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SAVOY 816; AUGUST 1951



They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but in music a more appropriate saying would be that imitation is the most obvious sign of desperation.

So it was that Savoy Records coming off their best year ever thanks to the success of teenage superstar Little Esther now had to scramble to make up for losing her to a rival company.

As was typical for the industry when assessing the tastes and interests of the market, they focused on the surface attributes of Esther’s age when seeking out a replacement and found one in Sylvia Vanderpool, still just 15, whose debut last year on Columbia Records impressed all who’d heard it.

Not content with letting her craft her own persona once she arrived here, Savoy gave her implicit instructions to copy Esther’s style as close as humanly possible, then went one step further in their efforts to dupe the public by changing the way they billed her to Little Sylvia and hoped that if the audience wasn’t fooled they would at least be placated.

They weren’t, but it sure wasn’t Sylvia’s fault the audience was smarter than Savoy’s executives.


Can’t You Hear Me Calling
We’ve said this before but the amazing thing about Little Esther’s meteoric popularity over the past year and a half was how she didn’t possess any of the usual attributes of stardom.

Her singing style belied her youth as she more often than not was presented as being far more worldly than any teenage girl in matters of love and loss. Her unusual mousy voice wasn’t sweet or alluring and at times was almost tonally abrasive. Furthermore, while this was still an era where there were no videos or magazine articles on rock acts and thus most people never saw the singers whose records they bought unless they attended a show, in Esther’s case that was probably a good thing as she wasn’t going to be attracting fans based on her looks which were far from appealing.

Sylvia Vanderpool was another story altogether. Her pure clear tone could be sweet or sassy, and she was equally at ease acting her age as well as being able to come across as a lot more mature simply by her phrasing. In addition she had a great sense of projecting her underlying thoughts into the material and on top of all that she was blossoming into quite a beauty as well.

But where Esther excelled was in her interpretive qualities, suggesting a wealth of experience despite her age, something which can hardly be taught.

Can it be copied though, is what Savoy was asking, as How Long Must I Be Blue is about as blatant a Little Esther lift as could be envisioned. A spurned girl clinging to hope that the rejection she faced from the one she loved can somehow be overcome, all while the gently swaying melody is indifferent to her pain. About all this is missing are Johnny Otis’s vibes to convince you it was a label misprint and that instead of Little Sylvia it should have read Little Esther instead.

Surely this kind of subterfuge wasn’t going to pay dividends for Savoy, since people don’t waste nickels and dimes in the jukebox randomly searching for familiar sounds under another artist’s name, but whether it’d help or harm Sylvia’s burgeoning career to be put in this compromising position is more unclear.

It’s Confusing, But It’s Amusing
The Academy Awards often give their acting Oscars to those portraying another famous person on screen, something which at times seems more like impersonation than acting since the latter embodies creating a character from scratch.

The former though is still technically impressive and if such awards existed for singers Sylvia Vanderpool might’ve snagged a nomination for fully embodying her role as Little Esther, nailing not only her breathy vocal technique but also the quirky tics that were such a part of Esther’s persona, from the way she’d abruptly cut lines short to how she’d ride a note over multiple bars where you’d think it wasn’t called for.

Most impressive is how Sylvia sings from the back of the throat to replicate Esther’s distinctive tone, in the process robbing herself of her own best attribute, though she does slip it in here and there.

So all that being said, as a Little Esther record How Long Must I Be Blue is really good… but as a Sylvia Vanderpool record… oh, excuse me… as a Little Sylvia record it’s kinda disconcerting.

Think of it this way… when you go to the dentist they’re not carving their initials in your teeth, nor does the plumber sign their name on your toilet seat to show it was they who worked on it, but singers are supposed to put their own distinctive stamp on their material, and rock ‘n’ roll – far more than pop of the day – paid particular attention to establishing that personal identity.

But Sylvia is prevented from doing and as a result this is harder to appreciate even though she’s really good throughout a fairly well-written song. But she really only comes into her own during the bridge where she takes off the disguise and sings in full voice and shows why Savoy was so misguided in not allowing the artist they currently had under contract to perform as herself rather than having her imitate someone who’d left them and was now recording for another company altogether.

Talk about not getting over being dumped, was Herman Lubinsky writing Esther’s initials on foggy windowpanes too?

As good as Sylvia is as a mimic there’s not much else to really make this overcome its limited ambitions. The arrangement is trying a little too hard to suggest sadness with its squawking trumpet responses and while they fit the concept they don’t exactly match the emotions Sylvia is conveying… or what the lyrics are suggesting… which finds her more resigned to the ups and downs of love than devastated by them.

On the whole you can’t fault the performances, just the mindset behind them which clearly was no fault of Sylvia or the band.

It’s Goodbye Now
If there’s anything this record reaffirms it’s how companies viewed music as product rather than art and if something sold well last year then they’d do everything in their power to push more of it this year until the diminishing returns convinced them to move on to something else.

It never seemed to occur to them that the “something else” was always something NEW and as such should spur them into constantly searching out those new sounds, new artists and new ideas.

Sylvia Vanderpool shows on How Long Must I Be Blue that she was perfectly capable of doing impressions of last year’s top singer… who this year couldn’t sell a dozen copies of her own records now that Esther was on Federal.

What we’re deprived of finding out however is whether or not Sylvia herself could sell her own sound.

At fifteen we’d assume – and hope – that she’d have plenty of time to see if she could, but in the record business nothing is ever guaranteed and so while this one is a decent effort and a testament to her abilities, it is also the last thing we’d want to hear, for it meant we weren’t hearing her true self.


(Visit the Artist page of Sylvia Vanderpool for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)