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SAVOY 735; MARCH 1950

 
 

 

When discussing the attributes of great singers people naturally tend to focus on the sound of a person’s voice – their tone, their power, their range, their technical abilities – with the idea that those natural gifts are most vital in making someone a star.

But it’s often the harder to define interpretive qualities which separates the wheat from the chaff, a singer’s talent for breathing life into the words they’re tasked with delivering and doing so in a way that doesn’t just reflect the sentiments on paper, but adds to them.

In early 1950’s rock arguably no one, male or female, was as successful in this regard as teenage prodigy Little Esther who here gives us another reason to sit back and marvel at her talent.
 

 

Fickle As A Child
The meteoric rise of Little Esther, a 13 year old who less than six months earlier was a mere runner-up in an amateur night talent contest at a Los Angeles nightclub, was something that was hard to contemplate. She had no obvious “star” qualities at first glance – be it visual or vocal dynamite – but as a singer she was fully matured even though she was barely entering puberty.

There may only be a handful in rock history who’ve had these qualities at such a young age but those who have were almost destined to be enduring figures because they’re traits that don’t wither with time. The genius of young Michael Jackson and Frankie Lymon was in how deeply they were emoting even as their youthful ebullience still came across in their voices.

But Little Esther was different in that she didn’t sound young even when she was still just a kid. She didn’t sound OLD exactly, but she sounded fully mature in how she imparted her songs… like the days of carefree youth had passed her by entirely. As a result she comes across as not only smarter but more complex, more jaded, more vulnerable, more… human in many ways.

Mistrustin’ Blues was Esther’s second #1 hit in the winter of 1950 in as many releases, yet for her benefactor Johnny Otis (who for the first time gets a secondary artist credit rather than the primary, an indicator of just how much of an impact Esther had made with Double Crossin’ Blues) this was already the sixth release in four months since signing with Savoy Records in December 1949.

That prolific output surprisingly hadn’t diminished the product being offered, something that normally is all but assured whenever companies try and flood the market to take advantage of a surge in popularity of something, but the fact that Otis had such a deep cast of characters to draw from helped keep each record sounding fresh.

Case in point, here we get our first pairing of Esther with Mel Walker, the sleepy baritone former high school football standout who was about to become not just Otis’s primary featured male vocalist but also the premier ballad singer in rock for the foreseeable future.

On the surface the two seemed to be an unlikely duo, their laconic vocal styles a bit redundant even, but in pairing them up it gave Otis the ability to craft songs that examined both sides of a situation allowing for a back and forth perspective that provided a twist to the usual narratives most songs used. Whereas that concept had been explored humorously on Double Crossin’ Blues, the recent loss of The Robins from his stable meant that he needed to find a different approach, one more serious and dramatic to boot, and in that regard Walker and Esther were tailor made for one another.
 
 


 
 

True To Our Romance
With her higher, somewhat squeaky, tones the word “sensual” doesn’t often come up when thinking of Little Esther’s vocal palette but on Mistrustin’ Blues she comes across as bewitchingly sensual from the first lines, using more of a throaty purr than we’re used to with her which works wonders in giving this an edgy vibe that it rides from start to finish.

It takes its time to reveal itself with a slow hypnotic intro featuring Johnny’s vibes intertwined with Pete Lewis’s guitar until you can barely discern one from the other before the pace and sonic energy picks up with Lewis momentarily slashing away as Esther comes into view, dripping with scorn over her fella’s deceitful ways.

Her venom however is offset by real pain she feels in the way he treated her, a balance that carries over from her declarations that she’s leaving him to how she vacillates between the two underlying feelings – anger over being betrayed by someone she trusted and an incredulous hurt over the fact he’d DO this to her when she loved him so.

Esther walks this tightrope without any sign of losing her balance, going from sounding downright sultry on her opening line to anguished as she says she can’t trust him anymore before showing her optimistic resilience as she warns him she’s finding someone else to take his place and then, probably proving it was all a bluff designed to make him reconsider his actions, her voice whines with barely concealed desire as she gets into the first actual give and take with him we get to hear on record.
 

Come To Me Baby
Walker’s presence also balances Mistrustin’ Blues out nicely, not just in that we get to hear his side of the story – the typical excuses and vows to make things right in the future – but also because he is so in control of himself that it throws Esther off her game.

