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FREEDOM 1523; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

One of the recurring themes in this project has to do with the need for artists to show some stylistic diversity to take advantage of the two-sided single that was the industry standard for roughly a half century.

You can argue that Lonnie Lyons does that here, pairing this downbeat lament with the more aggressive display on the top side. But that’s where the kudos end.

By using both songs – differently paced though they might be – to try and dupe unsuspecting listeners into thinking they were by another far more popular Houston-based singer/pianist rather than trying to establish Lyons using his own best attributes they’ve let another chance to break him out as a potential star in his own right slip away without much of a fight.
 

 
Paging Amos Milburn… Again!
On the review for the flip-side of this, Sneaky Joe, we made it clear that Lyons and Freedom Records were only a weapon away from being charged with armed robbery of one of rock’s biggest stars, Amos Milburn.

As it were breaking and entering and possession of stolen property for their theft of Milburn’s Chicken Shack Boogie wouldn’t be the only charges leveled against Lyons for this release. Nope, because here on Betrayed we can add impersonation of an officer… err… of a higher ranking rock star maybe… to the growing list of music violations he’s being accused of.

You can certainly understand how this happened. Freedom Records was located in Houston, Texas, where Milburn was originally from. That meant a lot of up and coming artists from the area – we’re looking right at you Little Willie Littlefield – were naturally influenced by the hometown boy made good in the years following Milburn’s move to Los Angeles and his breakthrough as a national star. In Lonnie Lyons, who like Milburn was a piano player who also sang, we have another. The difference is because his earlier records didn’t show any signs of these similarities as Littlefield’s had, this comes across as being less an honest case of influence and more a concerted effort to deceive.

How blatant is it, you ask? Well let’s just say you half expect to see the Philip Morris cigarette advertising bellboy Johnny Roventini pop up and cry, “Callllllll forrrrrr Aaaaamos Milllllllllllll-burn!” in his distinctive delivery before this record cues up.

But unlike on the other side where Lyons was hijacking a specific song lock, stock and barrel, merely changing the lyrics and passing it off as something new, here we have Lyons just taking on Milburn’s most durable persona from his string of late night mournful ballads.

The song itself however is original, so absent the unseemly wholesale lift of another artist’s greatest song we can focus instead on the comparatively lesser offense of absconding with that same artist’s vocal attributes and delivery… actually, on second though, Lonnie, maybe you’d better keep your lawyer on retainer until this review over with.
 

Before That Engine Pulls Away
You gotta hand it to Freedom Records for one thing anyway, they certainly had a set of balls didn’t they, because they were hardly being discreet about this.

Right from the start of Betrayed Lyons wants to convince you that he’s somebody else. There’s no intro on this, which is a little disconcerting actually. We hear a fading note from Goree Carter’s guitar sounding like it was cut from something far longer and more involved before Lyons jumps in on vocals, almost as if they wanted to make sure you didn’t have time to check the label first to see who this really was.

The more likely explanation is the song, even with the awkward edit at the start, would run three minutes long and for this era that was about as long as you could go before people apparently grew disoriented and wondered if they were going to be chained to the jukebox for life. In other words no song was going to be longer than three minutes in rock and find an audience so they simply did away with the most expendable part.

That crude edit doesn’t help us however because now we feel thrust into a story without having it set up properly as Lyons is already telling us how he’s looking to get out of town in a hurry. Of course he doesn’t SOUND like he’s in a hurry at all because he’s conveying this in his most deliberate drawn out fashion, practically lethargic in his pacing throughout the story. In fact this comes across as if Lonnie is the last guy in the bar and by the sound of his voice, just on the verge of slurring his words, he’s had a few drinks too many and is pouring his heart out to the poor bartender wiping down the glasses as he discreetly eyes the clock.

It’s a scene you can easily envision at least which gives it some authenticity, but the problem is we – the listener and bartender both – have no backstory on which to become emotionally connected to this drunk hapless soul sitting before us.

Who is this girl that has caused him so much grief and is he really just an innocent victim in this affair of the heart? He’s sure offering us no sense of their relationship prior to her breaking things off with him, no timeline of events, nothing to really indicate whether they’ve been together for years or only for a few weeks, something which if it were the case he’d be blowing this completely out of proportion.

In songs like this artists often think it makes no difference, that we’ll be convinced by his sorrow that it was a meaningful relationship however long it lasted, but that’s not always the case… in fact when he’s using pity as his biggest drawing card to pull us in it’s RARELY the case that we’ll sympathize with him unconditionally. Ask any bartender forced to sit through these tales-of-woe on a nightly basis if you disagree.

In order for us to be invested in the outcome we need a rooting interest, some concern for his well-being, or at least a feeling of outrage over her supposedly underhanded ways. Yet we get none of that, not even an example of her perfidy that left this poor sap in the broken down state he’s in at two o’clock on a Tuesday morning in a run-down corner bar by the railroad station.

I’m sure the bartender is used to these disjointed laments at such a spot. He probably sees lots of guys like this who are waiting for the next train out of town – that’s the only piece of information he readily shares with us by the way, his intent to leave on the next stage – biding their time until it arrives by sitting at the bar with a shell-shocked look on their face, not able to fully grasp it’s come to this. That’s the kind of person you generally steer clear of if you can help it, not wanting to get dragged into his sob story.

