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MODERN 20-748; APRIL 1950



In November 1949 Johnny Otis, owner of the jumping Barrelhouse Club in Watts, walked in the doors of Modern Records seeking a favor of sorts. The Bihari Brothers who owned Modern were all ears… after all, Otis had a number of great releases, albeit no national hits, on Excelsior Records the last few years before that label closed shop and he was known as one of the best drummers and bandleaders around town while his group featured some of the best musicians on the West Coast.

With him that day was a small girl with a mousy voice whom he’d recently discovered at an amateur talent contest – which she didn’t even win – and he wanted to cut a few sides with her to get her acclimated in the studio. Strictly a cash deal, no long term contract. The Biharis naturally agreed, getting four sides – two instrumentals to go along with two vocals featuring this 13 year old who didn’t seem to have any qualities of a singing star.

They released the first record right away and to no one’s surprise it failed to draw any notice and so they each went about their business.

But a few weeks later Savoy Records came into town and signed up Otis’s whole musical coterie and began cutting sides and issuing singles in rapid succession, then watched those records take off like they were jet propelled, making Johnny Otis and Little Esther the two hottest names in rock ‘n’ roll in 1950.

Those coming into the Modern studios as of late noticed a particularly fiendish gleam in the eyes of the Biharis Brothers as they silently calculated what the remaining track in their possession featuring that dynamic duo would be worth to them.

Yet rather than jump the gun and release it too soon the Biharis were calmly biding their time and shrewdly figuring when the proverbial iron was hot enough for them to strike.

Now was the time, for at this exact moment Johnny Otis and Little Esther have three songs residing in the Top Ten of Billboard’s national charts, the second of which just knocked the first of them out of the #1 position after it had held that top spot for nine weeks.

With all the smug assurance of your typical independent record schemers and dreamers the Biharis unleashed this hottest of hot properties into the market… where it promptly disappeared without a trace.

Sometimes you just can’t win.


Love Him For All He’s Worth
For once the Bihari Brothers did everything right – ethically and commercially. They’d paid for those songs outright and hadn’t tried stealing songwriting credit or attempted to put one over on Otis or anybody else, maybe for the only time in their career.

Then they showed remarkable patience despite the fact this remaining song was probably burning a hole in their pocket as they watched with mounting excitement the new heights Otis and Esther were reaching each week with their Savoy releases starting in January.

Yet they waited, not wanting to compete with those hits when they were fresh and now, just as Johnny and Esther and the rest of their gang were about to kick off a week headlining at The Apollo Theater in Harlem which would in some ways help to consolidate their position at the top of the rock field, the Biharis decided this was the perfect time to issue their remaining side on the pair.

If ever fate was smiling down on these men, despite their transgressions as businessmen, this was surely the time. In fact you couldn’t have drawn up a better game plan for them to capitalize on their good fortune.

Unfortunately Johnny Otis could’ve drawn up a better song for Esther to sing, because everything about Mean Ole Gal, from the title to the delivery, shows that when they recorded it the two stars just weren’t quite in sync and certainly hadn’t hit their stride yet.

Just Don’t Know What To Do
I’m guessing Modern Records knew this all along, which explains why they released the better of the two Esther vocal tracks – I Gotta Guy – back in November, long before she had the name recognition to draw interest, hoping it’d do well enough on its own to get them some spins.

I’m also sure they were just as surprised as everyone else when Esther proved to be a far more skilled vocalist than either of her first two efforts for Modern had shown. Maybe it just took awhile before she felt more comfortable in front of a microphone, or after getting the chance to sing in The Barrelhouse Club with the band for a few weeks which enabled Johnny to have a better idea of her strengths and weaknesses, because Mean Ole Gal, though it DOES have some strengths, also has far more weaknesses than is advisable for getting a hit, no matter how big a name she’d become in the interim.


