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MODERN 20-726; DECEMBER, 1949



Making music for money is a fairly simple concept for both artists and the record labels they’re under contract to.

Companies are searching for an artist who has the ability to craft as much original material as possible which either successfully adapts a currently popular sound, or better still, ones who have the ability to shape tomorrow’s popular sounds themselves.

Success – and failure – in these pursuits are usually determined by the record charts… based on aggregate sales and radio play, or particularly in 1949 in the field of rock ‘n’ roll, on jukebox spins.

Heading down the stretch in the last few months of the Nineteen Forties few rock artists were hotter than teenaged sensation Little Willie Littlefield, but just how hot might be a matter of conjecture when it comes to how the history books will record it.


Why Did You Sail Away?
One of the anticipated obstacles to covering the earliest days of rock ‘n’ roll for this convoluted project known as Spontaneous Lunacy centered around the available information regarding the reception to many of these releases. The prevailing wisdom had always been the Nineteen Forties wasn’t a period of much change, as the Crosbys and Comos ruled without any challenges to their thrones. But that era was on its deathbed as soon as rock sprang into the world back in 1947 and if you had looked for signs of that transfer of power in the late Forties you’d have easily seen it, provided you knew just where to look.

But therein lies the problem because the dominant resource for trying to determine what was popular has always been Billboard magazine.

Founded in 1894 and still going strong today it’s only natural that such a long lived and (mostly) trusted source of tracking the entertainment world be used as the definitive primary source material for anyone interested in accurately pegging the commercial tastes of the nation. The magazine of course changed its focus over the years, starting off as a way to cover billboard advertising – hence the name – which was then the primary means of exposure for selling products. In time the magazine shifted its coverage to burlesque shows, carnivals, vaudeville and circuses, anything where you measured success in terms of patrons rather than products basically. But then by the 1930’s it added music, which was part product (record sales) and part patrons (jukebox spins).

In time the music industry grew exponentially while the vaudeville and circus trades fell off once radio and then television made them seem like quaint forms of entertainment leftover from another time and by the 1960’s Billboard was focused almost entirely on records as its remained ever since.


The methodology for determining their charts have changed with time, as it went from initially being provided as a service for jukebox operators to know which records had the best potential for “pulling coin”, which was the purpose of their record reviews with their numerical grades. But it also let those distributors know which records were already scoring big, which is where the charts came in. As rock ‘n’ roll dawned the overwhelming clientele for the magazine were those who peddled their wares in white communities which meant the magazine had little reason to try and accurately gauge the tastes of a decidedly small and completely segregated faction of the American listener whom most of their readers would never deal with.

When they did see fit to expand further into that field by the late 1940’s, boosting their newly named R&B charts from five to ten and eventually fifteen spots, they made the fatal mistake of using the same mainstream pop music retail outlets and their white distributors rather than recruit new sources that dealt exclusively with the black market. So naturally looking back today at what Billboard magazine deemed hits in 1949 in black America you’re getting a highly distorted picture, one which not surprisingly tends to favor older, established acts which had a modicum of crossover appeal to reach middle America, those whose records theoretically could mingle on the jukeboxes and turntables with more “respectable” white acts.

Rock artists still made these charts, and by 1949 were hitting the top of those charts with increasing regularity, but it was still just the cream of a very deep crop that were getting the official recognition for their success. Meanwhile many of the rock acts which were among the most consistently popular within the actual community who bought their records barely had that status reflected on the pages of Billboard magazine.

Little Willie Littlefield got more respect there than most, notching two Top Ten hits with his first two releases on Modern Records, It’s Midnight making #3 and its follow-up Farewell hitting the #5 spot, albeit just in a two week stint. But that’s where Littlefield’s popularity, if you believe Billboard, sort of dried up. Going by those figures it’d be easy to come to conclusion that it was the first hit that audiences clamored for and eagerly awaited his next release only to find it lacking, jumping off it right away. After that it’d appear that they simply gave up on him, figuring he’d caught lightning in the bottle that first time around and they might as well just move on to someone else.

The truth of the matter however is that Littlefield was just as popular as ever with the rock crowd and he had the hits to prove it… in Cash Box, the OTHER industry trade paper where The Moon Is Rising was Willie’s fourth straight huge hit, reigning in the Top Ten in such far flung locales as New Orleans (#2), Los Angeles (#8), Baltimore (#7) and Seattle (#10), a fact which significantly alters the way history should record Littlefield’s career achievements as well as how it should treat the broader reception to the rock phenomenon as a whole.

Oh Tell Me Baby
Not to belabor the point too much, but just so no one is wondering what the pictures represent… the first is Billboard’s review of The Moon Is Risin’ where the scores themselves are pretty tepid (70 is about the lowest you could get and still be moderately recommended, 85 and up were for the records that they deemed surefire hits), and their comments about it are outright dismissive, saying it’s a record with “no particular distinction“.

The second picture shows how highly Cash Box thought of it, giving it their weekly award for the best release they reviewed, and in the accompanying write-up saying that both sides were “sizzling hot” and that his “vocals are nothing less than sensational“.

Therein lies the difference of perspective which made one publication out of touch and gave the other credibility with independent labels specializing in rock.

Which side do we agree with on this record? C’mon, what do you think?

