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MODERN 20-837; SEPTEMBER 1951

 
 

 

There are artists who are the artistic equivalent of typhoons, unleashing raging storms of music which act like tidal waves on the charts and the rock landscape as a whole, their records crashing ashore with amazing destructive power and you sit back in awe at the force they possess.

But then there are those like Little Willie Littlefield who are more like the ocean when there are no storms brewing, seeming calm from a distance but which churn under the surface day after day, changing the topography of the shore gradually over time.

Maybe that’s not the best analogy, especially if you don’t see an ocean other than on an occasional vacation, but when you listen to just how consistently good Littlefield is each time out while rarely knocking you over in the process, maybe it starts to make sense.
 

 

I Asked For Some Lovin’
When a good artist works with a great producer – especially one who tends to be slightly ignored in the broader history books that seem to establish canon in this genre – we try and make amends by pointing out their role each time out just so their name and contributions aren’t lost to time.

But in a way, admirable as it hopefully comes across as being, it may have the unfortunate side effect of downplaying or undervaluing the artist in question, making them seem little more than a beneficiary of the gifts of an extraordinary talent behind the scenes.

I’m not sure that’s happened around here with Little Willie Littlefield, but I do know that we haven’t skimped on offering praise for Maxwell Davis, as we’ve constantly referenced him in so many of our encounters with his work as being “the best rock producer” of his time… not to mention one of the best songwriters and sax players too.

Sure enough, Davis oversees Mean Mean Woman too and chips in with some beautifully understated melodic sax parts here as well.

But as good as Davis’s playing, production and arranging is here, maybe this time around we should focus on the guy singing and playing piano on a song he wrote himself which is so effortlessly captivating that it’d be hard to imagine any producer, no matter how incompetent, screwing it up.

Then again, in 1951 that’s a risky thing to say, so we’re glad Maxwell Davis is here, but in the process let’s not forget that as long as Littlefield was coming up with songs like this, he must’ve been a dream to work with.
 

Don’t Mean No One Man No Good
With its trance-like boogie progression on the keys, Little Willie has got you in his hip pocket before anything else falls into place and I’m sure he knows it too. It seems very laid back but it’s got a sneaky quick pace to it, the seemingly contradictory attributes making it all the more intoxicating.

Of course as alluring as it is, the arrangement is not resting entirely on Willie’s shoulders, as Davis is present and is making sure the piano isn’t left out to dry, as the crisp drumming and subtle guitar licks are adding spice beneath the flavor of the main lines. But clearly the focus is on the piano, especially once Littlefield starts tossing in melodic right hand flourishes as he launches into the meat of the song.

Much like the musical backdrop, Mean Mean Woman uses two divergent approaches to create some natural tension that goes down smooth. On one hand you have the lyrics, which find Little Willie complaining about his woman. They’re very well crafted and though it uses a very simple structure the lines themselves are always exquisitely chosen.

Yet rather than come off as either whining or vindictive as so many songs of this nature have a tendency to be, Littlefield’s demeanor is slyly dismissive of her, almost as if he’s saying these things not as a form of retribution, but more as a way to gently mock her.

That lighthearted vibe elevates the song in the process, almost as if you the listener are a part of the community they both belong to and thus know her flaws – and her benefits which offset those deficiencies enough to keep Littlefield by her side – in a way that makes this sort of a Saturday morning barbershop discussion set to some addictive grooves.

Of course those grooves are where both Littlefield and Davis deserve kudos, as Willie’s left hand is rock solid, the melody is catchy and his piano skills are first rate, adding just enough flair to be interesting without trying to dominate your impression of the song.

Meanwhile Davis’s sax lines are the epitome of discretion, never playing four notes when three will do, changing up the lines each time so there’s always something new to admire and yet, like his partner here, resisting the urge to take over the track. Even his solo is modest by nature, sharing space with Willie’s piano and making the entire record one of that works by sort of musical insinuation rather than loudly declaring its intentions from the start.
 


 

Trouble To My Neighborhood
These are the records that are the terra firma of the entire rock genre… solid, level and able to endure any seasonal changes that come along.

When Little Willie Littlefield started out these soulful piano cuts were a far bigger piece of the commercial puzzle, taking what Amos Milburn – and Davis producing him – had established and offering a slightly different twist to it.

The competing styles within rock back then were more flamboyant at times (the litany of honking sax instrumentals storming the charts) but also more basic (the largely unadorned vocal group records of a handful of acts), and while some solo singers wailed, shouted and boasted their way to fame and glory, guys like Littlefield seemed perfectly comfortable sidling up next to you and seducing you with a minimum of effort.

Now the landscape has changed and with the music becoming more complex, the vocal techniques becoming more varied and the roster of viable artists becoming ever deeper, guys like Littlefield somehow have remained just as vital as ever.

The reason for this is simple… Mean Mean Woman is an enduring sound, one perfectly suited for late 1951, but not that far removed from late his approach in 1949 either.

Some artists and some styles are timeless. Their popularity may ebb and flow, but artists with this kind of consistency, reliability and steadily applied force over time often wind up shaping eras every bit as much as those who send huge waves crashing down on the shore every so often.

Littlefield’s comercial peak may be over, but his musical peak never really subsided. Like the tide he’ll be at it again tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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