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SAVOY 750; JUNE 1950

 
 

 

Yet another example of the distinct role the B-side played in singles era rock ‘n’ roll, particularly when serving as the flip to a surefire hit.

Not needing anything dazzling to pull in more record buyers and maybe not even wanting anything particularly gripping to overshadow the more galvanizing top side (or to waste another potential A-side if you chose something too good) the primary aim for this one seems to be showcasing a different approach to highlight the diversity of the singer.

It’s a good idea in theory, looking for a way to reinforce Little Esther’s versatility, but it’s a shame they don’t have good enough song to pull it off.
 

 

Why Do I Love Him So?
The somewhat awkward spoken opening coming after Esther’s humming over a glassy horn and vibes intro that sounds as if it’s half submerged in water, is rarely a trick that works well. Any time you’re speaking, rather than singing from the start, gives away the fact that they’re engaged in a staged performance, addressing the audience directly by stepping out of character, in effect trying to artificially set up something that should come across as completely natural.

As much as we praised Esther’s acting ability while singing on the brilliant top side, Cupid’s Boogie, the thespian effect doesn’t carry over when she’s forced to speak her lines as a stilted dramatic lead-in for a much weaker song.

But once she reverts back to straight singing thirty seconds in then Just Can’t Get Free tightens up some and settles in to a more comfortable skin, letting her emote over a delicate backing in a way that is much more authentic.
 

 
 
You can see the effect they were going for here – a contemplative rumination on a doomed love affair… and to be honest it may even be little more than a distant infatuation on her part, especially when we remember she’s just a teenager in real life… but regardless it’s meant to highlight the schism between her emotional needs that remain unfulfilled thanks to the personal detachment between the two.

The most interesting thing to contemplate about the song is whether or not the down-to-earth lyrical style was intentional in order to make her perspective seem all the more believable, or if it simply was so artless because they didn’t have the time or inclination to try and polish it up some.

It at least sounds like the sentiments being spoken by a teenager as she questions herself in her bedroom mirror over her self-destructive choices since the words are clumsy and direct at times with no attempts at “prettying it up”. But then again doing so robs it off the poetic veil that most songs and use to shield their already battered heart in a way that makes it much more pleasing to the ears.

Instead this is veering into an uncomfortable voyeurism, fragile emotions being wrung out for our approval. Yet Esther dives into the role without complaint and shows little uneasiness over presenting herself completely unguarded, tackling it head on and remaining focused on conveying the right state of mind no matter how revealing it is.
 

Tried To Cast Him Aside
You admire her commitment however more than her execution, though this isn’t entirely her fault. The fact is the song is a little too slow for her to comfortably navigate, the band lagging behind and forcing her to wait for them to catch up.

As a result, though Just Can’t Get Free has a pretty fair melody at its core, it’s never a smooth ride. Esther is understandably tentative in her singing and seems to constantly be questioning her own pace, unsure of whether to push forward and force the band to adjust to her or to pull up instead and conform to their halting arrangement. Because they never DO decide which of them should take the lead it breaks the spell they’re trying to create and forces you to notice each of them in a way that does neither of them any favors.

This disconnect never completely upends the record, but it never is far from your consciousness either, and begs the question of what could’ve been done to rectify it when you had such a talented crew of musicians at your disposal.

That’s not an easy answer, especially for an era that doesn’t have the option of cutting the vocal and instrumental tracks separately. I think if Esther sang it dry, with no backing on the floor, she’d have chosen a steady pace and stuck with it – and the song has the melodic framework to make this plausible – and then it’d be up to Otis and company to simply match that on their own which would’ve been relatively easy to do.

If you reverse that and had the band lay down the instrumental track first Esther might’ve had similar problems in terms of getting into the same groove, but at least she’d have had multiple shots at it rather than trying to do so with all of them listening to each other struggle with it in real time and subtly making adjustments to compensate as the tapes were rolling.
 


 

Just Not The Same
Of course, none of this was going to matter much when it was bound to be overlooked no matter how capably they may have been able to fix the problems, for no weary introspective ballad was going to be given many spins on its own when there was such an engaging song waiting on the top half of the single.

But that’s why in the end songs like Just Can’t Get Free make ideal B-sides as this is an entirely different type of song utilizing a vocal approach that stands in stark contrast to that which adorns the prospective hit.

The instrumental textures – with Otis’s vibes back on full display over gently moaning horns – are likewise the polar opposite of the prancing piano led track you’d hear on the hit side of the record that was burning up the jukeboxes all over town. Even the smaller touches here, like the brief appearance of a male vocal ensemble (The Metronomes, a vocal group that included members who’d later be in The Four Buddies, who get dubbed The Beltones for this) softly chiding her, make this somewhat unique in her rapidly expanding catalog.

None of it is exceptional by any means, you’d be hard pressed to convince anyone hearing it that Little Esther and Johnny Otis were the top artists in the entire field at this time, but then again you’d still find small elements from both which were worth admiring, albeit with well-founded reservations.

So take it for what it is rather than leave it behind for what it isn’t. Any chance to hear this specific collection of individuals trying something a little off the beaten track in 1950 is never entirely without merit and if you look at it as nothing more than a chance for Esther to work the kinks out of a style she’d be asked to revisit down the road, then there’s at least some value to be found here, even if you’d listen no more than once or twice because there was something a lot more compelling to be heard just by flipping the record over.
 
 
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)