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MODERN 20-729; FEBRUARY, 1950

 
 

 

A lot of rock artists through the years have a doppelganger, somebody who is – by quirk or by design – remarkably similar in style to someone else, usually a bigger name with plenty of acclaim.

Oftentimes – most times in fact – the artist or their label try desperately to accentuate these similarities to get you to almost fall for the idea that it’s the same act, or at least might the same person, as if they were working under an alias.

The biggest names in the industry face this the most – think of Terry Stafford or Ral Donner in the early 1960’s who modeled their vocals on Elvis Presley and each got a huge hit out of that connection, and Lou Christie whose vocal resemblance to Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons helped put him on the map, or the Merseybeat-styled groups in 1964 capitalizing on the surging popularity of The Beatles.

In the first five years of rock no artist was bigger or more consistently stellar in his releases than Amos Milburn and so naturally others were going to follow suit, particularly other piano playing singers from the same Houston neighborhoods that had produced Milburn.

But the best of them, Little Willie Littlefield, though sounding eerily similar to Amos, was so good in his own right that as Milburn’s momentum slowed ever so much as 1950 began, Littlefield was poised to do something none of those other doppelgangers could ever possibly do… he might just be about to surpass him!
 

 

All Checked Off To Go
What made Amos Milburn so great was… well, just about everything. He was a fantastic piano player with top notch musicians behind him and the best producer in rock helming his sessions… he had a voice that was soulful as could be on ballads and could stay in control while ramping up the excitement in faster songs…. he was a gifted songwriter who was also able to mine the compositions of others and draw out their deepest emotional currents with equal skill… and he had built up a connection to the wider audience that made each record he released something to look forward to.

In a little more than a year on the scene, teenaged Little Willie Littlefield’s strengths as an artist had proven to be just as well developed and if he didn’t quite surpass Milburn in any of those areas, the gap between them was now just a matter of degrees. Yet it seemed no matter what he did Willie was caught always looking back over his shoulder at Amos’s looming shadow.
 


 

As it stands now the one thing, maybe the only thing, holding Littlefield back from universal acclaim was the lack of one massive hit, a chart topper to get everyone’s attention. He was plenty popular, don’t get me wrong, scoring a succession of national hits once he landed at Modern Records last summer, but the absolute best songs Milburn had issued happened to also be Number One records and with that comes a stature that is hard to beat.

Your Love Wasn’t So wouldn’t be that hit for Littlefield, nor was it quite as good as the absolute best sides from Milburn to date, but while this record further exhibited the stylistic resemblance between the two, it also showed why Littlefield was not merely taking advantage of shared traits brought up by their regional backgrounds to become a star in his own right… he was a star because songs like this were so damn good regardless of who else they reminded you of.
 

At The Station
Every aspect of Little Willie’s skills are put to good effect on this side starting with the heavy left hand he utilizes on the piano introduction which may be simple in concept but is mesmerizing in its effect, acting as sedative as he pulls you into his thrall as his right hand adds the dreamy skeletal melody to ensure you don’t protest going under.

It’s a seductive sound, slow and familiar, dark in its textures but not frighteningly so to scare you off. He’s casting a spell over you in very deliberate fashion and it’s one you can’t resist, nor do you really want to.

When Willie starts to sing we’re ready to follow him wherever he wants to lead us, provided that intoxicating mood doesn’t start to dissipate and here too he doesn’t let us down. Though Your Love Wasn’t So is yet another in the long line of rock songs about guys facing the end of a love affair – many of which seem to center around one of them leaving on a train – he delivers it with such a laid-back self-assurance that it can’t help but captivate you, especially with a few details – such as his ex’s name being Sookie – that make it stand out all the more.

But we tend not to focus so much on the lyrics alone as much as we note how well they mesh with the halting musical accompaniment, that deliberate piano, some brushed cymbals and best of all the appearance of the mellowest tenor saxophone you could possibly imagine.

The sax of course has been the centerpiece of so much of rock’s first few years that it pretty much goes without saying that its abilities to add whatever is needed to an arrangement, be it raunchy or sweet, flamboyant or understated, exciting or, as in this case, hypnotic, is taken for granted by most of us. Yet when it’s done as expertly as this, with each phrase drawn out to maximize its impact before letting go of the last note and watching them float by like dandelion seeds in the warm summer breeze, it’s a reminder of just how emotionally powerful music at its best can be.

