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MODERN 20-801; FEBRUARY 1951



Sometimes really good artists fall into creative ruts wherein they know what works for them and are trying to repeat their success without merely recycling their old ideas, but they tweak the formula rather than overhaul it, knowing they can get by with that.

It’s not laziness, more like sluggishness, churning out songs to fill a need before having turn around and write and sing another one… and another… and another.

This is one that falls into that category. Perfectly acceptable, yet markedly uninspired.


Please Come Back
Right off the bat I should say that this record is hardly awful by any means and I feel bad in a way to be so unmoved by it, especially as there are a few new components that are brought to the forefront here in an effort to make this stand out.

But while all of it is reasonably well done those highlighted parts are a curious combination of attributes that almost can’t decide what style the song belongs to and as a result instead of pulling you in it winds up keeping you at arm’s distance instead.

At first glance Once Was Lucky as another of Little Willie Littlefield’s langorous ballads, a style which always finds him veering perilously close to Amos Milburn territory. Willie usually does this sort of thing fairly well, despite his nasal tone being less inviting than Milburn’s soulful voice, yet maybe in an effort to distance him from that comparison – or maybe just looking for a way to distance this particular record from his own past efforts – the record quickly takes on the characteristics of a few other genres besides rock balladry.

The first is cocktail blues, something that most piano based rockers slowing things down have to contend with at times, Milburn included. But there are ways to ensure you don’t fall prey to that style if you choose, just as there are ways to inch closer to it if you prefer and here they take the latter route via the arrangement with its halting pacing combined with Littlefield’s light piano accents and the reflective guitar fills.

Well, actually SOME of the guitar fills, such as when Willie is singing and which are right out of the Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers school of music. But when Littlefield he steps aside completely the guitar suddenly takes on a far different quality, that of an urban electric bluesman. Though not played as aggressively as we normally associate with that genre, its distinctive harsher tone still sounds almost jarring in the midst of this otherwise far more tranquil setting.

The biggest problem isn’t any of those choices specifically, but rather all of those choices collectively in that it’s a record that never fully embraces any of these three identities for long, trying instead to give time to each of them and hope they balance out somehow. Instead each of those qualities push back against the other differing elements, negating them in the process and never allowing it to create a seamless performance.


Love Just Wasn’t True
Maybe some of this mild stylistic schizophrenia in the arrangement wouldn’t matter as much if the song itself was stronger and had a more distinct personality, but instead there’s hardly any insight into the character he’s portraying beyond his overall despondency because the girl he loved has left.

His sadness is genuine, there’s no questioning the emotional baggage he’s carrying, but Once Was Lucky is so lyrically barren that it comes across more like a man muttering to himself when he thinks nobody can hear him, making this an unsettling act of voyeurism to be listening to him moan about it.

It doesn’t help that he’s not very eloquent when trying to put his feelings into words, in one stanza rhyming “her” with “her” and “her” – no not three different girls, that would at least be interesting, but rather he can’t come up with another word to finish off each line and as a result what was supposed to be poignant sounds unrefined, like they were placeholder lyrics waiting for a final re-write that never took place.

It’s more of a concept than a finished song in many ways and the arrangement may in fact be designed to try and cover that up, but instead only serves to highlight its thematic shortcomings.

That being said though Littlefield does have a few nice moments vocally along the way, subtle though they may be … such as the way he repeats the phrase “Oh yes… oh yeh-es” as if the reality of losing her sunk in between the two expressions. He goes on to repeat another phrase at the end but in a different way, now sounding increasingly exasperated as he states “And now… and NOW… I’ve lost you”, adding far more melodic interest to what was otherwise a pretty lethargic delivery.

But those are merely nice momentary touches, not anything to elevate a record that seems curiously devoid of inspiration for the most part, content to to be serviceable but never striving to be memorable.

I Have Lost You
For what this was intended to be – nothing more than a B-side in a different vein to the pairing of Littlefield and Laura Wiggins on the top half – there’s not too much to get really upset about here.

Once Was Lucky is one of those records you never get any strong feelings for one way or another. It’s good enough not to hate, yet indistinct enough not to worry about skipping over.

It’s hard to say they were just going through the motions but it’s easy to see that nobody involved really had much enthusiasm for it either, which means everything about the record brings you to the same inevitable conclusion… that of casual indifference.

If a record drops in a forest and there’s nobody there who cares one way or another, does it make a sound?

Probably not.


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