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SAVOY 750; JUNE 1950

 
 

 

A lot can change in just six months time.

The harsh cold winds of winter disappear and summer’s heat brings with it dazzling displays of color. Yesterday’s newsmakers are disposed of, their voices dimmed by sudden collective indifference and replaced by new leaders heralding a fresh start and the blossoming sounds of progress. What had seemed of little interest in the recent past suddenly attracts the eyes and ears of a nation yearning for something different.

Six months was all it took to transform a handful of denizens of the Los Angeles club scene from frustrated nonentities in the recording arena into national stars of the highest magnitude.
 

 

The Captain Of The Ship
As 1950 dawned Johnny Otis was making his first records for Savoy, already his fourth stop as the lead-credited artist (as well appearing on records in a supporting role behind others for a half dozen more companies over the past few years) and though the records had been very good for the most part commercial success hadn’t followed.

He’d been able to draw crowds to his own Barrelhouse Club in Los Angeles to see and hear them put on great shows night after night but he knew all too well that without hits to their name their options were limited and opportunities would eventually start to dry up.

Throughout 1949 he added more impressive figures to his lineup, flashy guitarists, explosive saxophonists, humorous harmony singers and finally a squeaky voiced ingénue with curious appeal… patiently shaping them into a highly efficient organization and waiting for the right situation to introduce them to nation at large.

When that moment finally arrived they never looked back, kicking off a run of overwhelming success that few rock artists of any era could hope to match where all of their creative choices were inspired, their execution was utterly flawless and the reception was overwhelming.

Their records spawned multiple headliners, from The Robins to Mel Walker and the biggest star of the year, though she came in the smallest package, in fourteen year old Little Esther who with this record scored her third consecutive Number One smash. Holding it all together, writing and producing the songs, leading the band and overseeing this wild brood like a proud father was Johnny Otis… an unmitigated success at last.

Cupid’s Boogie might not be his most enduring monument in purely historical terms but it might just stand as the creative peak of what would turn out to be an acclaimed sixty year career in music.
 


 
 

Things Will Be Okay
The first sound you hear is abrupt and forceful, as this wastes not a second before launching the song like a mortar shell that explodes in your ears – “HEY, Mr. Cupid!” Esther declares, her voice dripping with confidence, “Step into my light. I met a fine cat and I just have to be his wife!” before the band comes prancing into the picture matching her strutting demeanor.

It’s a swaggering sound… from the band’s tight groove behind Esther’s sassy singing right down to Johnny’s sharp-edged lyrics… a democratic unit all hitting their stride together on Esther’s first real uptempo performance.

That change alone tells you how confident Otis was in his charges. This was no cautious imitation of earlier work, no shallow attempt to replicate a proven formula down to the smallest detail, instead they took what had been a fairly loose concept in the previous releases, the back and forth exchange between Esther and a male counterpart, and added new elements to it, refitting it on the fly to come up with something new and even more powerful.

The humor they started off with the first time out on Double Crossin’ Blues is still there and the romantic angle that was introduced with the arrival of Mel Walker subsequently balances that out, but Cupid’s Boogie fuses them together in a way that essentially creates what would be more frequently credited to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – that of the musical “playlet” – a humorous skit worthy of the stage or screen which features the “acting” being done within the context of the song – funny and dramatic, yet never subverting the actual musical punch like a straight comedy record.

The band thrives in their role without even needing a solo to draw attention to their work, instead just rolling through this like the well-oiled machine they were. Dee Williams anchors the track on piano with two distinct lines played simultaneously, her left hand bobbing steadily along to set the rhythm while her right adds seemingly unconnected flourishes which adds tremendous color.

As a result the song manages to unfold in a way that seems perfectly natural in spite of the structural oddity of Esther and Walker exchanging in a dialogue that heightens the drama as it rolls along.
 

I Gotta Be The Boss
They key to all of this working of course lays in just what the two “actors” are saying to one another and how they’re saying… err… ahh… singing it. Here, as with every other aspect of this record, they nail both aspects with letter perfect precision.