Whatever the cause of their breakup in the story we’re made to feel sympathetic by the way in which the music frames it before we ever learn who did what to whom.

In this case it’s her who’s at fault, as the title suggests, but even though Willie announces he’s through with her for her assorted transgressions he’s undeniably melancholy over this development. You get the idea that he’d almost prefer he hadn’t found out and could’ve taken another few weeks or months of being deceived as long as their time when they were together had retained the veneer of love and devotion he’d counted on.

At one point during all of this he even consoles her as she’s boarding the train, telling her not to cry but also not giving an inch in his determination to see her off for good because infidelity is the one unforgivable sin in a relationship, a violation of trust that can’t ever be fully repaired. That he’s so resolute in the face of this parting might actually be more painful for her psyche than had he reacted angrily and attempted to throw her onto the track right in front of the train as it was pulling in… at least then she’d know he was devastated by her actions which might give her some sense of perverse pleasure in knowing the emotional destruction she caused.

Instead he won’t give her the satisfaction no matter how much he’s hurting and just like that, this simple well-worn, some would say overused, story line has a gravitas that is just as compelling as the musical framework that houses it.
 


 

Every Tear You Shed
Ahh yes, the music… that wonderful, haunting, absolutely flawless music. How many adjectives are there to describe such subtle beauty in sound? Whatever the number is I’ve probably used most of them already in the last section to try and get the point across and yet still feel I’ve undersold it by at least half.

The thing about it is there’s nothing being played that is altogether difficult, or flashy, or done to capture your attention. In fact if you happened to wander in as this was playing without focusing on it intently from the first notes you might not even notice it in the background and certainly wouldn’t be making any such dramatic proclamations as this.

But if you were attuned to the record from the moment the needle dropped you wouldn’t hesitate to slug someone with a bottle if they were the one who walked in the room in the middle of this, talking and carrying on, drowning out the music and spoiling the delicate ambiance it creates.

Your Love Wasn’t So is the type of fragile song that requires deep concentration, perhaps only the type that can be gotten in solitude for it to fully envelop your senses, but when it does you can’t break free. The sax is so moving with what it plays, gently grazing your emotions to get the internal reaction its seeking, that the record ought to come with a warning printed on it.

Not only doesn’t it overplay or overstay its welcome, but its use of dynamics – the rising and falling of its lines until they fade into the ether – is so perfectly judged that it seems almost criminal we can’t call out the musician by name, apparently because whoever was in the studio control room was too mesmerized to write his name down on the session sheet.

Then there’s Little Willie Littlefield himself on keys extending this vibe with each note he plays… and each note he bypasses in favor of silence, choosing to moan softly because to strike the keys at that moment might break the spell.

There have been some through the years who’ve claimed music is like a drug and listening to this, at least listening in the right frame of mind, you’re prone to agree with that assessment.
 

Bye, Bye… Buy!
After the 15 month peak of commercial returns for Amos Milburn things were slowing down for him just enough at this time – for a variety of reasons, including his growing dependence on cover records – that it should’ve allowed Little Willie Littlefield to step fully into the breach and either take over that designated spot for a versatile soulful act that Amos had more or less defined to date, or at least to push Milburn hard for supremacy and force him to keep pace for a change.

Instead, while Littlefield was far from done when it came to hits he too was was about to enter a downturn in sales even though as Your Love Wasn’t So shows he was reaching his peak creatively.

Maybe it was a case of the two artists being so alike that audiences had gotten too much of a good thing, as hard as that is to imagine, and were looking for something different. Since so many new rock artists were appearing each week it seemed the competition for the nickels in each jukebox was becoming stiffer than ever and perhaps name recognition alone was no longer enough to guarantee a long run in each location since there were now far more records to swap them out for in hopes of striking gold.

Then again, with a record this captivating maybe the bulk of the audience locked themselves in their rooms and listened to it repeatedly with the door locked and shades drawn and when they emerged a month or two later nobody bothered tallying up all of the dazed expressions of those people to officially determine and properly credit the cause of it all.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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