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MODERN 20-709; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

How common is it for a recording artist to score a verifiable national hit record? I mean, what’s the percentage of releases in the singles era that crack the charts? Twenty percent? No, way too high. Ten percent? ONE percent?!?

Whatever it is it’s no doubt depressingly low if you’re a record label which is probably one reason why they often make the worst decisions possible once they actually find a hit scattered amongst all of their releases.

Though it certainly is every artist’s goal to score hits, and every fan’s desire to see the acts they like have success if only to ensure that they’ll continue to have opportunity to release new records, the pressures don’t subside with that initial hit. If anything they increase.

Little Willie Littlefield had scored his first hit last time out, a huge smash at that, and now he was in the precarious position of having to follow it up and in the process either confirm his budding stardom with another strong effort or refute it by firing a blank.
 

 

Hope We Meet Again Someday
The record industry in the late 1940’s was a much different beast than it is today when artists have wrested more control over their careers and use the record labels as merely a well paid delivery system for showcasing their work. But back when rock began the record companies held all of the power and the artists were in a subservient role to the decision makers at the label who fretted constantly over their company’s bottom line which could veer between steady profit and bankruptcy in the course of just a few months depending on the success of the latest batch of releases.

That’s why when scoring a breakthrough hit the companies often became MORE conservative in following it up. Rather than let the artist continue to explore their creative id, labels had a tendency to instead try to minimize risk by serving up another song just like it.

Let’s face it, commerce and creativity aren’t always synonymous when it comes to the music industry. In fact often they’re all too often mutually exclusive. So when a record company needs hits to pay bills and a hit comes along they’re prone to completely forgetting how that hit record had been innovative and original, not a carbon copy of something else, and so in a desperate attempt to catch lightning twice using the same bottle they set out to duplicate the first hit as closely as possible without merely reissuing the same track a second time.

Needless to say their success rate with this approach varies greatly.

But then again the record execs would tell you, and to be fair not without some validity, that the success rate for new ideas was no better and perhaps in the late 1940’s was actually slightly worse.

So as a fan of newly ascendant rock star, Little Willie Littlefield, still on the shy side of twenty years old and thus probably not yet confident enough to stand up for his rights, you had to temper your excitement in his recent success with a healthy dose of caution when it came to expecting him to be allowed to pursue his career path unimpeded by corporate meddling.

Then again, maybe Littlefield himself was content to merely tweak his most successful idea to date because that idea got him out of second class dives and made him a headliner.

Then again (again), maybe audiences weren’t as discerning about all of this as we are today, because Farewell not only didn’t mark a farewell to his days as a star, it actually bolstered that stardom when it too became a national hit.

Objectively then it worked. Now the only question is a subjective one – is the record worthy of that success or would he have been better to take a left turn into the unknown?

The answer, as always, lays ahead.
 

 

Everywhere I Go
I think it’s imperative first to put Littlefield’s rise into some sort of perspective here to see exactly what the stakes where and how Modern Records were seeing in him the goose that laid the golden egg.

Littlefield had just turned 18 a month before this came out and already had made a name for himself in a way that had nothing whatsoever to do with his youth. In other words, unlike the even younger Sugar Chile Robinson, a pre-pubescent piano prodigy who’d just scored his first hit with Numbers Boogie and had already played the White House where another piano player named Harry Truman lived, Littlefield wasn’t being promoted as a novelty kid act by any means.

He’d been playing clubs in Houston since he was a 14 year old – for adult audiences who could’ve cared less that he was far too young to be there as a patron – and he’d hit locally with his first limited releases on Eddie’s Records, a local label created just to showcase him. When that company folded and sold one remaining side of his to the newly created Houston imprint Freedom Records he didn’t wind up signing with them as might be expected for somebody who’d yet to see the world, or for that matter an ocean or perhaps even the ground in another state! Instead Los Angeles based Modern Records, a label who’d notched their first chart topper with John Lee Hooker’s blues classic Boogie Chillen and thus had national recognition, swooped in and signed him up in an effort to compete with Amos Milburn, the most successful rock star to date and someone who the company had just happened to reject a few years earlier when he too came out of Houston looking for a contract.

On the surface it hardly seemed like a signing really worth getting excited about, for while Littlefield DID have a remarkable vocal similarity to Milburn and was equal to, if not slightly better than Amos on the keys, his output to date had consisted largely of piano boogies and a few good, but hardly exceptional, vocal sides.

It was hardly much of a gambit on Modern’s part, as it probably didn’t cost them more than a few hundred bucks to ease his mother’s skepticism and concerns. Other than that and the 1,500 mile ride back to Los Angeles they weren’t exactly tying themselves to Littlefield long term should nothing pan out. But lo and behold his first release, It’s Midnight (No Place To Go), rocketed up the charts after being released in mid-summer and landed at #3 on the Billboard charts, a position it would hold for almost a month, while topping the territorial charts in Cash Box for San Francisco for a full month and New Orleans for more than two months and right around the corner from where we are today it’d also hit #1 in Los Angeles.

He was now a star and as if to announce his place in the world Littlefield adorned the cover of Cash Box magazine for their October 29th issue alongside blues guitarist Pee Wee Crayton in what looks like a wild studio jam session. His appearance in the magazine was a bigger deal than it might seem today because prior to this only Paul Williams and Amos Milburn had gotten on the cover of the same publication, joining The Ravens who made Billboard’s cover back in April as the only rock acts to get that type of national recognition in the 1940’s.

