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If you look at his driver’s license you’ll see that Little Willie Littlefield is only 21 years old, just a babe in life when viewed from a wider perspective, but when you narrow that perspective down to focus only rock ‘n’ rollers, you’ll see that he’s already acquired the status of being a veteran star.

So far we’ve covered thirty different songs he’s released since breaking onto the scene four years ago and this is his first “official” release as a solo act on Federal Records – after one duet – which marks his fourth record company during that time.

After his huge success on Modern his jump to Federal, equally credible with the public as a source for rock and considerably more ethical with their artists, we don’t expect things to change much for the remarkably consistent Littlefield… but then again maybe he shouldn’t get TOO comfortable, for in the singles era as you hit the four year mark you do start to seem a little long in the tooth to rock fans who are constantly looking for something new.


Don’t You Understand?
When he arrived at Federal sometime this past spring, you’d think with his track record consisting of some pretty big national hits and many smaller regional sellers affording him widespread name recognition among rock’s audience that the company would be more… enthused… to have him on board.

It’s not that they were struggling by any means and needed the credibility he could bring them, but their commercial returns on every act but The Dominoes had been somewhat disappointing for one reason or another, despite some good records and talented artists who already had, or would go on to make names for themselves in rock.

Yet Federal made the inexplicable decision to launch Littlefield’s career on their label by pairing him with newcomer Lil’ Greenwood on Monday Morning Blues, a decent song and performance but one which largely downplayed the guy with that name recognition, dropping his last name from the label credits altogether as they more or less promoted it as a Greenwood release.

Somehow, someway these companies always manage to find new ways of showing their incompetence you wouldn’t have thought possible.

Who knows, maybe Littlefield’s contract with Modern wasn’t quite expired yet and they were trying to pretend it was another guy named Little Willie who sounded exactly the same in the meantime, just counting down the days until they were in the legal clear.

So while Blood Is Redder Than Wine doesn’t technically qualify as his debut on this label, it IS the first time we get to see the direction the company felt was most marketable for Littlefield starting off.

It’d be an understatement of epic proportions to say that choice was hardly what we expected in a business as conservative as the record industry.

I’ll Have To Track You Down
Though it’s not one of the song’s they’re known for, this is an early credit for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who were rapidly becoming the first choice for Ralph Bass among the freelance songwriters pushing their compositions on him.

Obviously we know that means this song has great potential, though as evidenced with some recent efforts of theirs on the label (ah-hem… the underwhelmingly generic Saturday Night Daddy) they weren’t yet at the point where each creation of theirs was a work of art.

On paper, other than the striking image of the title itself, Blood Is Redder Than Wine doesn’t qualify as a brilliantly written song. The theme is one of a jealous vindictive boyfriend ominously threatening his woman for romantic transgressions, real or imagined, making this a record totally unsuited for casual consumption in daylight hours surrounded by friends and relations. Instead it’s perfectly suited for the hours after midnight when you’re standing alone on a psychological cliff and looking out into the abyss.

Hardly the makings of a well-loved hit.

Littlefield wastes no time at all in setting the brooding atmosphere as he threatens her life in the opening stanza before we can even get our bearings. After appearing to make an attempt to be slightly more conciliatory in the second, he immediately invalidates that by telling her “If you ever double-cross me, you’ll be digging your own grave”… Well, so much for making amends and trying to work things out!

The lines may be pretty simple but they read well and leave no ambiguity in your mind as to the character being profiled, though in many cases Leiber simply took floating verses found in countless other songs and refashioned them for this story. But at least it’s fully coherent and doesn’t just slap random lines together haphazardly for effect.

Instead this has a point to make… a very eerie point not for the faint of heart.

I’d Rather See You Dead
Though the tale it tells is a good one – well, not in REAL life where this nutjob Willie portrays would get rightly slapped with a restraining order – the plot takes a back seat to building mood, as it gives no backstory as to why he’d have reason to suspect his girlfriend of impropriety. Though it’s more than a little unsettling, Littlefield adds immeasurably to this unrelentingly bleak aura with every aspect of his performance.

Slowing his voice down to a drug-like crawl, this is like a precursor to Sly & The Family Stone’s immortal There’s A Riot Going On album in the way it forebodingly creeps along in the shadows, aided greatly by an arrangement that is as dark and murky as the message. The piano triplets he plays are somewhat buried in the mix and more to help him keep his place vocally than to do anything to convey a musical identity, though you might take it as gallows’ humor as if it were trying to lighten the mood.

There’s no chance for that happening however as we get Tiny Mitchell’s guitar slipping in through the unguarded back door, knife in hand, audibly stabbing the victim as it were, not angrily but with a methodical detachment that is chilling. He may not play many notes in his periodic appearances, but he definitely makes each one count until the guitar strings are dripping blood.

Better still is Maxwell Davis, the real star of Blood Is Redder Than Wine, as the arranger and de facto producer who is used to working with Littlefield at Modern and just happens to be arguably the best sax player in rock. He puts that talent to great use here, blowing soft but treacherous passages that sound as if they’re floating through a blanket of fog that settled over the darkened city streets like theme music for the grim reaper.

Even the instrumental break doesn’t deviate from the lurking evil found in the rest of the record, as he smartly keeps the same structure with his intermittent blowing while Littlefield gets to stretch his fingers on the treble keys some which may actually heighten the suspense by getting all of your senses on edge waiting for the hammer to fall.

It may not be a pretty record, it surely isn’t one to play on a date or at a dance, but it’s easily most evocative record we’ve heard around here in a long time.


You Know I Feel Like Dying
One of the trickier balancing acts we engage in with this project is trying to play both sides against the middle as it were.

Here we question Federal Records decision on how to announce to the world that Little Willie Littlefield, a big time star still in his prime, is on their record label, which seems to call for a very commercial release in the hopes of getting a big enough hit so that Littlefield’s fans used to seeing him on Modern will know now to look for Federal’s green and gold colors when searching out Willie’s singles.

This creepily menacing performance hardly fits that bill at all, so from a business standpoint it seems like the wrong decision and we DO need to care about striving for commercial success because hits give artists and labels alike far more leeway to be creative and take chances.

That leads to our second – polar opposite – view, which is Blood Is Redder Than Wine absolutely slays on those two points. This is nothing if not creatively risky because it contains none of the elements that tend to be widely embraced. Yet by seemingly not caring about sales or jukebox spins (to say nothing of radio play where this might lead to complaints to the FCC by old ladies stumbling across it, thinking it was a real threat), Davis and Littlefield are able to produce a much more vital record which is more frightening than anything you’ll see on Halloween later this month.

So on one hand they seem to be intentionally forsaking commerce for art, which as music fans we genuinely appreciate. But on the other hand by neglecting the commercial potential of their first solo Littlefield release, they’re potentially making it harder to regain his traction in the marketplace when he most needs it.

Still, when push comes to shove, we’ll always take the record that sounds best and this one – pardon the disquieting pun – is an absolute killer.


(Visit the Artist page of Little Willie Littlefield for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)