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SAVOY 759; AUGUST 1950



Can you like something and still be slightly disappointed by it?

Sure, it happens a lot actually… You grumble about your girlfriend, boyfriend or your spouse, get aggravated about your kids acting up or how your parents never let you do anything your friends can do. You complain about the house you live in, the school you go to, the job you have, the friends you make… even sometimes the records you listen to.

So if that’s the case are you ever truly satisfied with these things, always thinking… even knowing… that something could’ve been even better than what you’re stuck with?

The answer is probably yes, in the long run anyway. You accept the character flaws of those close you, just as you get used to the leaky faucet in the kitchen, the locker that sticks when you open it at school and the unrealistic demands being placed on you by parents and teachers or spouses and employers.

With music though maybe we’re a little less forgiving than with friends, family and day to day pursuits. Those are things we can’t escape from so we tolerate the shortcomings because we have no alternative.

But music is something we actively seek out for escape, for enjoyment, for a respite from the things we can’t control in life and so if a record, even a GOOD record like this one, falls a little short of what it might’ve been, are we going to still see it as something positive or will we harp on the negatives?


Up To Your Old Tricks
Let’s start with the obvious, just so there’s no doubting its overall quality. This is in fact a good record, maybe even a very good one, certainly one that contains no bad moments… there are no missed notes, it doesn’t have a clunky arrangement and there are no awkward lyrics to contend with.

Both vocalists, Little Esther and Mel Walker, are perfectly inhabiting the characters laid out for them, the song plays to their strengths and Johnny Otis provides another solid arrangement, one with a subtle but distinctive hook that will stick in your memory long after the record ends.

But wait a minute… what about its shortcomings? The whole set-up to this review was about how despite it being well done Deceivin’ Blues somehow managed to let you down a little.

If it wasn’t the vocals, the story, the playing or the production that contributed to it being slightly disappointing, what’s left to criticize? Was the label off center or something?

No, every aspect of this is fine, well planned and well-executed, but it’s also a little… predictable. Unimaginative. Stale even.

More than anything there’s a sense that Johnny Otis fell back on what was expected here and that lack of greater ambition is galling considering how they could more or less call their own shots after dominating the landscape for the past eight months.

Instead of shaking things up, trying something new, expanding their palette and showing their versatility with new characterizations, Otis simply gave the people what the public already knew and accepted… and he got another hit out of it, so who are we to complain?


I’m Too Big For You To Mess With
Start with the hook. That up and down riff that Otis himself introduces on vibes in the intro before the horns pick up on it behind the vocals. The progression is simple enough but the effect is addicting, inviting you in and then pulling back making it both enticing and standoffish at the same time. It gives this record its most identifying feature and remains just as alluring on the hundred and first listen as it did the first time you heard it.

With that serving as its centerpiece you don’t have to ask what pace Deceivin’ Blues is going to adhere to… it’s a slow, somewhat sultry sound, although lyrically it’s more tentative than sexy as Little Esther’s conflicted feelings over her man take center stage.

Now here’s where we have to find fault with this song even though it’s done quite well. Since joining Savoy at the start of the year Little Esther has been the featured vocalist on five previous songs and on four of them she’s inhabited the same basic mindset, that of a girl in love being done wrong by her man.

In almost all of them the basic construct of the songs were the same – a slow tempo with a melody that seems to drag just behind the beat which allows Esther’s voice to subtly shift slightly up or ease back down within the song in order to alter the perception. Then they’d usually affix it to a mournful accompaniment wherein the vibes, piano and saxophones are adding to the aura without stepping into the forefront while providing stories that force her to mine the same emotional terrain each time out.

Yet admittedly it’s very effective – not to mention very successful commercially – so you can certainly understand why Otis kept returning to the concept. But by now it’s also getting fairly repetitive and audiences tend to want to experience something new and the facts bear this out as this one didn’t do quite as much business as the previous go-rounds had.

Now granted, it’s hard to criticize a Top Five national hit, but this stalled at #4 in Billboard whereas her previous three A-sides all went to #1 and each of those spent more than three months in the Top Ten whereas this fell out after two. A small decline, but a noticeable one all the same… furthermore, she wouldn’t rebound after this, showing that once they moved on from someone, fans quickly found something else to take its place.

Bring It To My Door
Alright, let’s stop nitpicking the decisions and focus one what this does well even if we’ve heard much of it before.

Esther of course had a somewhat narrow path to follow in terms of types of songs she was suited for. Her voice was reedy and lacked power and she seemingly had no gospel flavor in her repertoire so she was not very well equipped to be a boisterous uptempo shouter. She could pack a surprising punch however if allowed to step on the gas a little more and was great at conveying a sassy attitude as she showed on Cupid’s Boogie, the one track which broke this stylistic mold, but it’s fair to say she was basically an interpreter of feelings in her songs rather than a dazzling vocalist.

As such Deceivin’ Blues is a good fit for her skill set, allowing her whine, moan, growl and purr with equal determination, trying to make her case for increased attention from her man without ever resorting to actually begging for it.

Mel Walker is clearly a supporting player in this drama, not inhabiting a main role despite his co-lead credit – although it should be said that he does have a primary role but it’s mostly off-screen, as Esther establishes his persona in no uncertain terms before we ever meet him.

When Walker does step into the frame to respond to her criticisms he’s as laid back as ever, unconcerned with her complaints because he knows – as we do – that she’s not about to quit him. His position in the relationship being secure allows him to dismiss her with a half smile and chide her for being so demanding, something which doesn’t sound half as bad coming from his mouth as it probably looks on paper.

His laconic delivery combined with the fact we know these two aren’t actually fighting with one another on a nightly basis helps a lot, as even the back and forth exchange which finds him making an off-handed threat is done in a way that makes it sound more like flirtatious sparring than any real dispute which eases your conscience as they throw barbs at one another.

Along the way we get the usual nice touches from the band, a sax line that echoes Esther’s most aching plea and a short time later we get a few stinging guitar licks from Pete Lewis to help add to the urgency she exhibits as she whines with momentary desire. All of this is exquisitely planned, topped by Johnny’s omnipresent vibes which give it a haunting quality that lurks in the background without overwhelming the ambiance.

If You Don’t Change Your Ways
So why get on them for repeating a formula when there’s so many small touches which helps to make this somewhat distinctive when it comes to their 1950’s run of excellence?

After all, it may not break any new ground but all things considered Deceivin’ Blues is one of the better records we’ve come across during the usually slow summer release schedule and is something that holds up well, especially when heard in isolation and separated from their earlier – and later – records.

All of that is true and it’s not being penalized in its score for sticking close to a successful game plan, but that doesn’t mean we should pretend these issues don’t exist. Besides, one of the main functions of this project is to show how rock ‘n’ roll – and its artists – evolved over time and when the biggest stars of the year were purposefully NOT evolving much from one record to the next, then no matter how good each entry may be there comes a point where you need to move forward or move aside.

We’re not suggesting that it’s time for Johnny Otis and company to hang up their instruments and watch from the grandstands… quite the opposite actually. What we’re saying is that with their track record it’s imperative that they use that accrued good-will to be MORE adventurous and daring in their output, not more conservative.

It’s now when that kind of experimentation would have the best chance to pay off and so – for the good of rock ‘n’ roll in general – it’s now that they need to make a leap forward rather than play it safe.

So yes, the answer is you CAN like something – a lot – and still be somewhat disappointed that you didn’t get even more.


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