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SAVOY 824; NOVEMBER 1951

 
 

 

Almost a year after Little Esther left the company for greener pastures and two full years after she laid this song down at her first recording session for Savoy after joining Johnny Otis, the record gets a belated release.

You’d think that would mean that it was the worst of her sides recorded during her twelve months with the label and that faced with the imminent departure of Otis as well now that his own contract was up, Savoy just said to themselves, “Oh, what the hell?”, and decided to issue it and see if they might draw a few interested listeners based on name recognition alone.

But while most of that was probably true, what wasn’t is their estimation of this as the weakest of her output for the company.

No, it’s not a potential hit by any means, but neither is it something that they could’ve justified leaving on the shelf just to spite her for leaving them behind.
 

 

Your Love Ain’t What It Used To Be
When 14 year old Esther Mae Washington went along with Johnny Otis when he signed his entire multi-facted musical outfit with Savoy in November 1949, she had been in the studio only one time – for Modern Records with Otis as sort of a one-off test to see how she’d fare.

Her appeal in person was already confirmed in his mind, having been impressed by her at a talent contest (which she lost), but with her high pitched squeaky voice and an affinity for Dinah Washington she might not have been the ideal candidate for rock stardom.

Yet Otis was nothing if not a musical visionary and he wrote her songs that would take advantage of her natural attributes while at the same time using his nonpareil band to carve out a distinct niche for her records in rock that linked them to the dominant sounds of the genre without becoming beholden to them altogether.

At that first session though she only cut one song, Get Together Blues, which sort of shows that even Johnny was viewing her as sort of an addendum to his vast array of potential featured performers.

The first day of December they all returned for their second Savoy date wherein she also got just one cut (out of six songs) but oh what a cut it was, as Double Crossin’ Blues which quickly made her the biggest star in the entire outfit when released at the start of the new year.

Naturally after that hit big the focus of everyone, from Johnny Otis to the producers at Savoy, was to take full advantage of that success and as a result they shoved this track to the back of the shelf even though, all things considered, it shows what we sort of found out pretty fast, which was if nothing else Little Esther was always comfortable in front of a microphone.
 


 
 

So Plain To See
It’s a testament to Johnny Otis’s musical acumen that the basic formula he conceived for Little Esther at the very start of their collaboration remained so durable over the years as this track shows no sign of age despite being two years old by the time of its release.

There’s certainly nothing stale about the arrangement with its layered sound that finds Pete Lewis’s guitar the most prominent instrument in the mix playing short melodic bursts while the rest of the band deftly moves in and out of focus, each taking turns as the main support without making their shifts to the forefront too obvious.

From Lady Dee Williams’s piano during the intro to the bank of horns in the mid-section there’s a deference to the bigger picture that keeps everything in check. Otis’s vibes are ever-present but never in your face and Gene Phillips’s Hawaiian guitar adds a barely discernible wrinkle to the record that unless you’re looking for it you may not even pick it out. Yet everything blends together seamlessly and provides Esther with a lush musical carpet to stroll over.

But Get Together Blues is not the romantic proposition that you’d expect from looking at the title. Instead it’s situated much further along the relationship arc than that, as Esther is on the outs with her boyfriend after a long series of slights and hurt feelings.

She hasn’t left him for good, and may in fact want to stay together provided things change, but it’s a precarious position nonetheless, as she’s now making mercenary-like financial demands of her boyfriend to prove his love and save their partnership.

That’s where the song falls short… not that these things don’t happen in real life, but rather they’re the kind of messy endings that are ill-suited for songs whose musical trappings suggest something far more enduring.

Maybe Esther’s just bluffing, trying to provoke this guy into treating her better, but this isn’t the way to go about it. The fact that he joins her in the final refrain – Junior Ryder taking the harmony vocal on the last line (and somehow getting a co-lead artist credit for this contribution) – may suggest they reconcile but if the story is to be believed this détente will be short-lived, there’s too much water under the bridge for the two of them to not be suspicious of one another and once that mistrust enters the picture the outcome in inevitable.

Esther sells it convincingly enough though, her voice suggesting the conflict she has by its inflections alone which are alternately hopeful and scornful, tentative and forceful, but being so early in her development there’s not quite as much smokiness in her voice which would become her most distinctive trademark.

It’s exactly the kind of record that you’d expect if you knew the circumstances of when it was laid down – a solid prototype that still needed a few tweaks to stand out, but of course by the time you got to hear it as 1951 ran down those essential adjustments had long since been made on her records and so this seems a few colors short of a finished portrait.
 


 

You’ve Been Changing Too
Usually the process of retracing an artist’s career steps is fairly easy based solely on release dates, but when something like this occurs it forces you to take a step back and study their progress through a different lens.

Over the past year at Federal Records Little Esther has taken a step back from the heights she reached with regularity at Savoy, suggesting that her approach had gotten somewhat stale and audiences were seeking out something new that she couldn’t deliver.

But the relative shortcomings of Get Together Blues shows that Esther was always far more reliant on good material than many of her more celebrated contemporaries. Unlike Ruth Brown or Margie Day whose voices alone could breathe life into mediocre material and elevate it by sheer force of will, Esther always had to mine the composition’s emotional nuance and let her interpretive abilities carry the load.

When she got material that lived up to that standard she was hard to beat, but without the dynamic personality and vocal power others possessed, Esther could only do so much with songs like this, even when Otis and the band more than held up their own end with their playing.

Still, it’s nice to have this record exhumed during her prime rather than decades later, if only to give audiences of the time a fuller picture of her evolution as she entered the next stage of her career, already a weary veteran at the age of 16.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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