We know he’s a cad, he’s basically coming out and telling us he is in not quite so many words, but we also know that she’s going to return to him, not because she believes him exactly but rather because of what ELSE he has to offer.

I’ll let you fill in the blanks there, but it can probably be boiled down to his ability between the sheets.

Whatever she’s getting out of him though, be it money, security or sexual fulfillment, apparently is enough to get her to reconsider the hurt she endured when she found out he was untrue, or at least that’s what he’s banking on when he offers up his most soulful reassurances complete with a sly smile and piercing stare designed to keep her placated for the time being.

By the time he instructs her to “Tell me something nice” he’s won her back completely and reduced her to a quivering mound of jelly that can only giggle the word ”Daddy” before he seizes control and playfully tells her that won’t do but infers he’ll give HER another chance, as if this was all her overreaction to his infidelities that was the real cause of their initial strife.

Brutally realistic, if morally repugnant, yet this exchange is every bit as effective in the song as it too often is in real life.
 


 
 

Drive Me Wild
All of this could present something of a dilemma for Esther’s still rising prospects among listeners, for obviously both Johnny Otis and Savoy Records don’t want to diminish her appeal by presenting her as an impetuous, shallow girl who doesn’t have sense enough to steer clear of manipulative men, no matter how authentic such playlets may be.

Presumably we’ve bought this record because of her and thus we’re “rooting” for her in a sense, taking her side in this dispute and wanting to see that Esther has her own best interests at heart even if it’s just within the confines of a fictitious story. If we’re ultimately going to be let down by her lack of judgement here we need to find some other reason to stick with her, besides just the unerring way in which she navigates this bumpy romantic road, and to that end she’s lucky that she’s got Johnny Otis riding shotgun for her.

Though Mistrustin’ Blues is mid-tempo at best it is by no means a song that lacks musical vitality as each element they use adds to a sense of bristling electrical undercurrents that give the song added life.

Lewis really stands out on this, his guitar heightening the tension by climbing the scales behind her as she comes to grips with her predicament. Somewhat surprisingly he doesn’t get a chance to solo, though that might simply be because with Walker’s vocals you have an added component that takes up more of the run-time than had it been just Esther singing by herself. Yet Lewis’s presence, while mostly subtle, is crucial in conveying the right mood.

Similarly Otis’s vibes get one of their most prominent displays particularly down the stretch when he uses their ghostly presence to close out the track rather than the more vibrant and emphatic guitar or horns that would normally be called on to do the job. Because they suggest a more pensive mood their inclusion here fits perfectly and they get you to almost hold your breath a bit, building anticipation while withholding the natural release you’d otherwise get from more traditional instruments and hinting that the real story between these two up and down lovebirds isn’t necessarily over yet just because they’re back together for the time being.

Best of all though might be the eerie moaning done behind Esther in the early part of the song which gives the whole thing a haunting quality that makes it almost seem ominous. The fact that it’s probably Walker himself adding this might suggest it was part of his mind games technique to keep her in his sway, but whatever the reason the results are pretty impressive. You can’t turn away even if you want to and of course in music that’s the key to making hits… keep us riveted.
 


 

Want Me By Your Side
For a three minute song to encompass such a wide range of emotions, perspectives and plot twists and have it come out so believable is a testament to the abilities of the group Otis was leading at the time and his intuitive sense of how to define them to the public using easily accessible characteristics.

He takes what is ostensibly an indictment of one figure, Walker, then flips it to show that Esther is the one we should feel let down by in the end, yet we wind up walking away from Mistrustin’ Blues not condemning either one of them… in fact, we find ourselves wanting to hear more from them and see if they’ll expand on these roles and deliver some ongoing soap opera in which we’ll get to be guilt-free voyeurs.
 

One chart topping hit for someone so young was something you could easily write off, chalking it up as a fluke, especially since Double Crossing Blues had been rather unique in its presentation, but by equaling that success with a much different type of song, one featuring a different vocal partner no less, it confirmed that Little Esther was no flash in the pan.

This might not be her best record by a long shot but if anything it’s the title that’s deceiving, for at this point we have nothing but trust that she, Walker and Otis were bound to keep delivering records worth our time and attention.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(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)