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MODERN 20-747; APRIL 1950



The internal confidence of an artist at the time of recording is often the best barometer heading into a session that the results will be good.

Of course you still need good songs, a strong band and a sympathetic producer, but so much of a record’s appeal is based on how comfortable the artist is throwing themselves into the performance and that’s much easier to do when you’re feeling as if you’re on top of the world.

In those situations you shed your self-consciousness and don’t hold back your feelings when delivering a mournful ballad and you have no problem projecting the swaggering joy needed for an uptempo track.

When you’re hitting on all cylinders and riding the crest of popularity on the charts, soaking up the applause in the clubs (and indulging in the nightly fringe benefits available after the show) the music you cut at that time almost always comes across as sounding absolutely effortless.


What Did I Do?
One of the more “consistent” artists of rock’s first half dozen years Little Willie Littlefield seems to suffer historically for that consistency in a way, for when his career is filtered through the lens of greatest hits compilations as has been the accepted format for revisiting the past for going on four decades or more by now, it has a tendency to make his records seem unduly repetitive.

In a way that might true, but a lot of that is due merely to a surface impression however as his unique nasal drawl and choppy piano style gives his songs the same feel at first listen, even when the scope of his material ran the gamut from forlorn ballads to eager rockers.

But when you actually go back and pull out each single on its own, separating it from the rest of his output and slotting it alongside all the various crooners, honkers and shouters he was competing with for jukebox spins at the time, then you can start to appreciate his appeal better, as Tell Me Baby helps make clear.

On its surface it’s just an impatient plea to a girl, not particularly insightful lyrically and solid but hardly exceptional musically.

But the way in which each component is utilized for maximum effectiveness within the song – and the way in which records like this contrast to the other concurrent releases – makes it stand out and shows that while Littlefield may never be held aloft as the best rock ‘n’ roll had to offer at any given time, he was something that was arguably even rarer – an artist who was reliably good from one single to the next.

In that context, where you’d get a new Littlefield single – and just two songs at a time – every couple of months, the consistency of his approach is an asset rather than something of a detriment.


I Bring You To A Nightclub
Though this would never be mistaken for one of Littlefield’s “best” sides, it’s perfectly emblematic of the high-octane bar-room rockers he was so comfortable with.

There’s not much of a song here to tell the truth, just a few loosely connected verses to give it some structure but otherwise it’s simply an excuse to let the band churn relentlessly, urging you to get up out of your seat and get down on the dance floor. In fact it wouldn’t be at all surprising if this had been born some night on the road where they just played the same riffing parts for twenty minutes at a time and got a good response to it. In that scenario you can see them cutting it down to size when they got in the studio and maybe sketch out a few words to give it an identity… ya know, drive the title home so you’d know what to look for on a jukebox.

Either way though Tell Me Baby does its job and showcases the band to great effect… at least I assume it’s his road band, as following this October 1949 session he generally was no longer recording with studio ringers, though there’s no personnel listed for this date beyond Willie himself on piano. Whatever the case it sure sounds like a bunch of guys who’ve been road tested because of the loose spontaneous feel they give off throughout it starting with Littlefield’s own hammering piano after the stop-time intro.

Once he delivers his first – of two – short vocal sections, the band falls in behind him in lockstep, horns churning as the rhythm section grinds away with laser-like focus. Aside from Willie who throws in various keyboard tricks, sounding like he’s improvising without ever losing the thread of the melody, the others stick to their simple parts and aside from one horn falling out of key momentarily they’re more than up to the task.

What gives the song its character though comes down to what Little Willie is doing, not just the aforementioned piano workout which shows he was every bit as good as the more celebrated stars of that instrument, but also his vocal textures in their brief appearances which contain a whimsical flair that lifts this beyond even the joy of hearing a top-notch band put out.

The second stanza coming after the first extended break finds him essentially describing the scene we just laid out here – albeit in far more succinct and effective fashion – where he’s addressing his girlfriend after taking her out for a night on the town… to a place just like the one he and the boys in the band have been tearing up.

Her eye-rolling response to this excursion might stem from feeling cheapened by such low-brow surroundings, or she might be peeved if he jumped up on stage and banged out a few tunes for the delight of the audience, but the manner in which he sells her put-down of him – “You tell me I’m outta my mind!” – is done with a smirk that you can practically see as he slyly twists her pronunciation and then drags out the final syllables to let us know he’s taking none of her complaints seriously.

It also has the effect of revealing his personality via those vocal inflections which in the days before music videos (and even widely distributed photographs) allowed fans to get a better sense of who he was. In a way this release was almost like a keepsake from that type of night out, where all you’d otherwise have to remember his show was your fleeting memories of it before the passage of time erased even those.

Hot As I Can Find
Records like this might fall through the cracks – even more so on those career compilations probably – but while it comes across as something of a throwaway track, an impression Modern Records likely shared since they were drawing his singles from later sessions than this and may have just stuck this on to get it off the shelf and to off-set the ballad on the flip side, it nevertheless holds up well under scrutiny. One listen and you can sense just how much he was enjoying being a star.

It may not be a brilliant record, something designed to show off his compositional and arranging skills, but then again it isn’t trying to be. Yet as a window into what Little Willie Littlefield was all about as an artist, a teenager already playing hundreds of dates on the road a year, Tell Me Baby offers us a rare glimpse of that nightly grind, where the crowds flocked to see him in a world that otherwise is gone forever.

Since that’s where even the best selling rock artists were earning the majority of their money and fame, where their reputations were being made and where they needed to meet their audiences expectations in the heat of moment every single night, the more sides like this we can get to hear the better we’re able to understand their appeal.


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