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MODERN 20-726; DECEMBER, 1949



For all of the success of horror movies through the years, the popularity of spooky bedtime stories while growing up and the long lines of patrons awaiting to board some terrifying, death-defying amusement park ride, human beings don’t REALLY like to be genuinely frightened… they only like to brace themselves for the possibility that they will face some dreadful fate in a controlled environment where chances are the actor you’re watching won’t in fact leap off the movie screen and stab you through the heart, nor will the headless horseman in the kid’s story abscond with the spellbound four year old who insisted you read it to him again before going to sleep.

As for the insane roller coaster rides hurtling you through twists and turns at 200 MPH, or those teeter-totter agents of death that tilt you on an axis on the top of skyscrapers which are contractually obligated to make you lose your lunch on the poor unfortunate soul sitting one row ahead of you right before passing into unconsciousness, chances are when you wake up from that nightmarish idea of fun you’ll be goofily telling your friends about it in glowing terms when you’re back on solid ground.

But being genuinely frightened because you DON’T know the outcome, one which isn’t plotted by other people for your entertainment but are left to haphazard fate and statistical probability are a lot less welcome to say the least.

So there’s a wide range of definitions that can qualify for being frightened and chances are listening to a mere record, even a truly awful record, wouldn’t be too high on anyone’s list.

For Little Willie Littlefield, one of the rising stars in rock ‘n’ roll in 1949, who’d yet to release even a moderately bad record, there was little chance that anyone would be dreading to hear his next offering no matter what unpleasantries its title promised to deliver.


Just When I Believe You
By this point we pretty much know what to expect on a Little Willie Littlefield record, a laconic vocal delivery that can be quite charming following an intro highlighted by Littlefield’s stabbing piano, joined by light drums and a tasteful guitar playing a few simple but fairly mesmerizing licks.

It’s a dreamy ambiance that Frightened conjures up as it almost seems to be fading in as it plays, like you’re gradually picking up a faraway radio station on your dial that grows stronger as you lock in on the frequency. In that sense it works well, and may have even worked better aesthetically had they emphasized this feeling even more by tweaking the control room knobs to create a more exaggerated effect (though doubtless it would’ve backfired commercially in that era for being TOO odd).

Unfortunately that’s the highlight of the track because once they all settle in we’re left with a fairly by-the-numbers record, one that brings nothing new to an old approach.

It’s funny that say “old approach” when discussing a singer who was not yet twenty years old, who’d only been recording for less than two years and had only broken into the national consciousness a few shorts months earlier. How anything he did could’ve already reached a saturation point is a little hard to conceive, but when you release four singles in a span of six months and when most of those were charting records somewhere in America then it becomes a little easier to understand.

But we’ll spare Littlefield the charge of becoming formulaic in his approach because as we said yesterday in the review for the superior – and better received by the public – The Moon Is Risin’, these first few Modern Records sessions seemed to be a case of them trying to get as much of Littlefield down on tape as they could, thereby giving them a lot of bang for their buck. Should nothing he laid down score with audiences they’d still be able to issue plenty of singles in the hopes that each one would help to recoup their investment – and since it really only took about sales of 500 – 1000 records in this era to start turning a small profit that wasn’t the worst business plan.

But if he landed some hits, as Littlefield did right out of the gate with the brilliant It’s Midnight (No Place To Go), then these stockpiled songs would be able to be exploited for maximum benefit while he was riding high, selling in big numbers off name recognition alone.

Though each of those options might’ve ensured Modern Records got a few bucks for their troubles it may not have been best for Littlefield building a diverse portfolio. After all, how many teenagers are coming into the studio with a war chest of material utilizing different tempos, subjects and melodic variations, or for that matter how many session musicians are going to try and work out a dozen different arrangements for all of these songs that he threw in their lap?

Instead had they initially just cut a few of his best offerings, then let him gradually work up some other ideas before tackling those as well, letting him play around with the formula, trying different instrumentation and vocal techniques on for size, road-testing some of them to gauge the audience’s reaction to different approaches, then his early catalog might’ve wound up a lot more diverse. Maybe not as prolific, but with more variety to give you a sense that you hadn’t been down this same road before as you invariably feel when listening to Frightened, a song which qualifies more as a rough sketch than a finished product.


Now That I’ve Got You
The slow dreamy pace the entire record is set at remains effective throughout but Littlefield’s singing doesn’t quite match it. He keeps things in the slow lane but doesn’t yet know how to modulate his voice properly, how to better use natural pauses for effect rather than sounding asthmatic, or worse still artificially drawing out syllables until they’ve lost all meaning just to bridge the melodic gaps in the song.

