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FEDERAL 12016; FEBRUARY 1951

 
 

 

We’ve seen other stars jump from one label to another in rock’s first three and a half years so the move itself is hardly unprecedented.

We’ve also witnessed the devastating effect the loss of a major artist could have on a company and so the stakes of such a defection were hardly incidental for those involved.

But somehow this move seems more monumental than most, not just for Savoy Records, the longest tenured indie label in the business who are losing the services of Little Esther, but also for the prospects for the newly formed King Records subsidiary, Federal, which now has the biggest female act in all of rock as a cornerstone to build upon.

As 1951 dawned this was the music’s biggest headline, seen as a potential power-shift in the indie label sweepstakes, and as such you were waiting to see just how big of a splash Esther would make at her new home.

It turns out it wasn’t even a ripple.
 

 

A New Love Surrounds You
Let’s start by saying that you can’t possibly underrate this move itself… not based on how it turned out, which was a massive disappointment, but rather how it was perceived at the time.

Little Esther was a phenomenon like no other rock act to date had been. Not Roy Brown, not Wynonie Harris, not Amos Milburn, The Orioles or anyone else you could name. At just 14 years old she scored three Number One hits among seven that landed in the Top Ten nationally in a single calendar year.

On the surface that success was hard to fathom. She had a nasal voice with limited range, preferred slower tempos than most rock songs used and despite her youth she wasn’t precocious at all, in fact she sounded like she was at least twice the age found on her birth certificate. On top of it all she wasn’t drawing interest for being a knockout beauty like Chubby Newsom.

But whatever the source of her appeal, there was no doubting its veracity and so when her producer at Savoy, Ralph Bass, left after Herman Lubinsky’s attempted to blackmail him, he knew the best revenge was to take his star who just so happened to not have a legally valid contract with Savoy since she was a minor when she was signed.

Though Esther’s musical guardian – so to speak – Johnny Otis was still contracted exclusively to Savoy (he was NOT underage unfortunately for him), Bass managed to have Otis’s band back her in the studio at Federal anyway using alto sax player (and former Count Basie sideman) Earle Warren’s name as the bandleader as subterfuge. Otis couldn’t appear on the tracks himself, not because he was above sticking it to Lubinsky, but rather because his vibraphone would be all too obvious for even a tone-deaf crank to miss the connection.

Yet in spite of having everything in place to duplicate their past success Other Lips, Other Arms was an unmitigated failure… commercially as well as aesthetically.

Thus what had been the biggest coup to date in rock wound up amounting to little more than a lot of smoke with no resulting fire.
 

It’s Just The Thought Of You
At the time she appeared on the scene everybody said that Little Esther reminded them of Dinah Washington, her avowed idol.

Maybe you had to be there.

On record the similarities are fleeting. Oh, you can definitely tell she’s trying to emulate her, she accents her lines in similar fashion and prefers the sashaying tempo that Washington used a lot around this time, but Esther’s tonal qualities were far too different to truly sound like Dinah who had a clear bell-like voice whereas Little Esther’s high pitched nasal tone was potentially off-putting without the right framework around her.

For the most part Johnny Otis recognized this and while he didn’t discourage Esther from trying to channel Washington, he made sure that he was giving her material that would downplay this. Though Dinah could be salty and rhythmic in her music dating back to the great Evil Gal Blues in ’44, she was usually much more elegant, even when dealing with racier subjects through 1950 or so, and was enveloped by big brassy arrangements on record.

By contrast Esther’s best work had featured an edgier sound, slinky tempos, saxes instead of trumpets out front, slashing guitar and Otis’s vibes to add an ethereal feeling.

But even though this is the same band on Other Lips, Other Arms it is most definitely not the same sound. It’s Dinah Washington’s sound as if Ralph Bass thought he could somehow reward Esther for her decision to join him at Federal by fulfilling her desires to be somebody else.

As a result we get a record that at least leans towards a big band sound, alto sax, not tenor out front, trumpets and trombone playing a prominent role and Pete Lewis’s guitar playing something so tranquil that you know somebody must’ve swiped the barbed wire strings he usually used.

Though the record never ventures completely into pop territory as you’d fear from this arrangement, they don’t do their singer any favors by trying to borrow heavily from an outside style, in the process neutering what Esther does well and forcing her to carry far too much of the load on a song that is bland enough to begin with.
 


 
 

I’ll Search To Find You
One of the primary differences between rock and other styles, be it pop or jazz, was rock’s commitment to authenticity in what they were presenting.

Other Lips, Other Arms finds Esther bemoaning another girl being with her ex and while she’s definitely expressing genuine sadness (nobody ever questioned Esther’s acting ability on a song), it’s lacking the kind of gut-wrenching anguish the story itself calls for because the music is so detached from her sentiments.

The fully committed to rock version of Little Esther would’ve been tortured by this turn of events she describes and the music would’ve pushed her over the edge to play up that pain. But this music downplays it to such an extent that if you wandered into a club in mid-performance and hadn’t gotten your bearings with the lyrics yet you’d think it was a meaningless torch song, not the expression of romantic torment.

The horns aren’t moaning or crying, the piano isn’t wrestling with fidgety impatience, the guitar isn’t howling in grief, they’re merely neutral observers to her predicament. When the volume they’re playing at starts to swell down the stretch it becomes even more phony, building up to a musical climax while being utterly unaware of the emotional climax we’re demanding.

That Esther and the band then proceed to take this directly into Dinah Washington’s neighborhood – into her living room by the sounds of it – as the horns blare away and Esther finally captures that elusive Dinah tone of voice by reaching as far as she’s able and completely upending the downcast mood, you throw your hands up in disgust, watching yet another rocker be lured into striving for something outside of our experience.

If that’s the way she wants it then you can see why she fell so fast and so far once she landed on Federal. This is not a completely awful performance by her from a technical standpoint, but it is an awful decision for them to even attempt a song this way to begin with and that might be far more unforgivable in the big scheme of things.
 


 

You Left Me Behind
The music business is funny sometimes. Not ha-ha funny, but ironic and funny in its unpredictability.

There really wasn’t anything that could’ve suggested that this quirky singer was going to be such a star heading into 1950, yet she ruled the year like few artists ever did in rock. Despite switching to a new label there was no reason to think she wouldn’t sustain that popularity in 1951, especially if you knew she was retaining the same supporting cast from producer to band, she even continued to TOUR with Otis during this time.

Furthermore you certainly can’t attribute her success to Savoy Records… they were a strong independent label with a good network of distributors but no more so than the even bigger King/Federal machine. Yet Esther’s work on Savoy was huge then and is still universally viewed the pinnacle of her first decade as an artist, while her Federal output never met with widespread approval then and has been largely forgotten in the seven decades since.

Sometimes you just click at a certain time in a certain place for a certain reason that remains elusive when trying to put it into perspective.

There’s no question that Other Lips, Other Arms was a terrible way to start off this partnership with a new label but with Esther’s track record it shouldn’t have been more than a bump in the road, yet it turned out that road would be filled with potholes around each and every bend.

In the end the sad part of all this is everybody lost. Esther’s career began a long painful slide that would take her a full decade to emerge from, Savoy had their biggest star taken from them and would struggle to ever keep pace in rock for the rest of their run while Federal Records reaped little reward for their maneuvers.

The biggest loser in all this however was us, the rock constituency, who instead of getting to enjoy what should have been the prime of a superstar’s career were left to wonder… what happened?
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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