Little Willie Littlefield doesn’t quite achieve perfection here but he comes pretty damn close even if you want to suggest that The Moon Is Rising is somewhat generic in its intent. The story line may be slightly derivative of It’s Midnight, which has a similar setting – the middle of the night – as well as a similar mood, despondent but determined to overcome it – yet in many ways this is a more streamlined version of that prototype which shows his growing ease in the studio.

For starters it’s cut at a faster clip, not uptempo but a steady pace which thrusts the listener into the heart of the song right away and then immediately hits you with an infectious melody carried by both Littlefield’s piano intro before he switches off to playing triplets behind his vocals, and the horns which respond to the vocals with an catchy concise riff. All of the musical elements are in lockstep here, from the guitar’s slithering lines in the cracks which have great tone in addition to their quirky construction, to the mesmerizing sax solo which doesn’t exactly stand out but rather fits in so seamlessly with everything else that your focus never drifts for so much as a second. It’s as good of a backing track for a Littlefield song as we’ve encountered and could stand on its own without even requiring him to open his mouth.

Unfortunately we don’t know just who accompanied Littlefield on this date which also produced Merry Xmas, so we could waste everybody’s time speculating on what session aces it could be – basically look up all of the Los Angeles-based companies, we’ve covered extensively to date, Aladdin, Supreme and Modern, and peruse those reviews for clues, but your guess is as good as mine – or we could just say that whoever it was they’re hitting on all cylinders and their playing is as tight as anything you’d care to hear in rock ‘n’ roll circa 1949.

Seems Just Like The Day Before
Now here’s where we have to sort of knock some of the luster off the compliments, although I admit I’m somewhat uncertain as to WHY I feel the need to do this.

Upon signing with Modern back in early summer Littlefield cut a number of sessions for the company, far more than most independent labels would see fit to schedule. Let’s face it, record companies weren’t exactly known for extravagance, in fact most of them weren’t known for shelling out for a few sodas for the band on a sweltering day in a studio without air conditioning, so why Modern had Littlefield record five full sessions before the year was out is something nobody can likely answer.

But not all of what they recorded was issued and not because it wasn’t releasable but it seems more as if a lot of what Littlefield laid down would fall under the heading of “works in progress”. Not quite demos – songs with an unfinished quality, maybe no horns on the date or lots of stops and starts as they try and figure out the tempo and who does what in the breaks – but rather these were completed takes on songs but it’s just that the songs were remarkably similar in sound and structure to one another, almost as if he were trying each one on for size.

This particular song bears a striking resemblance to one cut back in July called “Blues At Sundown”, so much so that someone, either Modern themselves or Ace Records who issued Littlefield’s complete Modern catalog, outtakes and all, put The Moon Is Rising in parenthesis after that song’s title.

Now it is NOT the same song, not by a long shot. It has totally different lyrics for one thing, and not bad lyrics at that, and the intro we get here is nowhere to be found on that one, but it’s essentially the same blueprint. Yes, the house they wound up building (this song) wound up in a better neighborhood with a better view and more expensive landscaping, but the floor plan is pretty damn close. A different layout in the kitchen perhaps and maybe a patio was put on this one, but Littlefield is definitely recycling ideas, especially musically.


This wasn’t his only attempt at such a song either, he cut a tune they called “Just Before Sunrise” at some point to (it’s on the Ace reissue but they don’t have a recording date for it, though it clearly was cut during those initial handful of 1949 sessions) and it too shares the thematic and melodic signposts that this record does.

So here’s the question: Considering those efforts weren’t issued until decades later when these tracks were exhumed for a collection of all his Modern sides, can we really hold it against him, or even the Bihari brothers who owned Modern Records, for exploring the same basic ideas and then choosing the one which worked best?

Make no mistake about it, The Moon Is Risin’ is definitely the best of all of these, despite some garbled lyrics by Littlefield which have to count against it in the final analysis just a little since we do like to have some idea what the singer is singing. But production wise this is top shelf stuff and so it’s more our nagging reluctance to go wild over anything which isn’t altogether original that forms the basis of our criticism, even though for record buyers who never heard those “alternate” attempts in 1949 this was indeed original enough for their tastes.

I Hope And Pray That You’ll Come Back To Me
Maybe we’d think of it differently if all of the “versions” had the same titles, same lyrics and were just noted as “first take, second take”, or something along those lines, even if they were cut at different sessions. But the fact that he kept revisiting a song that was clearly built from the same materials suggests he wasn’t only trying to scratch a particular itch he couldn’t quite reach but rather he might’ve still been limited in coming up with something completely new.

This shouldn’t be surprising, after all, Little Willie was still a teenager who was thousands of miles from home and had a lot more expectations to meet than he’d faced back in Texas when he was recording for makeshift companies with people as equally inexperienced as he was. Now he was in the big time and that’d have to be a little daunting for someone who for all we know was crying himself to sleep at night in some fleabag hotel – do you really think the Birharis were putting him up at the Ritz? – because he was homesick.

So when looked at like that it becomes a little easier to understand his revisiting something he knew was worth pursuing until he got it right. Though the lyrical mishmash keeps it from reaching its full potential it’s close enough for our tastes to agree with Cash Box’s assessment and provides us with yet another sign that Littlefield hadn’t just gotten lucky with his rapid ascent to stardom but that he was in the process of justifying that acclaim each time out.


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