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SAVOY 759; AUGUST 1950



After questioning the wisdom of sticking to the same formula each time out, but ultimately being won over by the performances of Little Esther and Mel Walker as well as Johnny Otis’s stellar arrangement on the top side, here is where our ability to be so easily placated comes to an end.

Again, it’s not a criticism of the execution of the idea but rather disappointment in the idea itself from a conceptual point of view.

When you have the most versatile band around and a singer with such vast potential who’s known nothing but enormous commercial success since launching her career late last year there’s no earthly reason to continually play it safe, especially on B-sides where you could explore new approaches without having the record’s fate rest on that song’s shoulders.

Instead we get more of the same, modestly well done as usual, but no longer compelling enough to justify getting nothing new for our seventy-nine cents.


The Moon, The Stars And Your Sun
This was cut towards the end of June at a stop on tour in Chicago, making it the seventh recording session Johnny Otis conducted with Little Esther on vocals since he discovered her the previous fall. They’d already scored two chart toppers together and the single that would soon become the third consecutive release of theirs to do so had just exploded onto the charts that week in New Orleans and was proving that a different style, one more uptempo and aggressive sounding, was just as popular… yet they revert back to the tried and true downcast emotional reading she’d started with.

Maybe this makes some sense in terms of what material they brought to the session, since it was likely that Otis had been writing on the road the past few weeks before they knew that Cupid’s Boogie would be so huge. But even if you want to give credence to that excuse, what you can’t condone is his lack of faith in Esther that she’d be able to pull off more varied output, or his lack of trust in their fans that they’d be willing to support them if they branched out further.

That’s the unspoken deal that all great artists have with their fan base… when their early efforts are met with overwhelming response the audience is essentially giving you the freedom to experiment even more, to be as creative as you can be without fear of it falling on deaf ears.

If you meet or surpass their expectations they’ll propel you even higher into the stars, and if by chance you overreach and let them down they’ll be sure to let you know it and give you time to re-adjust your thinking. But when you don’t try and give them anything new or inventive, that’s when they start to grow impatient and while the audience might not run away, they definitely start to drift away and then it becomes that much harder to win them back.

The fact is this truism is already so easy to see! So far in rock ‘n’ roll the majority of the cases where an early run of big hits saw a rapid downturn came not from being too adventurish, but rather being too conservative. Amos Milburn’s recent string of cover records saw his sales temporarily plummet… Sonny Thompson’s retreat into pop slanted material put an end to his hit-making potential… not surprisingly the same thing that was about to start to take its effect on Ivory Joe Hunter as well when he seemed to be courting pop acceptance.

Though Otis and Esther weren’t guilty of that, what they were doing with Lost Dream Blues was just as damaging… they were being repetitive, figuring if the audience liked it once, twice or even three times, then they were sure to like it a fourth, fifth and sixth time just as much.

Now they were about to find out how wrong they were.


Just Can’t Find My Way
A slurred guitar chord… the crawling pace… a breathy throaty vocal to start with that segues into her higher pitched whine… and a theme that places Esther in mental anguish… all recognizable attributes from past performances.

None of it is bad of course, she does this kind of thing well, and who could criticize a band that includes such stalwarts as Pete Lewis on guitar, Dee Williams on piano and Otis himself adding the color on vibraphone? But if you’ve heard all this before then you tend not to notice the details that would make it stand out more coming on the heels of an uptempo raver with a raunchy sax break, or a cut where Esther is the aggressor instead of the wounded, spitting put-downs at some tom cat prowling around for some noon time action.

Instead your reaction upon hearing this is to do a double take, wondering if this is a song we’ve already bought (or in our case reviewed) before this. When we realize that Lost Dream Blues is indeed a new song we wonder why it’s wearing the same old clothes and as a result we become a little numb to everything it’s offering us.

The slow tempo doesn’t help either simply because best of the lyrics take too long to hit you, the anticipation builds beyond what the payoff can deliver. Esther exacerbates this by really stretching out on some of the words to cover the gaps in the composition. She never quite gets rattled by this but she’s clearly not as comfortable as she should be now that she’s got so many hits under her belt.

Truthfully, it’s probably a little stultifying for her to be embodying the same character traits all the time. Not only does she not get to exhibit a great range of emotions, but with the similar song-structures and storylines it’s got to be difficult to remember just which song you’re singing in the middle of a set and upon being handed another tune in the same vein it’d be only natural if her heart sank a little as she envisioned this becoming her public persona for the rest of her life before she even reached 15.

That she never sounded like a teenager may have steered Johnny away from crafting songs better suited for her age, but there was definitely a happy medium he could’ve looked for where she was allowed to bring more energy to the table. Have her coyly flirt her way through a song, or utilize the tried and true teenage weapon of snarky disgust at somebody’s crude come-ons… anything to give her a different wrinkle.

What we get instead is a rough facsimile of countless better records she’s already given us.

Bewildered All The Day
If anybody can keep this from sinking into the abyss altogether it’s definitely Otis’s band and by extension the arrangement he conceived to highlight them.

Though he’s sticking to the same basic sounds so as not to startle anybody there are at least various ways to utilize them and in this sense they don’t disappoint.

Pete Lewis and Devonia Williams are the stars here in the instrumental break which is a virtual duet between them as she takes the early stretch with him adding some flavor before her part recedes and he tackles the melody with a halting touch.

When Esther comes back he’s far more prominent than he was during the first third of the record, chipping in with a descending lick at the 2:40 mark that really stands out, but there’s still something missing here that might’ve lifted this a little higher.

It’s the saxophones… they’re in view, but not up front and get no languid solo that Lost Dream Blues calls for.

If she’s bemoaning her love life using a dream motif then what better way to convey that then with a sax blowing soft and low? Instead the horns mostly sit out until the conclusion when they rise out of the darkness for the fleeting grace notes… hardly the most effective use of them in a song that needed some additional layers to fill it out.

Just Fade Away
Of course it’s the nature of trying to review every side of every single in rock ‘n’ roll history to read too much into such things as a potential missed opportunity of a lone B-side on the heels of multiple chart topping hits.

In fact it’s kind of like criticizing a four star restaurant for having a dripping faucet in the restroom.

But the difference is when it comes to records we tend to get a sense of the artist, writer or producer’s mindset on records like Lost Dream Blues and this type of by-the-numbers approach doesn’t bode well for the future direction. If you’re truly the best and at your creative peak then you should want to prove your abilities each and every time out, if for no other reasons than satisfying your own pride and ego.

If they’d took a real risk with something far-out and experimental we’d admire their swagger even if we criticized their tactics in carrying it out if it failed to work. If they had merely given us a simple change of pace with a brash jump record to give audiences a distinct alternative to the brooding A-side we’d nod our heads in modest approval for having the wherewithal to know variety is the spice of life… and music.

But by doubling down on the same style, the same outlook, the same vocal tics and instrumental quirks yet again we have no choice but to question their goals, their ambition, their confidence, or lack thereof.

Midway through 1950 there’s no question that Johnny Otis and Little Esther were the runaway MVP’s of the rock season so far, but instead of pressing their advantage they seemed to be resting on their laurels already, allowing the competition to catch up and, if they weren’t careful, to pass them down the stretch.

Buckle up you two, this race ain’t over yet.


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