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Sometimes nobody in the wider public seems to have any sense of the pending impact of future luminaries in the music world. Their early records come and go with a surprising lack of attention being paid to their potential.

But at other times those who will soon go on to make quite a name for themselves find a receptive audience right away… despite a lack of polish in their work.

Since Little Willie Littlefield is already well-established with a number of big hits to his name you might think this intro is for the wrong record, but it’s not the artist we’re talking about, it’s two soon-to-be wunderkind songwriters who got an early regional hit with this despite it being rather underwhelming.


Standing By My Window
Like most widely known histories of legendary figures in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll the formative years of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have more or less been reduced to no more than a paragraph or two in which they meet, find they share musical tastes and compliment each other’s strengths (Jerry writes lyrics while Mike is the trained musician) and quickly churn out a few songs that get recorded by a bunch of familiar names – Jimmy Witherspoon, The Robins, Bull Moose Jackson, Charles Brown – all artists who’d had hits before.

When Brown scored a national hit in early 1952 with the duo’s Hard Times, the first chapter on Leiber and Stoller generally comes to a close as those telling their story can’t wait to jump right into the more familiar headlines beginning with their first chart topper with Big Mama Thornton.

What that Cliff notes edition of their biography misses however is the most interesting part of their entire story… the road to the top which is achieved only through trial and error, the incremental advances and subsequent retreats and the gradual honing of their craft which got them to that next stage.

Yes, their talent was evident right from the very start, but that talent was largely unfocused and their efforts were far less refined than their later reputation would attest. This is natural of course, doing anything well requires time, patience and experience, but to gloss over that period just to speed up to the narrative so people can read about their subsequent success does them a disservice… and frankly the hits are the boring part of the tale because there’s little fresh insight after a half century or more of scrupulous attention being paid those songs.

So while Lump In My Throat (Tears In My Eyes) is far less remembered than a string of classics for The Robins, The Coasters, Elvis Presley and The Drifters… or for that matter one-off successes for Thornton, Peggy Lee and yeah, Little Willie Littlefield… or rather Wilbert Harrison taking his cue from Littlefield… this song is every bit as vital in understanding what it was Leiber and Stoller were after from the start and how in mid-1951 it was still just out of their reach.

The Graveyard Is Calling
If this was conceived as a mood piece it owes much of its success in that realm to Maxwell Davis who gives it an arrangement that is virtually ALL atmosphere, which is another way of saying the song doesn’t have a real identity beyond its rather basic structure and theme.

But while that may be the impression the finished product gives, the evidence suggests Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller viewed Lump In My Throat (Tears In My Eyes) as more of a cocktail blues pastiche, albeit one with only a few hints at creativity in the margins. Whichever was the thinking here, the fact remains that neither approach was ideally suited for someone like Littlefield who was at his best with jittery rhythms or a more laid-back soulful croon.

Here he has to adopt a more weary ragged tone than usual which fits the despair of the lyrics, but while he delivers a yeoman effort to convey these feelings there’s just not enough for him to sink his teeth into beyond that dour outlook. For starters he’s been handed a song that’s more of a sketch outline of a scenario rather than an actual plot and so to compensate its lack of story Maxwell Davis is forced to frame it in a way that masks that fact by using reams of space between lines in the absence of additional information.

Maybe to some that sparse aura interspersed with Willie’s sad moans comes across as deeply profound, a sense of overbearing grief being projected in minimalist fashion, but when the only specifics we get concerns a description of his shack rather than the cause of the split or the attributes of the woman in question, it’s clear the failure here falls on the songwriters, not the producer, singer or musicians, all of whom prop this up as much as possible.

It’s just not a very deep song as written, even if the emotional crux seems monumental as the dramatic reveal of Willie contemplating suicide was clearly what this was centered around. Ironically though that is the only spot where Davis’s arrangement lets the song down, failing to give this the kind of musical impact Leiber and Stoller were surely anticipating. The problem however is even had it gotten a more powerful set up and follow through the line itself rings hollow without any supporting evidence as to why we should care about this guy and his anonymous ex-girlfriend.

They had an entire song to paint a compelling picture and instead gave us a mostly blank canvas in return… or rather a canvas with grey skies and ominous black clouds but no landscape or figures to focus on. All mood, no details.


Only One Thing Left
In the annals of rock history few if any songwriters stand as tall as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, but as this record – and other early misfires show – they reached that plateau only after falling short numerous times.

What was crucial in their development was learning the right lessons from records like Lump In My Throat (Tears In My Eyes), a decent idea in creating a memorable mood to be carried out by a great artist and the best producer in the business. How could it miss?

Well, it could miss by skimping on the nuts and bolts of the song, the little things that bring a story to life, things that Leiber the lyricist would eventually do as well as anyone ever, while the musical side Stoller contributed would bolster those details along the way.

Instead this was something of a hollow record which was made modestly acceptable thanks to Davis’s sublime arrangement with its haunting guitar, his own distant sax and creeping piano and Littlefield’s investment in the shallow sentiments he’s provided.

They might’ve been satisfied when this stirred interest on the West Coast – surely thanks to Littlefield’s reputation – and considered it a success, but by recognizing its shortcomings Leiber and Stoller became more determined to refine it the next time out, shoring up their deficiencies, maintaining their focus on every aspect of the composition rather than stopping short after hitting on just one or two key facets, and in the end making sure that every song they submitted on paper was in essence a fully produced record just waiting to be put on wax.

It’s a creative failure maybe, but a productive one as sometimes in life you have to trip and fall a few times before you can regain your footing and move forward.


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