Though the tone of his voice always sounds good and his delivery remains light and airy at its best moments, bearing down just hard enough when he needs to in order to keep you focused, even tossing in a noticeable throb in his voice at the tail end, he’s not really taking control of the song and imposing his will on it, but rather he’s allowing its structure steer him in the direction it wants him to go.

A good deal of this is due to the fact that Frightened doesn’t make much lyrical sense. Oh, I get the idea that he’s trying to convey some kind of uncertainty with his girl. He’s clearly inexperienced in love and whether that means he’s unsure of himself when it comes to getting intimate (“I’m frightened right here in your arms”), or just him being so crazy about her that it scares him that one person can hold his fate in their hands, you can see that it definitely holds possibilities but unfortunately it’s just not developed enough to really work. It’s a good idea sold short by using too many generalities, indecisive motives and hollow resolutions.

The record still might’ve been able to overcome that by utilizing a mid-song instrumental break to increase the feeling of romantic nervousness – even helplessness – with a more experienced mate, but when the opportunity arises the guitar and piano have no idea where to take this, each one tossing in a few things to fill space and get noticed without adhering to any conceptual plan.

The lack of a smoky tenor sax here is really unforgivable and leads you to think that this was an early run through of something that they all felt would be worked on and revisited at a later time. Fifteen seconds of a Maxwell Davis, or really any qualified sax man, blowing a soft wistful solo that seems to ponder life’s unanswerable questions as it fades into the night air would’ve done wonders for this maybe even overcoming the increasingly aimless lyrics that follow in the second half.

Now we’ll certainly admit that few things in music are worse than instruments being needlessly tossed into the mix when they really have no place just because you happen to have a guitar wizard in the studio, or because someone is complaining they don’t have enough to do in the arrangement, but maybe the greater sin is when something specific is vitally needed and it’s never pulled from the arsenal. So how a saxophone wasn’t used here remains an absolute mystery when the instrument was made for highlighting songs with this kind of pensive mood and subject matter.

Talk about a missed opportunity, this was as obvious as it could get.

All I Can Holler Is Please Don’t
Yet even though we’ve just spent two sections poking holes in the entire record, there’s still something beguiling about Little Willie Littlefield’s way with a song. No matter how slight the composition, no matter how unformed the arrangement of that song may be, when he invests himself emotionally in something he’s still pretty captivating.

There’s no doubt this song would be best heard from a distance, maybe so that you’re even struggling to make out some of the details, particularly his garbled syntax at times, but the point is his voice and piano playing can still draw you in like pollen to a bee.

Those who are a bit more generous than I am might even go so far as to claim that credit should ultimately be given to the Bihari brothers for determining that, as imperfect as it is, Frightened was still worthy of being released and what else are B-sides for but to let such efforts see the light of day, knowing they weren’t meant to carry the single but determining that it was worth releasing all the same?

Yeah, you might have a point but I’ll still disagree because I have a better alternative.

Re-cut it. Tighten up those lyrics, particularly down the stretch and have Littlefield explain his fears with a little more conviction, but also bring in a saxophone, the one instrument this record calls out for, and let it serve two purposes – deliver an appropriate solo to keep you under their spell and to alleviate Littlefield of having to make stretch so many words over three bars of music just so there aren’t any awkward gaps in the song.

If you’d done that you might’ve had something that would be just as likely to score a major hit with as anything he’d released to date because the building blocks used here are already pretty solid. Instead you have an imperfect record that has to rely too much on the singer’s winsome charm to compensate for a few easily correctable mistakes.

You Whisper Goodnight
Record companies at the time generally took a dim view of artistry and saw records simply as products. Yeah, I assume they’d still prefer to have better products because they’d presumably be easier to sell, but they weren’t going to go to great lengths to ensure that what they were issuing worked in every single regard. As long as it worked “well enough” that was generally all they cared about.

So while I agree Frightened works well enough to be listened to more than once it might’ve been transformed into something that could stand with anything Littlefield did over his Modern career with just a little more time spent on getting it right. Considering how short a stint that turned out to be – just about 3 years – you’d think that Modern Records would’ve seen the wisdom in going back to the laboratory one more time and fine tuning it for their benefit as well as his.

But then again a record company that thought in those big picture terms, taking their artists long term best interests into consideration and striving for perfection with each record they issued rather than merely hoping for their short term luck to hold out would be something truly shocking to see… like invaders from outer space landing in the midst of your backyard barbecue and grilling your Aunt Suzy for a snack, or a prehistoric monster rising from the depths of the ocean to devour the residents of Seattle, or radioactive bugs growing in size until they take over downtown Cleveland…

You know, something really frightening.


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