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And so he leaves Modern Records the same way as he entered… classy, understated and with a song that perfectly exhibits his talents.

Never flashy, Little Willie Littlefield was nonetheless a captivating singer, songwriter and pianist who was bolstered by the impeccable production and playing of Maxwell Davis for three years of solid, sometimes spectacular, output.

While the hits may have been sporadic, his catalog was filled with perfectly executed minor gems like this throughout his tenure at the label.

But as the saying goes, always leave them wanting more.

The Clock Is Striking Midnight
You gotta love the irony with how this one opens up.

Back in the summer of 1949 Little Willie Littlefield had left the tiny Eddie’s Records label, a company in Houston which had been started specifically to feature the underaged singer, and he landed at Modern Records in Los Angeles where he immediately scored what would turn out to be his biggest hit – It’s Midnight (No Place To Go) – a brilliant record that some wise insightful writer – ok, me – said “it stands as one of the best compositions of 1940’s rock”.

It’s doubtful that Littlefield knew when recording today’s effort that it was going to become his final released side on Modern Records but when you hear how he starts it off you wonder if there wasn’t some musical sprite on his shoulder in the studio who was having a little fun at the label’s expense…

“Well the clock is striking midnight… and it’s Too Late For Me“.

The fact that he’s delivering this in such a straight-forward manner rather than tinged with bittersweet remorse over his breakup – with a girl in the song, not a record company in real life – almost makes it more satisfying to hear while imagining the vile Braun Brothers gnashing their teeth over losing their star.

But within the song itself Littlefield’s detached manner adds a different layer to the story, showing that while he’s expressing sadness over his own loss, he’s already on the road to emotional renewal just by dealing with it head-on.

Of course this fits into his well-established persona – a laid back cat who rolls with the punches in life. Few in rock were able to strike this balance so effectively as Willie, revealing the depth of his feelings without having to overemote simply to convince you those feelings are genuine.

With Maxwell Davis at the helm naturally this is a little easier to pull off, as his saxophone lends the right melancholy vibe to the proceedings while still supplying the melodic touches necessary to keep the song flowing seamlessly from one section to the next.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t give a shout-out to the guitarist whose alternately playing accent notes and a slinky, almost erotic, lead-line well back in the mix but which gives the arrangement even more depth alongside Littlefield’s hypnotic piano.

They might not be breaking any new ground here, but when you’ve been at it for as long as they have, the formula is so tried and true that to deviate from it now, as Little Willie is walking out the door, would be foolish. It’s too good not to want to trot it out one last time and take a final bow.


Can’t Depend On No One Else
Since the theme behind the reviews of both sides of this stellar final single on Modern is Littlefield’s departure from the label maybe it’s only fair that we provide a wider angle shot of the scene before he leaves.

As much as we hate looking ahead and divulging what is to come down the road for any artist still in their prime with many more releases to come over another decade or more of records, we already did allude to the fact that he would never score another national hit once he left Modern Records. That would seem to indicate that maybe it wasn’t the wisest of moves to make for his career, despite the fact that the Biharis routinely stole writing credit – though not here – and were not in the habit of paying royalties unless absolutely forced to.

This was always the Catch-22 that all artists employed by independent labels in the 1950’s had to face. They were all criminals – or most of them were anyway, even the most celebrated ones – and often times the only difference between labels was how brazen the theft would be.

At Modern they made no bones about their underhanded methods, for any time the names Josea, Taub or Ling appeared in the writing credits they were taking a cut of a song in which they hadn’t contributed a single note or word to the record.

Other companies meanwhile simply took the publishing for themselves, not bothering to inform the artists that this was not standard practice… or at least could be avoided if the artist/songwriter filed it themselves under their own names. Both are dishonest, but the latter is a little more subtle.

But while it doesn’t offset any of these unsavory practices, Modern Records always had very high artistic standards, making sure the records were mastered properly, promoted well and adhered to a sensible release schedule that balanced the demand for new material with admirable restraint so as not to oversaturate the market.

On top of it all they had Maxwell Davis working for them and wherever else Little Willie Littlefield went he was never going to find a more sympathetic co-worker in the studio.

As a result songs like Too Late For Me which on paper may have been fairly redundant stylistically in relation to his past efforts, sounded no less vibrant thanks to the quality musicians Davis regularly worked with and how well-crafted his arrangements were each time out.

Nobody found more ways to subtlety draw out different elements in each record to keep them sounding fresh and with Littlefield’s songwriting matching these changes every step of the way, the two of them could’ve conceivably carried on for years without risking a drastic drop-off in their output.

Ultimately we don’t know why Littlefield left Modern at this point in time… whether it was Federal Records offering a more lucrative deal, or Willie getting tired of the Biharis always sticking their hands in his pockets.

But what we do know is that while he would continue to make some really good records wherever else he went, his absolute best days were over as soon as he walked out of their studio for the final time. If there’s one thing both sides could agree on, it was sure good while it lasted.


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