at a fast clip, always giving you a few different things to focus on while spurring Esther on with their energy.

The two dominant instruments are horns and guitar and if Esther is serious about Lookin’ For A Man maybe she should turn her attention to Pete Lewis… not for any romantic hook-up, but because he’s displaying what makes him such an intriguing figure at this stage of the game before the instrument really took the lead in rock arrangements.

Here he’s making each lick count, starting with his early responses to the horns, most of them injecting a different mood into the song, sort of freestyling in a way that has you anticipating what he’ll do next.

They draw out the suspense though by letting Earl Warren’s alto take the first solo, which I suppose is only fair since due to the need to hide Johnny Otis’s involvement they gave the band credit to Warren, but while it’s played well enough it’s goes on for a long time, much longer than something that’s not bringing the heat as much as it should.

For that we turn to Pete who finally gets his chance next, taking over from Warren to deliver a more forceful part. But despite the great sound he produces he’s not going for broke by any stretch of the imagination, choosing instead to make a few sparse runs, finally cranking it up until it almost overloads the board before easing off and bowing out when the vocals start up again.

There’s some odd touches along the way… the trombone slide heading into the sax solo is a little strange and the baritone keeps coming up like a spicy meal, but for the most part it’s well assembled in spite of all the moving parts and vibrant enough to overlook the fact that to achieve this they threw in everything they could possibly find, up to and including the kitchen sink.

As Long As He’s A Man And Knows What To Do
Where’s Esther during all of this? We’ve barely mentioned her and she’s supposed to be the star of this production. Is she taking a back seat to the musicians entirely, or is she simply being overwhelmed by them?

Neither. Esther is definitely present and accounted for, turning in a good vocal on a rather one-note song thematically. She’s setting the scene early, basically putting an “Open For Business” sign on her bedroom door and then using the rest of the record as a form of advertising to make sure she has plenty of customers to choose from.

It’s not that she’s seeking a lot of men at once to satisfy her but rather it seems as though her luck in this department hasn’t been so good and so she’s casting a wide net just hoping for one worthwhile catch.

To be honest though it’s a little disconcerting to find she’s setting her standards so low. She informs all of the men she’s not excluding anyone from consideration even if they’re broke, ugly, dumb, old, bald or “goofy”.

What DOES she want? Sex by the sounds of it, as she states in her ad she’s Lookin’ For A Man (To Satisfy My Soul)… in this case “soul” is a stand-in for something more primal. The lines themselves are okay, even if the mindset behind it isn’t going to earn her much respect, but without any more depth to the song this is more of a party invite to play post office than it is a meaningful record.

There’s nothing exactly wrong with that per say, but it does sort of puts a limit on how much enthusiasm you can have for a song with such a narrow focus.


Don’t Need No Silver Or Gold
This is a record that is easy enough to get caught up in as it plays, featuring good individual performances by band and singer alike, but doesn’t leave as much of a lasting impression as it should.

In other words it works good as a set filler to increase the excitement in the room in between Esther’s usual repertoire with their downbeat reflective moods.

Lookin’ For A Man also acts as a reminder that she can in fact sing with more verve than she’s normally asked to do which bodes well for the future, as long as its lack of commercial success doesn’t discourage anyone from heading down this path again.

Mostly though it works well as a B-side, which is really all it has to do since that’s all it was intended for (the AA designation was the plug side on King/Federal issues at this time, so this A side was in fact the secondary song).

Like most B-sides of value it offers something that runs counter to the top half to give you a different listening experience and it’s well executed even though the material itself isn’t necessarily first rate.

But considering the high expectations for Esther that have consistently failed to be met since coming to this company, not even that modest aesthetic triumph will be enough to satisfy THEIR souls and so the search continues for a way to get her back on top.


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