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It’s not often people are considered washed up before reaching their sixteenth birthday.

Maybe child actors and boy sopranos and any kid who stopped getting preferential treatment from distant relatives at family gatherings once they hit their growth spurt and no longer were seen as precocious, but other than that usually someone in their mid-teens have their biggest accomplishments still to look forward to.

Not Little Esther, who – at least until this record came out – was on the brink of being written off as a star whose best days were already behind her.


We Can Show Each Other How
Looking back at history from a safe distance we tend not to make too much of a dip in popularity over the span of a single year when judging the strength of an artist over a longer period of time.

Yet when you study it in more depth, like we do around here chronicling one release at a time for every artist, that’s when you really start to see the ebbs and flows in someone’s career and begin to realize why a dry spell could seem interminable for the artist in question when you had just one single every few months with which to make your case for continued relevance.

Since signing her away from Savoy after a year in which she notched a record seven Top Ten hits in the calendar year of 1950, three of which topped the national charts, Little Esther has been ice cold in 1951, scoring zero national hits for Federal Records who had to be thinking of this as the most unproductive major deal for a record company in history.

But fear not, the draught is officially over with Ring-A-Ding-Doo, although to be pedantic about it the record won’t hit the Billboard charts until February 1952. Even here though there’s probably cause for concern when it comes to their hopes for a full-scale revival as this single features the two elements which had helped make her the most popular act in all of rock a year ago are here to shore up her prospects.

Federal isn’t being too subtle about it either, for Johnny Otis’s band, obliquely credited here as The J&O Orchestra, and co-lead vocalist Mel Walker, whose last name has been dropped from the billing for legal purposes, are prominently billed in a way that isn’t fooling anybody. This move was clearly meant to lure their fans back in without stepping over the contractual lines that would land them in court where they’d be forced to pay money to Herman Lubinsky, the tight-fisted owner of Savoy where both Otis and Walker were still bound when this was cut in November.

The truth however is that Otis was about to reach the end of his deal with the New Jersey company and it was still presumed by everyone that he’d be signing with Federal as soon as legally possible… but as this releases shows, “as soon as legally possible” wasn’t as appealing as “right this minute” – legal consequences be damned.


Stay Close To My Heart Always
Though this was designed to mark a return to the Savoy sound Johnny Otis had created for all of his vocalists, the instrumental track is noticeably changed from all of those hits because Johnny himself is sitting this out with his vibes had which provided such a distinctive sonic texture to their records that no other act possessed.

Maybe it was strategic in that they didn’t want to give Lubinsky more proof of Johnny’s duplicity and provide him with evidence of Otis’s presence in the studio for another label… but then again, when Mel Walker is singing out in the open on the record it kinda blows that theory out of the water.

But whatever the reason, the absence of those vibes definitely has a negative effect on the final product. When something that had been so identifiable on all of Esther’s best songs is no longer there, it’s almost as if you feel as though you’re not hearing the whole record… like something is wrong with your speakers or the wrong mix was used. The tone of Johnny’s vibes goes with the nasal whine of Esther’s vocals like peanut butter and jelly or scotch and soda.

Instead we get four horns playing rather forgettable riffs and in the process downplaying Lorenzo Holden’s tenor in favor of trumpet, trombone and alto, all of which distances it somewhat from the grittier rock that was in favor at the time.

Even when Pete Lewis’s guitar makes a welcome appearance during the instrumental break it’s competing with Don Johnson’s infernal squawking trumpet and kept lower in the mix than it needs to be, an intentional, but ill-advised, production decision that robs it of a chance to increase the song’s emotional pull.

But despite these missteps the focus on Ring-A-Ding-Doo is clearly going to be on Esther and Mel, the dynamic duo whose work together in the past was so invigorating… her with that coy pleading sassiness she was famous for, him with his laconic smirking romantic overtures that proved to be the perfect foil for her on a series of smash hits.

Which is why it’s such a shame the song they’re given is so pedestrian.


Now That We’ve Met
Let’s pick this apart one problem at a time to try and show just how they misjudged the duo’s appeal.

For starters there’s no tension between them. Their best work featured lively back and forths in which one pushed, the other pulled and if they came together in the end it was the result of each one trying to leverage their position the best they could before coming to a compromise. The resolution may never have seriously been in doubt, but the route in getting there was usually up in the air until the final stanza.

Here though the two are blissfully in love from the first notes to the last which is kind of boring, especially since it’s not a romantic ballad with a dreamy melody. Instead it’s a bouncy romp through a newly engaged couple’s picture album where both of them are smiling as they point out all of their momentous steps along the way while those forced to look at these photos are frantically calling for another round of drinks to get them through it.

Then there’s the fact that the hook of the song is so inane. In what world outside of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack does Ring-A-Ding-Doo mean anything other than these people need to get out more?

Finally we’re faced with the realization that if this record is successful and re-launches their partnership, we might be forced to sit through equally cheery songs about buying their first house together and decorating the baby’s nursery next.

Yet the thing about it is, in spite of these major drawbacks the two of them DO sound good together, even singing material that is frankly beneath them. They’ve spent the last year on the road together, despite recording for different labels, and so they sure aren’t out of practice and their voices mesh as well as always, giving us an excuse to forgive the sins of those putting the record together and appreciate their official reunion without cringing too much over how clumsy an effort it really was.

How Glad I Am To Take You All The Places I Go
Despite the relief everyone involved must have felt when this cracked the Top Ten for a couple of weeks, the aftermath of that minor success was hardly what anyone envisioned.

Federal had to fight to keep Esther from breaking her contract when she attempted to go elsewhere as she had when she pulled up stakes with Savoy a year earlier. They may have won the battle in that regard when she was forced to remain, but they clearly lost the war as Ring-A-Ding-Doo was not only the lone hit she’d score for them before leaving a year later, but it was the last hit Esther had at any stop for the next full decade!

Maybe one reason for that was because Federal also lost out on Johnny Otis, who went back on the verbal agreement he’d had with Ralph Bass to sign with them as soon as he was legally able, and instead went to Mercury for a bigger payday which ultimately proved to be much ado about nothing… or very little, as he too suffered commercially at his new stop.

Walker would help him get his only national hit there (and a big regional smash to boot) after he tried declaring bankruptcy to get out of his OWN Savoy contract (he had signed later than the others originally) but he was soon in court over it and lost the case, meaning he was bound to Savoy for another year… although they seemed to have worked out a deal in which Mercury paid for him to be transferred to them, after which of course they scored no more hits!

Maybe this is what they all deserved in the end, for while we can’t claim that Herman Lubinsky was ever honest or ethical in his dealings with artists who looked to escape from his clutches, neither were any of the artists involved with this record and so in a sense they all went down together.

Their heyday was over.


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