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SAVOY 735; MARCH 1950

 
 

 

After a really long stretch of mostly average records, thirty straight in fact, none of which surpassed a (6) in our scores, we were finally rewarded for our patience with a stunning record by Little Esther yesterday on her first pairing with Mel Walker and just her second release overall on Savoy after she and Johnny Otis were among those signed by the label in late 1949.

Surely we can’t be so lucky as to have her give us another equally stellar song on the B-side, can we? Rather than another bright green number appearing at the end of this review shouldn’t we expect a reversion to the mean? Aren’t those the basic rules of life?

Well, let’s just say that the phrase “rules are made to be broken” would make for a good title for the life of Little Esther who broke virtually every accepted rule of music marketing throught her long career.
 

 

Your New Flame
Though she’d barely reached puberty when she burst upon the scene Little Esther was never called upon to accentuate her youth in songs, either stylistically or thematically. Instead she was presented as an adult from the very start, wise beyond her years, even weary and worn down at times as if the weight of life seemed bound to do her in.

Yet in spite of embodying that sometimes downbeat outlook in her songs she never succumbed to it by the fade, stubbornly holding up under the pressure with a formidable determination and resiliency.

Then there was the fact that she was hardly seen as physically attractive, the kind of attributes that so many female acts relied on to put across an alluring persona, yet Esther sang about love and loss and sex with a frankness that was utterly disarming.

Lastly, while she was masterful at expressing the underlying emotions in every word she sang her actual singing voice itself was hardly anything special, a mousy somewhat nasal tone with little power. In fact when tallying up what she had going for her you’d think she’d be lucky to even get a job singing as an opening act somewhere in the sticks.

But in spite of these drawbacks and contradictions thirteen year old Little Esther was fast becoming the biggest star in rock ‘n’ roll as 1950 progressed with a string of exquisite performances that have more than stood the test of time.
 


 
 

I Can’t Forget
Never let it be said that simple, even redundant, topics aren’t ripe for re-examination in the right hands for while this is another slow meditative look at the struggles of a woman whose heart is crumbling, Esther makes this so completely believable that as you listen it’s as if you’re confronting the feelings she’s expressing for the very first time.

As with most of her material Johnny Otis wrote this and of course his band is backing her on Misery as well, but it’s interesting that already – just two singles into her run on Savoy – that the label is featuring her name out front rather than Otis’s, though he still does get a co-lead credit.

But Esther earns every bit of that lead artist designation by taking what are fairly rote sentiments on paper and injecting them with real ache, uncertainty and anguish over her failed relationship. The song dives into her condition without any backstory whatsoever other than the revelation that the man she’s pining for is one who she used to date, and maybe because we get no explanation as to what caused them to break up in the first place… and thus no blame being placed to taint our perceptions… we get to focus entirely on how Esther is coping – or more accurately not able to cope – with the loss.

Her delivery is drenched with yearning and a fair amount of self-loathing, calling herself a fool and begging for his attention, yet it’s smartly done without resorting to having her humiliate herself by her request. Even her acknowledgement about him moving on to another girl doesn’t set the two women up as rivals, she seems to know she’d have no chance to win him back outright from her so she doesn’t bother even suggesting it, but rather she’s just looking for a sign that she meant something to him once upon a time.

Though it’s entirely speculative you can definitely read this as Esther admitting that none of this was the guy’s fault, but even that carries with it a potential dual meaning which amateur psychologists will have a field day trying to interpret.

Among the possibilities that fit this hypothesis is that Esther knows she wasn’t the most desirable partner due to her modest looks and less than worldly attributes and now she’s resigned to a life of Misery due to her lack of appeal, which is downright heartbreaking.

You can also envision her being so smitten with him from the start that she overlooked his flaws, which would probably include philandering, until he decided he didn’t need to keep her as his “safety valve” girlfriend and shacked up with someone else. Esther doesn’t suggest this is the case but she could still be covering up for his role in their breakup just because she’s so down on herself.

But maybe the most likely possibility is the sheer fact that she just isn’t very experienced with romance and considered herself fortunate that she even got a nice good-looking guy to date her to begin with and as often happens though things just didn’t work out and he moved on.

In this scenario nobody was to blame, maybe his ambitions in life were too lofty for her to feel comfortable with, and it sounds as if they parted amicably, but the further away she gets from being with him the more the loss effects her. She’s not yet distraught but you can surely see that as her eventual destination around the next bend.
 


 

A Little Space In Your Heart
The song becomes voyeuristic in this way, as if we’re eavesdropping on her private lament, or even reading her diary as she spills her heart out in what is surely a futile move towards some platonic form of reconciliation.

Otis’s arranging skills here are put on full display as he matches those emotions with a delicate musical backdrop – his own hesitant shimmering vibes, a hazy dream-like guitar chord and Lorenzo Holden’s absolutely mesmerizing tenor sax which weaves its way throughout the vocals, gently pushing and pulling on Esther’s vocal lines, enveloping the track without ever dominating it.

The pacing of Misery is superb, with plenty of pauses that not only give the participants space to breathe but also allows for plenty of time for reflection in the audience whose own internal reaction to what she’s telling us will factor in greatly to its success or failure. If we feel as though we’re being rushed through the story, not given enough details or insight into her pain then all of their work will be for naught.

We need to sympathize with Esther’s predicament, not unravel its causes in order for it to make its greatest impact. She has to be able to tap into that uncomfortable collective memory of regret and missed opportunities and awkward missteps that everyone who’s come of age has dealt with in their own lives at one time or another and she has to do so without somehow ripping off those scabs completely and making the sting of those real-life missteps in the audience hurt more than necessary.

Esther does all of this masterfully by retaining just a hint of optimism in her soul, not necessarily that she thinks her ex-boyfriend will be responsive to her plea, but rather that the cathartic nature of expressing these feelings will allow her to eventually move past them and get on with her own life.

The band does its job in that regard by giving this a slow dance feel that would provide her the means with which to make her first steps towards a new start with another guy. You can even picture her in your mind’s eye as she moped in the corner all night as other couples swayed to the music on the floor, but when you look up again someone is with her as she’s standing off to the side of the punch bowl, slowly pouring her heart out to a shy but kindhearted fella who saw her alone and asked if she was okay. He probably got more than he bargained for once she began her tale of woe, but only by unburdening herself can she begin to heal.

As he listens with quiet genuine concern she gradually pulls herself together while the music works its magic with the lights down low and as she implores him to “end my misery” he takes her by the hand and leads her onto the floor, comforting her merely by their shared silence as they dance.
 

Still In Love With You
Okay, such an ending might be pretty sappy, I’ll admit, but Esther is such a good saleswoman for this kind of lament that you don’t mind buying it, lock, stock and barrel and hoping for her to find some measure of solace – if not out and out joy – by the end of the night.

That’s what balances Misery, both the song and the feeling of being miserable that leads you to these dark corners of life in the first place. The idea that the gloom you’re experiencing is never so dark that it can’t be broken by even the littlest ray of light.


 

It’s easy to see why Savoy thought such a deep and introspective song without any musical fireworks to grab your attention was best suited as a B-side, but that underestimates the audience’s appreciation for the expression of a universal malady and the allure of Little Esther herself to pull off such a delicate performance.

Though a Top Ten hit in its own right there’s no question it was overshadowed by Mistrustin’ Blues, which hit #1 and confirmed her status as rock’s leading female star, but it’s impossible not to believe that most who embraced the top side weren’t playing this side once they closed their doors and turned off the lights, alone for the night with nothing but Little Esther’s voice to keep them company until morning came.
 
 
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)