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The two sides of this single tell us less about Little Esther’s creative evolution and more about producer Ralph Bass and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Considering they’re all pretty important in rock’s story, that’s pretty convenient that they’re showing us how they can look back at the past on the other side, and peer into the future on this side… though even that’s not without a glance back over their collective shoulders.

But that’s what the reviews are for, to delve into who, what, where, when and hows… particularly the who in this case.


Let Me Be Your Sidetrack
Because neither side was a hit, the choice on which side to cover first was more up in the air than had one song been too popular to let it wait.

Our decision was made easier however by the fact the other side, Saturday Night Daddy, was decidedly out of step with the current rock scene, which made it a good “before” picture to contrast with today’s “after” snapshot.

That was a song far more suited to 1950, which in 2023 might not seem like that big of a deal to you if you’re one of those who simply likes rock from the broader spectrum of the early Fifties and thus you don’t take issue with what was current for the specific year in question as long as it adheres to something current within that larger time frame.

But if you WERE around back then, the two year stylistic gap was absolutely a big fucking deal, which is why Johnny Otis – who ruled the roost in 1950 with that sound – was swinging and missing on almost everything he did for the past year and a half, as he stubbornly refused to alter his arrangements in spite of the fact that current audience had clearly grown tired of them.

Even so, that song, as written by Leiber and Stoller, wasn’t lyrically inventive enough to pass muster even if it HAD come out in 1950, as the entire story revolves around just one big reveal and has absolutely no other point to make, and thus no interest to stir in listeners who would already be losing patience with the outdated sound.

But we covered that yesterday, today we’re looking at a far better song with a more inventive arrangement on Mainliner, a more modern record in every way except maybe the mode of transportation being referred to as cars and planes are rapidly replacing trains as a way to get around.

Even so, that’s a minor issue which is quickly made irrelevant because Jerry Leiber makes use of every train metaphor he can think of and leaves it to Esther to put across their sly meaning.


I’ll Steer You Right
Rather surprisingly Esther’s not the first voice we hear, as the title line is delivered – in a pretty fair vocal reproduction of a train (if that makes sense) – by a male vocal group and since Bobby Nunn was credited on the flip side it’s natural to think that these are his fellow Robins taking that role.

However, long time friend of the site, and vocal group historian par excellence Marv Goldberg calls that into question and uses the press release by their manager claiming the others were in the Army as evidence it couldn’t be them. With all due respect to his research though, I strongly disagree.

It helps to remember that during this period The Robins were involved in multiple lawsuits over their services which by this point included doing sessions for cash under different names while signed to other labels to evade detection. While it’s true they had been relatively inactive in the studio recently as a result, it seems fairly obvious that the press release was a dodge to avoid scrutiny so they could try and make a living without having lawyers breathing down their necks.

Furthermore a two year military hitch overlaps their known sessions too much to explain as we know they definitely cut sides in early 1951 and added a fifth member in Grady Chapman in late 1952 and were in the studio in January 1953. Maybe one of them served a hitch during this time, curtailing their own recording career as lead artists, but it’d be pretty far-fetched for three members to all go in and come out of the Army at the exact same time with no days to spare.

The final piece of evidence though comes when you listen to the voices on Mainliner and you hear the exact same blend as you heard when they (officially) backed Maggie Hathaway on When Gabriel Blows His Horn a few years back. The tonal qualities are identical.

All of that to say this is most assuredly The Robins and they’re adding something very alluring to the record, as their tight harmony with the elongated vowels gives Esther the ability to use a choppier funky delivery while still keeping the melody intact.

She sounds great throughout this, spry, playful and devious in all the ways that matter, but the real winner here is Jerry Leiber who packs every single line with a great euphemism… sidetrack and mainline being the most obvious, but she tells this guy she’ll steer him right and then refers to his station and how she wants to be “your midnight special tonight”.

But we’re STILL not done, because she then brings up another train term in “switching” before telling him “you can ride this track until you hear the whistle blow” which is a pretty raunchy offer. The only one he missed – and frankly I’m a little disappointed he couldn’t squeeze it in after the break – was the fact he didn’t refer to the guy’s locomotive somewhere along the line.

Even without it that’s a whole lot of train terms in two and a half minutes with an extended instrumental solo to boot.

Actually, the solo is by far the worst aspect of the record, as for some inexplicable reason Johnny Otis’s band was lacking a tenor sax player, so it was left to the alto to take it and Eli Wolinsky is not up to the task. Maybe they hoped it was closer in pitch to the train whistle, but there’s such a thing as taking an idea TOO far and if it costs us a rip-roaring tenor solo that would heat this up even more, we’re going to have to ask for a reduced fare.

Still, the overall quality of the record, to say nothing of the generous offer by Esther for some refreshments along the way, means this is one record you won’t mind taking an outmoded form of transportation to pick up.


Easy And Slow
When looking around for some place to lay blame when it came to Little Esther’s diminished status, Ralph Bass, Johnny Otis and everyone involved with choosing songs and arrangements need to look no further than a mirror, because this record shows that Esther still had it, however you care to define “it”.

But record companies define it differently than you or I do, because all they care about are sales, jukebox spins, radio play = hits!

In spite of its high quality Mainliner wasn’t a hit and so they probably gave no more thought to trying to take further advantage of the components they had at their disposal here.

But as we said earlier, two years is a LONG time in the singles era, and how many fans had been burned by a succession of piss poor records coming out under Esther’s name the last few years. Even the final few on Savoy were below par and while today we can hear any new song for free the moment it comes out as many times as we want, back in 1952 you had to lay some money down for that privilege, whether it was ten cents to listen to both sides on a jukebox, or 89 cents to buy the record itself.

That might not sound like a lot, but look at the records released the last month that were well worth buying and tell me if you’d put aside an extra buck to take a chance on someone who was no longer reliable.

If some lunatic back then had figured out a way to do what we’re doing here (which would’ve meant inventing the internet and getting everybody online) maybe Esther’s career wouldn’t have tanked, because the fans would’ve known which singles of hers were worth buying, and Federal Records would’ve been told in no uncertain terms just what they were doing wrong all this time.

But thankfully, even without us to advise them, this is one they did right and for that we can be grateful.


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