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MODERN 20-775; SEPTEMBER 1950

 
 

 

More modest than yesterday’s offering, yet more focused as a result. Far less explosive in its presentation but more lyrically sound. Not as much of an instrumental showcase for he or the band, yet maybe the restraint they play with highlights their abilities just as well.

Ideally uptempo songs vs. ballads should never be reduced to a competition, but rather should serve to compliment one another, increasing an artist’s diversity while giving audiences two distinct options.

That they wind up each fulfilling their respective duty fairly equally only makes it easier to stay out of trouble when everyone starts choosing sides.
 

 

From Side To Side
In some ways neither side might be indicative of where Little Willie Littlefield was creatively heading into the fall of 1950 as both of these songs were pulled from a December 1949 session. But since that was precisely when he was in the midst of his greatest run – and when at the same date he laid down one of his best tracks of the new year, Rockin’ Chair Mama – you’d think this would mean we’d be getting vintage Littlefield magic.

Instead both this and Hit The Road are merely good, not great, examples of a prototypical sound for the teenage wunderkind, a rapid-fire workout on the other side that substitutes excitement for cohesion amidst a fantastic multi-faceted backing track, and here on Trouble Around Me more of the laid back sleepy eyed troubadour that was channeled directly from Amos Milburn.

In fact this owes a good deal early on to a two… now three… year old Milburn track, My Love Is Limited in its melodic structure before thankfully deviating from that so as to avoid any lawsuits. Had it stuck to that blueprint and wound up in court however it would’ve fun to watch Modern Records label owner Jules Bihari, who stole half the writing credit under his Taub pseudonym, try explaining to the judge which parts of the song the musically incompetent thief “wrote”.

What Littlefield himself crafted from those origins though holds up pretty well, even if it’s not aspiring for much more than a facsimile sound with its jittery piano triplets, steady time-keeping drums and soulful mellow tenor sax interjections that faithfully replicates Maxwell Davis’s work behind Milburn.

That Davis himself may have been overseeing the session leads to the possibility that it was he who handled the chore (if not then it was surely Buddy Floyd), but regardless that type of sax, languid and offhandedly suggestive in its own unique way, is always a welcome presence on any record, giving this a soothing feeling the more it plays.

Littlefield of course contributes to that aura vocally, utilizing his breathier tone which negates some of his technical limitations when it comes to projection. He sounds fine here, slyly charming, as if he’s holding something back just for his own amusement, and if few of his vocal mannerisms are original, at least he’s imitating the best song stylist in all of rock.

None of that would mean too much however unless the composition was up for the task and though something that relies so heavily on standard cliches can’t be called first rate material, it’s judicious enough in what images it cherry picks to allow it to serve as a good primer course for ambiguous rock ballads of the era in case someone was late in dropping in to the party.
 


 

Just A Mule To Ride
Songs built lyrically on generalities rarely step wrong because they’re covering such familiar terrain but they also rarely take advantage of that level surface to try and outrun their modest aims.

At least here they don’t reduce each thought to merely a blurb as Littlefield did on the top side, which allows you to follow along with a little more confidence of the direction you’re headed this time around and thanks to the vague mystery he’s laying out you’ll pay slightly more attention to the details along the way.

The slow pace draws out the suspense and you wish the lines had better payoffs to make it worth the wait, but if you can’t guess the punchlines from the set-ups then you haven’t been listening to enough records.

That being said though Trouble Around Me benefits mightily from the way in which Willie sells it. He seems almost unsure about the tempo at times until you realize it’s intentional as he senses the song could use a little help in putting it across, so he pulls out an array of stutter step moves, hesitations and crossovers to keep you slightly off-balance.

But it’s the interaction with the saxophone which provides the most character here, as that acts almost like a second voice, sometimes agreeing with Littlefield bemoaning his fate, other times dissenting, or at least questioning him, and the back and forth exchange becomes the defining characteristic of the song.

Essentially this is one of those paint by numbers jobs all good artists had in their bag of tricks, something they could use to fill out a studio date or play as the first song after an intermission at a club when half the crowd was still at the bar, in the bathroom or trying to get some girl’s phone number while the girl was trying to see if there was a back door to this joint so she can avoid the wolf pack of guys hitting on her.

In that scenario a song like this would alert everyone that the show was underway, that they should wrap up their conversations, settle up their tab and zip up their fly to be ready for when things got really heated five or ten minutes down the pike.

They weren’t meant to be the kind of song people would remember but had to be good enough that they didn’t forget they were being played altogether and walk out.

Admittedly not very ambitious but well executed all the same.
 

Nobody To Call My Own
What’s strange about this single is the decision to pair up two good, but unexceptional, sides together, virtually assuring that neither one is strong enough to sell the record in big enough numbers to make it a hit.

The fact you had a frantic uptempo cut and a more measured ballad sharing the same release was logical enough and something to modestly commend Modern Records for figuring out, but one of the two has to be significantly better to get it noticed.

Trouble Around Me would’ve made a great B-side to something even better, but you could say the same for Hit The Road as well. So that adds up to two really strong B-sides, or two slightly subpar A-sides, take your pick.

That they were both ten months old on top of this means that this single, while a good overall buy for fans of fast or slow alike, was still something of a missed opportunity to keep him within hailing distance of the top spot in the field.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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