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MODERN 20-747; APRIL 1950



When an artist is on a hot streak it’s something of a surprise when a single comes along in the midst of their run which doesn’t meet with the same elevated commercial response.

But anyone thinking this was a reflection on the content of either side of this record is sorely mistaken… if anything the high quality of this “failed” single only helps to confirm Little Willie Littlefield’s rapidly rising stock as perhaps rock’s most potent artist as 1950 takes shape.


Lead Me On
In the introduction to the review of the equally engaging flip-side, Tell Me Baby, I described Littlefield’s performance there as “effortless” and though this song is approached in a far different manner – sad and wistful rather than cocky and upbeat – the same description applies.

These sides are both delivered with an artistic self-assuredness that’s utterly disarming. On so many songs, even really good ones, we can envision the singer consciously running through the choices they’re making as the cut plays out, instinctively weighing the options and then picking the one which seems to make the most sense in the moment.

Most of the time – we assume – it was far more planned than that, as artists (other than Cecil Gant, the exception to prove every rule) weren’t in the habit of going into the studio with no new material and improvising until they found something that worked. That might happen occasionally for a B-side, the fourth song of a three hour session, but it wasn’t the foundation of their output.

Yet even though the majority of the songs were worked out in advance plenty of really good singers still came across a lot of the time as if the final result was a work in progress… that they were hoping their stylistic choices would meet with approval rather than being entirely confident that they would.

Not so with Littlefield lately, who sounds as if he knew he could do no wrong and as such every vocal inflection and sudden run on the keyboard were carved in stone in his mind. Even the backing band – perhaps his road crew here with a few sessionists, including Buddy Floyd on sax (formerly of Roy Milton’s Solid Senders) thrown in – seemed buoyed by this innate confidence from their 19 year old leader and deliver a multi-layered arrangement without breaking a sweat.

Yet in spite of its class and the serene confidence of all involved Why Leave Me All Alone somehow missed its mark with the public and though the reasons for it might be able to be guessed – not enough of a vocal hook and rather subdued solos that are fitting for the topic and mood but maybe not for the jukebox trade – the record itself doesn’t suffer in the least from the underwhelming response of the public that, up until now anyway, Littlefield held in the palm of his hand.

Mend A Broken Heart
Those horns that open this up, their tone warm and rich, almost oozing out of the speakers like melted chocolate, are one of the cornerstones of 1950’s rock in various guises. They’ll become a ubiquitous sound for awhile, at least until the constant clamor for uptempo songs start nudging these more introspective sides to the back of the stage, but here we get to see why they became such a reliable way to frame a ballad in the first place, as they take you in their arms and hold you close, soothing you before you’re even aware of what lyrical sorrow awaits you when Willie opens his mouth.

Maybe this is the point where it becomes obvious enough to break out the word “stylist” to describe Littlefield’s singing. He’s never been accused of having a great voice, it’s far too nasal and still draws (somewhat unflattering) comparisons to fellow Houston refugee Amos Milburn’s more soulful purr, but over time Little Willie gradually refined his technique, honing in on the nuances he brings to the table and as a result has created a persona distinctly his own.

On Why Leave Me All Alone that involves coming across as “blue and brokenhearted too”, but with an undercurrent of resiliency that shines through even when he’s moaning about his disintegrating love life.

It’s hard to really explain given that it’s an impression you get listening to the way he shades his lines rather than anything laid out in black and white (save for the ad-libbed ”Yah-ess somehow” leading into the break), but it’s plainly apparent… at least to my ears. Willie never appears completely despondent, more like dejected… he’s hurt but he’s coping with that emotional pain in a way that will allow him to get over it in short order.

Maybe the best way to describe it that with some artists, including the great Milburn himself, we get the sense we’re intruding on them in their darkest hour even though by the sound of it they’re completely unaware they’re being overheard and as such it can come across as voyeuristic at times.

But with Willie there’s always the feeling that he’s intentionally working out his grief in public rather than isolating himself in a dark room if for no other reason than to not give into his own self-pity, which of course is precisely what allows him to shed that gloomy outlook much more effectively.


Whisper What You Truly Want To Tell Me
For all of Willie’s gifts that are on full display here, the record wouldn’t be quite able to establish the corresponding mood if not for the guys in his band, most of whom we haven’t encountered before on record, yet who are so uniformly tight that it offers further proof that the deep roster of West Coast musicians in rock were head and shoulders above any other region’s best players at this point in time.

We’ve already spotlighted the horn section for that languid intro and even if that had been their only contribution here it’d be worth a full point on its own, but they’re hardly finished. Though Littlefield’s own jittery piano gets a lot of the attention in the arrangement on Why Leave Me All Alone it’s that full horn brigade – tenor, alto and TWO trumpets! – that leave the biggest mark, alternately soothing and faintly taunting at times, almost as if they were nudging their pal to make sure he didn’t sink into depression over this ill-fated romance.

Highlights abound throughout the song… the “climbing trumpets” appearing faintly in the background as the tenor delicately holds the bottom in the transitions between vocal lines… the stabbing retorts as Willie asks ”Why leave me feeling blue?” that manage to remain discreet enough not to take over, but prominent enough to shape your internal response all the same… and finally that drowsy tenor solo by Buddy Floyd that lays well behind the already hesitant beat and makes the entire scene play out as if in slow motion.

All the while Littlefield’s interjections on the keys are acting as the necessary mood shifters, keeping just enough of a buoyancy present to justify his eventual about face – wherein he tells the girl flatly, ”I want you to know I can easily forget you” – even making that resiliency seem inevitable in a way.

For a record where every single component falls into line this never comes across as excessively mannered or overly thought out. The arrangement hints at perfection without ever being fastidious about it, retaining a natural quality that puts that “effortless” comment into stark relief.

It’s Only Fair To Be True
Sometimes the relative failure of a really good record by really great and popular artist at the time has no rhyme or reason. Though it’s hard to envision a collective shrug being offered by audiences to a single that was so strong on both sides (and delivered by someone not lacking for recognition before OR after this release) it could just be a case where a poorly promoted release got lost in the shuffle.

Why Leave Me All Alone might not be instantly captivating enough in a crowded juke joint to pull in listeners, or it could be proof that as Alfred Tennyson famously said, “In the spring a young man’s fancy turn to thoughts of love” and as such those young men didn’t want to have to contemplate the potential negative outcome of those seasonal crushes and so they put listening to this off until the cold autumn winds blew, by which time Littlefield had other songs angling for their attention.

But whatever the reason for its lack of attention, then and since, it might actually wind up being the best piece of evidence as to Littlefield’s creative powers at the time… after all, the bar he set must’ve been pretty high if something this good failed to gain traction.


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