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FEDERAL 12090; AUGUST 1952

 
 

 

Ever since coming to Federal Records in early 1951, Little Esther has been struggling to regain her footing, not just commercially but artistically as well.

For every good record she puts out there seems to be two bad ones and while you could argue that since her output in 1950 when she was rock’s biggest star was so prolific it may just be that audiences have grown weary of her and started looking somewhere else, especially after a few unexpected disappointments and a string of misguided stylistic curveballs, there might just be another more sinister reason lurking under the surface.

This prolonged slump has gone on too long for a singer of her quality and the more we hear from her the more confident we are in saying that somebody else… somebody responsible for her stardom to begin with… is going to have to shoulder the blame for her downfall.
 

 

Footloose And Fancy Free
The releases on Federal Records do not designate between A side and B side for the consumer. Even the promo copies for the disc jockeys don’t have a specified plug side and since the King/Federal conglomerate has been doing nothing but listing their releases in scorecard fashion in the trade papers for years (to get as many names in while saving time and money on new graphics and larger ad rates) we can’t even tell by looking at those which of these sides was the one they had the most faith in.

But let’s say it was the other side – which we won’t be reviewing here – called Somebody New, a song which is anything but new stylistically. This is probably a reasonable assumption based on the fact that her previous release, Aged And Mellow, which DID do well in certain locales for Esther, was a classier number and this one follows suit. If that one aimed high and did okay, then this one that aims higher can’t be a bad move, can it?

Of course it can. In fact if that was the case it only shows that for all of their success elsewhere the label’s president Ralph Bass had contracted the unfortunate malady that affects so many record company executives in that he had his head two feet up his ass.

The song in question, with its luxurious strings, is too ornate for rock ‘n’ roll… hell, it’s too ornate for pure pop too, and while Esther herself sings it okay, she’s trying to enter a small exclusive club for black female singers who managed to succeed with such output.

In other words, they’re banking on her talent to cross into a field that has had room for maybe two or three women fitting her description at a given time, and even that number might be pushing it when it comes to generating hits.

Considering Esther made her name cutting rock ‘n’ roll and that’s where her established audiences tastes lay still, this was a typical overreach by the company which was not going to pay off.

Which means the other side, Ramblin’ Blues, will have to carry the entire weight of the release on its shoulders… not the easiest of tasks when it too has its own flaws to contend with.

Not as insurmountable maybe, but the root source of them is the same… Johnny Otis’s band, which may not transform into tuxedo wearing sophisticates as they do on the other side, but they also don’t roll up their sleeves, take off their ties and jump into the alley, if not the gutter, to give her the kind of support she’s asking for here either.
 


 
 

I’m Not So Wise, But I’m Not A Fool For You
I’m not gonna cast aspersions on one of rock’s most revered artists (yes I am) and I’m not going to suggest that he was callously risking the career of Little Esther in an attempt to branch out musically while his own fortunes were no longer tied to her now that she was at Federal and he was sneaking in under cover of darkness to back her in the studio while signed to other labels (actually, that’s precisely what I’m doing!). But does anybody else notice that Johnny Otis has tried virtually everything under the sun musically with Little Esther EXCEPT what has a proven track record of working before?

Maybe not in every single instance, but he sure has broken out every genre outfit in his closet since she left him at Savoy and headed elsewhere, none of it perfectly suited for rock ‘n’ roll of 1951/52.

Ramblin’ Blues is certainly no exception.

The song, which he co-wrote, is a decent one. The story is good, the lyrics are deep enough to justify your investment and yet straightforward enough to be easy to follow and Esther, as usual, delivers them like a pro… at least once she gets the scat singing intro out of her system, which sounds predictably absurd.

She’s directing this at the guy who’s cheating on her, not angrily, but not meekly either, telling him with a very direct, matter-of-fact tone that he has got to stop it if he expects her to stick around. There are no threats of retaliation, no plea for him to consider her feelings, no wailing about how hurtful it is for him to be treating her this way. She knows he’s not any good but is reluctant to leave him unless pushed to the limit.

Now clearly HER limit is a little farther than we’d recommend in a relationship, but it’s her life and she’s entitled to stuff her self-respect in the drawer if she wants to stick with this guy, but at least she’s telling him that the terms of their staying together is that he has to straighten up and fly right.

Maybe those last words were on Otis’s mind when he arranged this because the backing for her sounds more appropriate for Nat Cole about a decade in the rear view mirror… and even that might be giving them too much credit.
 

All Of This Junk Must End
The horns are the problem, not the lines Otis gives them to play, but the light tone and breathy delivery they use to put them across. It’s almost as if the horns are trying to walk across cement that still hasn’t fully hardened and think that by stepping lightly they won’t leave any prints. Instead they just sink in and mess everything up even more.

The alto solo is played with a soft buzzy tone that you think must be a mistake they accidentally left in, a first take gone wrong that got mislabeled as the master take perhaps. But as it goes on you realize that it was intentional… which means it was a far greater mistake than had it just been an editing flub.

This is the kind of song where Esther needs to have her determination bolstered by the music, the aural painting she’s creating given darker hues with harsher, fuller, more insistent horns. Instead it’s undercut by a saxophone that seems as if it’s afraid to offend the guilty party who’s running around on her.

At every single turn it’s like the band is completely unaware of the content of Ramblin’ Blues, meaning Esther is forced to either acquiesce to their ill-conceived ideas and change her tactics to suit them, or she can stick to the script regardless of their ineptitude and hope they don’t drag her down with them.

Luckily for us she makes the right choice and soldiers on, but without the right support behind her this is another record that might just as well have sat collecting dust on the shelf for all the good it’ll do her.
 


 

I Know How To Ramble Too
This is yet another difficult record to fairly judge, something that is becoming a troubling trend with Little Esther’s releases, even the better ones.

Here she acquits herself well when she is allowed to sing, yet the record starts and ends with flighty nonsense that gets it off to a bad enough start you’re tempted to shut it off before it gets going, and leaves a bad taste in your mouth if you manage to make it to the end of Ramblin’ Blues.

The musicians don’t hit any bum notes or collide on the studio floor and clash at every turn, but the instrumental choices are all wrong for the material – not to mention the audience this was being aimed at – and are played without any discernable enthusiasm by the band.

We’d like to cut poor Esther some slack here and at least grade this as an average release for the day, but the problem is the average sounds of rock in mid-1952 were a lot more exciting, aggressive, complex and interesting than this tries to be and even if she handles the job better than anyone has a right to expect, that alone can’t salvage a game plan that made no sense to begin with.

Since Johnny Otis will – eventually – redeem himself, both backing others and with his later efforts under his own name, we’re not in any danger of making these criticisms of him the final word on his career. Besides, we’re not inclined to pull our punches around here even if that were the case.

So with that said, let us suggest that if you were observing this from afar in 1952, you’d have every right to petition the court to have Esther removed from Otis’s professional “care” because he was clearly guilty of reckless endangerment in the career of a minor.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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