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MODERN 20-715; NOVEMBER, 1949

 
 

 

How do you determine in a fair way how long of a career an artist had? Is it simply how many years they earned money singing or playing music even if the final decades were just filled with a handful of live dates at small clubs, casinos or state fairs?

Or is it more accurate to confine things to the period in which they were commercially viable?

Since the album charts are easier for older established artists to crack the listings with just their core fan-base propelling a new album onto the charts for a week or two while the rest of the public roundly ignores it, the singles charts are probably the best bet for determining just who is keeping up with the times and still able to draw broader interest.

So using that as our baseline here’s something to chew over: Of the hundred or so rock artists who released singles in the 1940’s most of them were commercially spent before the 1950’s came to a close. A few of them released a handful of singles in the 1960’s and even early 1970’s but rarely with any impact. In fact only three artists who first appeared in the forties scored a hit after 1970.

Today we meet one who notched hits each decade into the 1980’s! Even then it wasn’t changing times that ended her run but rather the fact that she passed away before even reaching fifty years of age.

If the math strikes you as improbable it’s because Little Esther had anything but a typical career. A superstar as she was entering puberty, addicted to drugs in her mid-teens and consequently washed up before she was old enough vote, Esther became the symbol of the tenacious survivor in rock music lore, someone who had more critical and commercial comebacks over the rest of her tumultuous life than seems humanly possible.

In all of rock hers is among the most unlikely story a major artist can claim, but all stories have to start somewhere.

This is that somewhere.
 

 

Find You A Fortune Teller
In the waning days of 1949 a 13 year old calling herself Esther Mae Jones, originally from Texas but now living in Southern California, appeared at a talent show at the Largo Theater in Watts and climbed on stage to take her shot at glory. These gigs were commonplace in the black clubs for years, whether The Apollo in New York or Johnny Otis’s Barrelhouse Club in L.A. just down the street from the Largo.

Otis himself had the night off after damaging his hand in an accident with a power saw while building chicken coops which curtailed his drumming career and precipitated his switch to playing vibes down the road. Since he was still bandaged up and unable to play at his own place he ventured into the competition to see what the Largo had to offer on this night. Little did he know that the girl he saw on stage would change his fortunes considerably almost overnight.

For most who entered these amateur night contests they were seen merely a chance for ambitious kids to perform before a sizable audience, maybe get some applause and a compliment or two, even a few bucks if you won, before their brief moment in the spotlight ended and they went on to more serious pursuits. In time that experience would simply be filed away in their mental scrapbook as a highlight of their young lives to look back on years later.

But for a few aspiring amateurs it’d prove to be much more than that in large part thanks to the visionary Johnny Otis himself who had been using his own club’s weekly talent shows over the past year or so to build a formidable roster of artists for his regular revue. From drummer Leard Bell to a vocal group that soon became The Robins and a teenage saxophone prodigy Big Jay McNeely, all of them had launched their professional careers under his aegis after impressing him at an amateur night competition.

The likelihood that Jones would join them any time soon probably seemed far-fetched on the surface. A fairly homely looking girl barely in her teens with an odd mousy voice that was prone to squeaking while she sang, almost like a dog’s chew toy being worked over, she had no notable attributes that would suggest she was star material. So of course she became just that – a full-fledged star that is – in rather short order.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for her startling ascendancy was that despite her unusual vocal tone she had a confidence in her delivery that made her voice strangely compelling, forcing you to pay close attention to the story the lyrics told. She’s been routinely compared to Dinah Washington, her idol, and in fact recent research by acclaimed historian Marv Goldberg found that Esther’s real last name was actually Washington which might be one reason she changed it, to sidestep any thought she was using that name to promote their similarities, but in truth while they certainly shared some distinctive traits Dinah had a far more melodically pleasant quality to her voice.

Esther was always decidedly strident in how she put across a song, both as a teenager or an adult and whether cutting pure rock, or everything from jazzier songs to reformatted country tunes, blues and pop… you didn’t have to listen to her sing more than two bars of a song to know it was her.

When a suitably impressed Otis mentioned to his friend and bass player Mario Delagarde who was with him that night how much he admired the girl’s “feeling” when she sang, another teenage girl standing behind them proudly chirped, “That’s my sister!”. She quickly made the introductions when Jones came off stage which resulted in Esther joining Otis’s retinue of club performers and cutting her first record in the blink of an eye.
 

When My Other Man Comes Around
That part of the story is quirky enough but we’re hardly moving into more sensible or predictable territory with the saga of the ensuing record’s similarly odd circumstances.

You may remember that Johnny Otis was recording for a fairly well-respected Los Angeles based independent label called Excelsior since 1945. Though the company was still in business in late 1949 their fortunes had taken a downturn and Otis was now on the move. His first landing spot was another L.A. based indie label, Modern, home to some great artists over the years but operated by some of the sketchier figures in the industry. Maybe that was why his stay was so brief, or maybe he just signed a one-off deal to promote his new discovery.

Whatever the case, we see that it was actually the flip side, an instrumental we’ll review next, that was the designated A-side, probably because Otis was the established name, right?

Well, maybe not. Because this record actually got two releases, both with the same songs mind you, but the original printing mislabeled the title as I Gotta Gal, probably because on that version of the record Otis was the credited lead artist and it was only in small print that indicated “Vocal by Esther Jones”.

Since I’m sure Modern Records wanted to avoid any mistaken implications regarding same-sex coupling that would be suggested by the actual title, I Gotta Guy, to Johnny Otis they merely changed the pronoun. But that was confusing since of course the lyrics don’t refer to having a gal at all and are in fact being sung by a girl which would then still make it a same-sex relationship which sort of counters the very reason they changed it in the first place. So a month later Modern re-issued the record under its proper title but with one very notable change.