The first minute of the record nearly sinks it completely for after a decent piano/guitar interplay Esther comes in sounding as if she’s taking the title literally and emphasizing the “ole” aspect by altering her voice to appear as though she was 93 instead 13. Her voice is practically trembling (with fright perhaps?) and a few times it’s on the verge of cracking. If she actually thought she was supposed to portray a much older woman due to the nature of the story somebody in the studio should’ve set her straight and ordered another take, because this is painful to hear.

What’s worse is the song doesn’t require that perception at all, which if Otis came up with the title (assuming the Biharis didn’t name it themselves after it was in the vault) was his first mistake, because the way he means it… the way it’s written in other words… makes it clear the character Esther is tasked with playing isn’t old at all, just jealous and “mean ole” is merely slang, not something to be taken at face value. But then again you can’t expect a 13 year old to know this. I’m not even sure if you’ve studied that kind of thing in English class by seventh grade yet!

Of course it’s not helping matters that once she comes in the main supporting instrument is a squalling trumpet and light droning saxes as well as a surprising deficit of rhythm to be found, all of which gives this a much more archaic framework which makes it sound out of date for the current rock landscape. It also doesn’t make for a good companion to her more recent Savoy tracks since those would be foremost in audiences minds when checking this one out and as a result just one listen to those first 45 seconds would have you heading out the door without a second thought.

Too bad if you did though because that’s just when it starts to pick up a little.


You Can’t Be Happy Spending Your Nights With Me
The first sign things are coming together occurs, not surprisingly, when the old fashioned backing calls a time-out to inject a stop time interlude – carried out by those same offending horns unfortunately rather than drums and piano – which at least pushes the reset button for Esther to get her bearings. Suddenly, like someone flipped a switch in her brain, she sounds much more relaxed and natural and begins to dig into the lyrics with an intuitive knowledge of how to deliver them so that she exudes a raw sexuality like the vixen she’s been drawn as.

It’s a remarkable transformation, maybe a little disturbing I’ll grant you, considering Esther was just a child, but she doesn’t come across sounding like she’s underaged now, as she’s playing up those wicked attributes for all she’s worth.

As much as an improvement as this is however there’s still a lot of other facets of Mean Ole Gal that need a similar overhaul. Those horns for instance are three years out of date. Though Esther now is embodying the type of temptress that’s suitable for this type of music in 1950 she’s saddled with a horn section that sounds as if it’s blushing as she throws out her hips at the men she’s addressing in the song.

Even the usually reliably dirty sounds that Pete Lewis gets out of his guitar are mostly absent here. Instead he’s playing with a much more dreamy sort of tone that is very pleasant to hear but totally at odds with the lyrics. What this needs is something with a rough gritty texture and instead he’s playing as if the notes were liquid rolling down smooth Plexiglas.

Then there’s the fact that we might as well as put a notice in the Lost & Found section of the classified ads alerting the public that the rhythm section wandered off leaving just Devonia Williams to try and hold down the bottom on piano without being given the parts with which to do so.

Despite having a band full of dazzling musicians there’s no scintillating solo to energize the track and take some of the pressure off Esther, as Johnny seems to be treating this almost like pledge week in a school sorority house for her, making Esther carry the band and this outdated arrangement on her scrawny shoulders up five flights of stairs. By the end she’s crawling up one step at a time, still determined to make it and prove her commitment to the job at hand, but by then those of us with a shred of humanity have stopped watching out of respect for her.

Really Brought Down
There’s no doubt that because of when this record came out it was going to be judged under far different circumstances than it would’ve been six months ago when it was cut.

Back then you still wouldn’t have found much to heartily recommend it but since she was a complete unknown at the time it’s doubtful any listeners would have considered it disappointing… just rather uninteresting. Today however our expectations for her have surpassed anything this is able to fulfill.

Despite her current popularity everybody stayed far away from this Mean Ole Gal, making it little more than a faint blip on the radar at the time and whose only real value since then is as an historical document to put her ensuing meteoric rise to stardom into better perspective.


(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)