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MODERN 20-754; JUNE 1950



Consistency is a hallmark of great artists but at times, with certain artists anyway, it can almost be a first class ticket to being consistently underrated.

If each release simply meets expectations, however lofty they may be, there tends not to be much room for pleasant surprises, those sudden leaps in quality that attracts everyone’s attention, fans and novices alike, and leads many to go back and appreciate the steps that led to that point even more than they had the first time around.

By contrast when you start off on a high level and then do little to detract from it, but not much to elevate it in some startling way either, you tend to be taken for granted, even dismissed historically, as if that consistency was a flaw rather than a virtue.


What Are You Gonna Do?
By now we know what we’re going to get from Little Willie Littlefield’s bag of tricks. He’d sort of discarded the early piano pounding instrumentals, but you knew he still had that weapon in his back pocket should he need to break it out again. Meanwhile he imparted his uptempo vocal records with a casual – almost smirking – cynicism which crafted an identifiable public persona for those buying his singles.

Yet it was on the slow songs – you’d be hard pressed most of the time to call them ballads – where Littlefield really excelled, heaping on the pathos in his vocals and conjuring up the image of a lonely guy in the corner of the bar nursing the same drink that he was speaking into as he pondered how he got to this stage in life.

Because hurt and sadness were the operative emotions in these songs it was rarely necessary to move far beyond a few simple scenarios to set them up and then upon laying out the plot in the barest of terms he would be free to wallow in self-pity until the saxophone players helped him to a cab and settled his bill for him.

But while that general description still fits here, the thematic particulars of Cheerful Baby have been elevated to something resembling serious theater and shows why, above all else, it’s not the drastic differences from one song to another that always defines an artist’s worth, but rather how cleverly he tweaks that formula to present something new using many of the same old trappings.


You Left Behind
The title itself shows this artistic intent as it is purposefully misleading. Littlefield is anything BUT cheerful, his delivery is weary and deflated and as such you’re thrown a little by him addressing someone who is living it up without him and telling her she’s going to cry someday.

Of course once we get our bearings we can fill in the plot easy enough – she dumped him, he’s sad and because he’s unable to get any sort of revenge on her he’s merely taking solace in the fact that eventually she’ll get her comeuppance and her happiness will turn to sorrow for much the same reason that his did, namely somebody will break her heart too.

He’s not gleefully looking forward to it exactly, but he’s at least comforted by the idea if nothing else and using it as a cathartic form of emotional recovery.

None of this is all that surprising though and therefore the idea that a song with such a common topic could be a step above the norm is somewhat far-fetched.

This is even more true because there’s no musical tricks to be found on Cheerful Baby – lurching piano and mournful saxes with a fairly minimal arrangement – and so you expect the success or failure (artistically speaking) to be found simply in how well Littlefield sings this and with his nose sounding even more clogged than usual you might be wondering if he’ll be getting credit for some method acting since it effectively replicates someone who’s been crying all night.

But no, the skill here is in the craftsmanship of the song itself, where the lyrics are not just the vague impressions of someone wrestling with rejection, but rather someone who has poured over those feelings at length, analyzing them from every conceivable angle internally, and is now articulating them in a way that makes each small fissure of his heart seem like a tectonic rupture.

Go ‘Round Braggin’
Here’s the point where reviews quote lyrics to back up their assertions that the song is deeper and more meaningful than it appears on the surface and while admittedly that’s a somewhat lazy method of writing it’s also understandable because obviously when it’s the lyrics that are affecting you so much you to want to use them to praise the record.

But seeing them in print doesn’t always properly convey their impact which is in this case is aided immeasurably by the manner in which they’re delivered, as Littlefield seems not so much to sing them as much as bleeds them.

The portrait he paints of this girl who he never gives a name to, never describes physically, never even directly quotes her when detailing their split, is nevertheless made perfectly clear by the way in which he informs us that she’s actually gloating over how devastated he is over their breakup.

The fact that she takes pride in her ability to make someone else suffer just because she doesn’t want to see him anymore is a more scathing indictment on her character than a string of four-letter words could ever be.

When Littlefield then uses that as a way to essentially deliver the “what goes around comes around” message at the heart of Cheerful Baby it makes his pain and its consequences all the more impactful.

He’s so effective in his presentation that you can practically SEE this girl in front of you, smiling broadly as she dishes to her friends in a way that makes light of Willie’s heartbreak because it validates her own attractiveness and desirability. She’s definitely the kind of girl you’d notice in a club when she’s feeling so empowered, almost as if a glow was radiating from her core.

But therein lies the trap she’s set for herself. If she’s so callous as to be unfazed by someone else’s pain then it means she’s totally unprepared for the possibility that somebody else could cause the same pain to her.

Each line drives this point home with tactical precision, setting up her self-important image before jabbing it with the theoretical pins that will ultimately deflate her.

In A Castle On A Throne
The whole time the backing track marches in deliberate lockstep with Willie, the plodding sax break sticking to the low end of the tenor’s range to give it added gravity, even the infrequent faint guitar notes striking the right balance to keep it shrouded in gloom without quite descending into total despair.

Naturally songs that show their pain so openly and with little melodic buoyancy to offset it are bound to be passed over by most who’d rather avoid coming into contact with anything so dour as this in case it were to rub off on a listener.

It’s also not something that were you to hear it in passing that you’d likely single out for being particularly impressive because it’s the mood that will hit you squarely in the face without noticing the details unless you actually take the time to study it a bit closer.

But once you do examine it more carefully Cheerful Baby winds up revealing just how capable Little Willie Littlefield really was by fine tuning a rather well-worn topic and making it seem both original and authentic. It’s a song that’s ambitious in ways that are more subtle than attention grabbing and that too is a sure way to guarantee credit for such efforts will usually be in short supply.

As a potential commercial product it may indeed be too modest in its charms to avoid flying under the radar, but as a confirmation of his artistic abilities it reinforces the impression he’s made recently, as this makes seven of his last eight sides to reach the hallowed green numbers here.

If it’s the unintended curse of consistency to be widely underappreciated Littlefield will have to be content with the fact his fans could be reasonably assured to get their money’s worth with each and every release… something even the greatest artists with the widest acclaim would be envious of achieving.


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