The new featured artist was credited as Little Esther, her name changed for one of a multitude of plausible reasons, everything from it simply sounding more distinctive as a marketing tool, to making oblique reference to her youth and even leaving open the possibility of using the same name for another singer in the future should Jones not stick with this career, as who knew if she’d be able to devote the required time to being a professional entertainer when she was still a kid.

Of course nobody, not the record company, not Otis, probably not Esther herself, knew it at the time but her future was now all but set in stone.
 

What’s On Your Mind?
In retrospect it’s not hard to see the unique appeal Esther possessed and why she was such an effective singer over the years. Once you get past the unusual tone she pulls you in with her technique which reveals a ton of brains and soul.

To get to her though we first have to endure an outdated intro which still reveals the conflict Otis was having trying to reconcile his earlier infatuation with jazz as exemplified by the shrill trumpets, and his strong commercial instincts which told him that a more cutting edge approach was his best bet and in I Gotta Guy takes the form of Pete Lewis’s stinging guitar which hurtles this into the present, if not the future.

Upon her arrival though Esther makes you forget both of those accompanists pretty quickly, no easy task if you’re off-put by the horn and riveted by the guitar (or vice versa I suppose if you’re one of those weirdos who are continually behind the times with a proud defiance). If emotional torture had a signature voice in rock it’d surely belong to Jones who rings out pain and suffering well beyond her years as she recounts the ways her no-good man treats her.

For starters is it even permissible to use the term “man” when describing this lout? It certainly wouldn’t seem to convey the depth of her misery to refer to him as a boy, as if this were some junior high school romance gone astray over an argument by the punch bowl at a Homecoming Dance. Though I guess the hurt feelings she describes are universal regardless of age provided somebody has done you wrong, the perspective she uses is fully mature.

Esther doesn’t flinch in the face of this requirement that she act far older than her years, as she proves herself a consummate actress capable of mining the depths of despair the song hands her and she extracts every last bit of poignancy out of them, leaving both her and the audience practically limp from process. We’ve seen plenty of teenagers in rock so far who’ve startled us with their innate skills, now we can add one more to the list in Little Esther.
 

Why You Salty On Me?
But as impressive as Jones is in getting us to forget her age and inexperience, both in life and in a studio, allowing us to fully invest in her performance, she’s unfortunately let down by the guy with plenty of experience, the usually unassailable Johnny Otis.

Once again the stylistic dichotomy he’s yet to fully overcome is responsible for many of the problems here, as the trumpets get far too much time in the spotlight to have us feel entirely comfortable. It’s not just those horns usual off-putting tone that gets under your skin as a rock fan, but rather the blaring manner in which they’re presented, particularly in an execrable, ill-advised siren call that mars the mid-section of I Gotta Guy, making you wish they DID have a guy who could exterminate the horn section.

When Lewis appears, usually after the horns have made a mess of things, it’s almost as if you’ve jumped ahead a decade from the outdated mid-40’s jazz approach to a mid-50’s rock approach, as his lines are sharp and deadly in the precision. Listening to him assert himself you just hope he’s siding with Esther and has her back in this dispute with her fella rather than having him act as the caddish brute who’s causing her all of this hurt. Either way though his parts leap out of the grooves, mesmerizing when he plays slow, startling when he rips off a quick run out of the blue.

If that musical split comprised the primary issues with this record then it still might succeed better than it ends up doing, but there’s another fly in the ointment here which is the occasionally clumsy scansion of the lyrics.

Though the story itself and the general description of her plight are fairly well formed, even if they’re a little short on details, the choice of specific words in some of the lines that are tasked with resolving each stanza are awkward and poorly chosen. It’s not just that they don’t rhyme, but that they’re set up as if they’re going to rhyme before switching things up because no suitable rhyme could be found. That generally means the fault is found in the first couplet, not the concluding one, but they don’t have the wherewithal to make the appropriate changes so it’ll work and as a result the song itself is lacking a professional sheen.

Whether this was a rush job to just have something suitable for her to sink her teeth into, or if Johnny felt that she could sell anything just through sheer interpretive abilities, the end result is for all of Esther’s prowess in delivering these lines she almost comes across as if she’s the one screwing up since she’s the one singing it. We sympathize with her so much thanks to how believable she sounds, as if these were real events she recently endured, so when something fails to click in the wording it jumps out at you more than it should.
 


 

Groovy As Can Be
There are two ways to look at this record in the moment, putting aside the historical implications this pairing would have down the road, which of course we’d have known nothing about at the time.

The first way is to harp on its deficiencies and curse those responsible for holding this back from true greatness, which it easily could’ve achieved with slight alterations. By this point there really can be no excuse for being so overly reliant on trumpets, not after two years of evidence has shown how incompatible they are in rock… not to mention after Otis himself witnessed the power of the tenor sax in an arrangement firsthand when working with McNeely late last year.

But the other way to look at this, and the one we’ll lean towards, tentative though that lean might be, is to be wowed by the most striking performers on I Gotta Guy. We get another brilliant turn by Pete Lewis and more importantly we get to celebrate the arrival of Little Esther who not only adds a much needed female to the roll call of rock artists, but also proves herself to have the kind of interpretive qualities that would be rare for a veteran singer in any field of music. If she were ten years older this would be impressive, but to hear it coming from someone so young makes you sit up and take notice all the more.

Seeing that we’ll be spending the next thirty some odd years encountering Esther in a variety of guises, all of which are artistically rewarding in some form or fashion, it’s far more astute to overlook the tarnished ring the precious stone is set in and focus instead on the quality of the gem that sits at its center.

Welcome to the party, kid.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Little Esther for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)
 
 
(See also the Artist page of Johnny Otis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)