But after the runaway success of It’s Midnight the question became could he repeat it and if so how would he go about it? With something that was merely a take off on what already worked, or by heading in a different direction altogether which might risk draining the reservoir of goodwill he’d gotten these past few months if that audience didn’t find a new approach as compelling.
 

I’m Afraid It’d Be Too Late
Just how close IS this to his previous effort, since that’s formed a large part of the review so far?

Well, the most obvious similarity is in the overall mood more than anything. Both records are atmospheric late night ruminations about being left behind by a girl and were probably designed, or at the very least expected, to draw the same type of response by the same audience that was enraptured by his first foray into this perspective.

But that conceptual similarity aside the two records are different enough, and both creatively inspired enough, to sidestep any fears that all they were doing was trying to draw another bucket of water from the same well.

Farewell is, if anything, a much more somber affair than the earlier record. For starters he’s nowhere near as spry in either his singing or his playing as he’d been on It’s Midnight, which was decidedly vibrant for the sentiments he was offering, though that of course worked to its advantage giving it a different feel than what you’d normally expect from such a lament.

This time around however what he says and the way he serves it up is far more in line with the outlook of this type of song, but that too works well because of how effectively he delivers it. That’s not to say it’s a better song, or performance, but it’s really good in most every way.

There’s still a very obvious Amos Milburn influence here. Vocally Littlefield just had the same tone and phrasing as rock’s biggest star, something which was more natural due to their shared Houston upbringing than anything contrived for commercial purposes… though certainly it might’ve been accentuated for commercial purposes.

Willie uses the same languid delivery sung in the same behind the beat style that Amos made famous which sounds great (the singing, not my stupid rhyme) even if it makes him slightly less distinctive in the process. Littlefield sells this with utter conviction though which takes some of the onus off its similarity to Milburn, who himself was at his own career peak about now.

He sounds as if he’s in a trance, his entreaties to this girl whom he’s resigned to losing coming in almost fragmentary style as his stabbing piano even seems to finish some of his thoughts in the verses. Throughout this what he’s saying is much less important than how he’s saying it, or rather what he’s feeling while saying it, which is where we get insight as to his state of mind. But if Farewell has a weak point it’s the vagueness of the lyrics, understandable though it may be, simply because we as listeners want to feel we have a better sense of what took place that brought him to this.

Because of this it’s got a distinctively aimless feel to it, a stream of consciousness being held together by the music which compensates for his lack of focus and completes the mood.
 

Love Always Grows
Ahh, the mood. That’s the not-so-secret ingredient to this and while much of it is indeed conveyed by Littlefield’s voice the rest is filled in brilliantly by the instruments which fit Farewell like a hand in glove.

The really interesting, I’d even say unusual, aspect of Littlefield’s work on Modern is how cohesive it all is despite the fact that on almost every single session he had different musicians backing him. That says a lot about his own consistent artistic vision, as well as whomever was manning the sessions. That very well might’ve been Maxwell Davis, though usually he’d play saxophone on the dates he was overseeing and since he’s not playing sax on these sides but would do so the following year for Littlefield maybe that means we can eliminate him from the list of possibilities when it comes to producer.

Regardless of who it is the results they extract from the band are solid as can be as this sax player, the unheralded Earl Jackson, takes an unexpected back seat to others in the arrangement. The horns DO provide a purposefully drowsy undercurrent to the song, as Jackson and Jake Porter on trumpet play in tandem and give this the floor from which the other performances use as their platform, but it’s guitarist Chuck Norris who makes the biggest impression with some razor sharp notes slicing through the melody before getting a brief but scintillating solo that finds him veering into a fiercer tone that gives it a jolt that is entirely welcome.

Littlefield’s piano does the rest, keeping the rhythm intact as well as adding melodic accents and making sure the record doesn’t come to a complete standstill when Willie unveils his series of vocal pauses and hesitation moves that give Farewell much of its character.

Though it appears they didn’t quite work out a good transition into the ending, something which makes the record sound clunkier and more improvised than it clearly was, it’s a minor complaint for a really strong showing by all involved. No, it’s definitely NOT as good as what preceded it, but considering the pitfalls that plague so many follow-up records this one is plenty enchanting on its own. Audiences agreed as this was nearly as popular, topping out at #5 nationally in Billboard but hitting #1 in New Orleans in the Cash Box territorial listings as well as almost matching that in Los Angeles.
 

Every Place I Know
This review marks the two year anniversary of the website which has presented more than 450 releases over rock’s 25 months (September 1947 – October 1949) for us to study and what’s emerging from that picture is how quickly rock ‘n’ roll developed a deep roster of reliable artists who seemed to bring to the table a potentially bottomless supply of songs in many different stylistic variations that could connect on a wide enough basis to ensure the movement had no stop signs in sight.

That’s the good news in all of this, being ABLE to follow up hits with more hits and that was something that artists were now doing with consistency. No longer on the fringes of the marketplace, rock ‘n’ roll was quickly becoming the mainstream of black music as the 1940’s came to a close and its move onto an even larger stage would be happening sooner than anyone dreamed possible.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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