Cupid’s Boogie unfolds at a rather quick pace, but doesn’t feel rushed when you’re listening to it. Though Esther claims in the intro that she just met this guy she’s obviously fallen hard and is planning to marry him. Yet rather than draw the courtship out as most songs would do, Otis uses the underlying subject – the fact that they’re addressing the mythical Cupid directly for help in this romance – to bypass the particulars and get to the highlights.

Esther starts this off by ramping up the suggestiveness with her pleas for them to get cozy behind closed doors, but then Walker suddenly is injected into the mix, presumably having been pierced by Cupid’s arrow, as he goes along with Esther’s plans for marriage… I’m guessing they got their “alone time” she was asking for and… well, read between the lines yourself.

Though they were by no means romantically involved in real life, Esther and Mel are so convincing as the alternately infatuated and bickering lovebirds, with her eager giddiness being met with his soulful charm, that the relationship takes on a three dimensional quality that is rare for any song, especially one that uses so many different elements to paint this picture.

So in a one-two-three punch combination we’ve covered love at first sight, a first date and a proposal and we haven’t even gotten to instrumental break yet!
 

I Want You On The Spot
The extended set-up alone would make for a really good record and most producers wouldn’t want to mess things up by overreaching here, so they’d quickly look for a way to circle back to the vocal hook again and then wrap things up efficiently and take their bows.

But at this point, with everything they touched turning to gold, Johnny Otis was teaming with confidence and so not surprisingly it’s what they do after you think you’ve reached the climax of the story that turns Cupid’s Boogie from merely very good into something truly great.

Everything is turned on its head as Esther starts fantasizing about the perfect life she’ll have with her beau, all of which centers around material goods – fur coats, fancy cars and jewelry – and naturally he takes a step back and re-assesses her motives. Is she deeply in love or just looking for a sugar daddy?

The trade-off between the two during this section is downright cinematic. You can practically see her eyes gleaming as she envisions these gaudy trappings, just as you can visualize his furrowed brow as he momentarily pulls back in shock and dismay.

But then Johnny spins it back around and instead of reducing this to a battle of the sexes and losing the winsome charm they’d established he instead turns it into a form of playful goading, as Mel responds with demands of his own, each of them exaggeratedly emphasizing the traditional male-female roles that were already falling out of favor in everyday life as women began to take a more independent role in the family structure, making this surprisingly forward looking in spite of its comical trappings.

What’s funny about it aren’t the lines themselves, but rather how each of them acts them out all while the other one doesn’t take them seriously. As a result their “love” is never in danger of being impeded by their out-sized expectations of one another, as they jest with one another right to the end which finds them still on track to head up the aisle together, as this seems to be one fictitious couple that surely will endure.
 


 

Let’s Get The Ring
Despite its colorful details there’s still a feeling to the record that can’t be conveyed by simply recounting the script as it were, or even praising the performances in normal terms.

Everything about this is so effortless, so confidently presented, that it actually is even more than the sum of its parts, even though those individual parts are all first rate themselves.

Maybe the best way to put it is Cupid’s Boogie is the most consistently listenable record of Otis’s Savoy tenure, a song that doesn’t require any emotional prep on the listener’s part with a lyric that can be appreciated equally by those in giddy throes of love or those cynically scoffing at its basic tenets.

More than anything though, at least when it comes to putting the career arcs of the participants into perspective, is just how perfectly it captures their respective strengths. For Esther it showcases her unique appeal as a vocalist, letting her display almost every aspect of her persona from the hopeful yearning to the feisty girl holding her own with any man willing to tangle with her.

As for her co-star Walker, he gets to show a lighthearted side that his solo performances never explored, proving himself to not only have good understated comic timing, but also coming across as someone whose Lothario act was a well-designed put-on, almost as if you’re peeking behind the curtain to see the a more casual guy that girls would still like while guys would like to hang out with.

Johnny Otis though is the one who may shine brightest here even though his own role on the record is completely non-existent – he’s not drumming, nor playing vibes – as he clearly was crafting the song with the intent on revealing the wit, the charm, the personalities of the real life people he knew so well.

If you wanted to understand how Otis’s vast menagerie of artists ruled the rock scene for the bulk of 1950 this is the song that best explains their appeal – a record cut at the absolute peak of their powers, a time when their artistic confidence glowed like a halo over their collective heads.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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