If you DO get roped in you at least hope for something juicy to make your time on the receiving end of a one-sided conversation worth your trouble, but there’s no self-examination on his part here, he’s much too far gone for that. There’s not even any angry accusations against the girl, no broken down weeping or vows of vengeance. He starts off by claiming he was Betrayed but he either doesn’t want to go into particulars or he simply doesn’t understand the meaning of the word and is just throwing out the accusation to make his self-pity feel justified.

Because of that lack of any deeper insight we’re left adrift, encountering a recognizable archetype and setting without anything more than the bare bones plot of him wanting, or needing, to leave. Even at three minutes long we know before it’s half over that we’re not getting a resolution to this ordeal.

At least the bartender gets a cash tip for sitting through this aimless story, we aren’t so lucky in that regard.
 

The Best Man Wins In The End
But fear not, because Lyons and his fellow Hep-Cats in the band make it up to us the best they can by providing us with some of their best, or at least most alluring, playing.

That’s the ace in the hole here, not enough to rescue it entirely but enough to keep us from falling asleep or turning this off altogether and wandering blindfolded into traffic in search of a little more excitement.

Though the pace never picks up beyond a slow crawl the atmospheric touches they add to set the proper scene are stellar from those first cut-off sounds and much of it is due to the always brilliant Goree Carter on guitar.

We haven’t encountered many lead artists who’ve been content to subject themselves in a subservient role on a record credited to somebody else. Tiny Grimes has done so – and will soon do so again – and I suppose you could say Lyons has as well, since he’s gotten a number of releases under his own name while providing backing for Carter and others on Freedom’s roster. But Carter was the one who had the potential to be a superstar and here he’s firmly in the background, not trying to make his presence known by cutting loose as he was so capable of doing, but rather playing soft and discreetly and yet still capturing your attention by how he does it so effortlessly.

His guitar probably stands out the most here when he plays a few muted slurred accent notes at various points during the songs, their presence acting as a bridge between vocal and piano lines, but as good as they sound they’re secondary to the way he subtly carries the melody behind Lyons during the verses.

Lonnie is singing this so slowly that it could hardly be said to be in motion at all if not for Carter who along with the bass gives Betrayed its only real melodic momentum. It’s something you have to listen for specifically but when you locate it you can’t stop focusing on it. The seven second intervals (0:25 – 0:32, then again 1:10 – 1:17 and finally one last time from 2:36-2:44) are intoxicating when you concentrate on them, disarmingly simple but creating a mood that is truly mesmerizing.

He also gets a solo, albeit one that is comparatively quiet and introspective sounding as befitting the song’s overall ambiance, but it really does give further proof how good these guys known as The Hep-Cats were. Fast or slow, loud or soft, along with their versatility they played with a confidence and commitment that was a revelation. How they didn’t become better known is one of rock’s enduring mysteries as well as one of its great travesties.

Lyons for his part adds to this feeling with his work on the keys, playing just enough to provide another texture to the song without overwhelming it, and his voice – which carries out its Milburn impression to the end, if slightly more stuffed up nasally than Amos – works well in conjunction with the music. Sure they were basing this on an established and successful formula by another artist, but there still weren’t many who could’ve pulled it off as well than these guys. Pity they didn’t have a more fleshed out song to pair it with.
 

So Hard To Tell Where Sunrise Will Find Poor Me
As stated on the other side of this release, it’s never a good move to imitate somebody else so blatantly because even if you successfully convince audiences to go along with the charade, in the end they’re going to go back to the far better originator for their fix the next time out. You won’t have done anything to build up your own brand but simply reinforced the appeal of a competitor.

Maybe all of these guys were growing frustrated in their lack of returns on their earlier far more exciting records, and now were just merely hoping to get someone… anyone… to hear them and hope they liked it enough to give them another chance the next time out. Then maybe they felt that once they tricked you into hearing their work by using someone else’s proven allure they could win you over with something more original down the road.

But that’s not a winning proposition. You need to create your own identity from the start, to give audiences something they can only get from you, then if you’re good enough at it you’ll ultimately get OTHER artists to imitate you.

While Betrayed works well enough as an Amos Milburn pastiche, and even adds a welcome wrinkle thanks to Carter’s understated work behind Lyons, it doesn’t carve out any new terrain, nor does it do anything to make Lonnie Lyons’ name mean something to anyone outside of his family. It becomes inessential as a result, throwing away one more opportunity to break through… opportunities that would eventually run out much sooner than they realized.
 


 

In life it is always best to just be yourself. That goes for a kid in school hoping to be popular or a musician hoping to be famous. In both cases you need certain attributes that are appealing on their own and then you need to accentuate those the best you can.

Lonnie Lyons and his buddies certainly weren’t lacking those vital attributes but on both sides of this release were mostly letting them atrophy as they seemingly lost their confidence and were desperately trying to mimic somebody more popular sitting at the cool lunch table, the one with all of the friends, all of the girls and all of the glory.

It won’t work in junior high, kids, and it won’t work in rock ‘n’ roll either. Imitation may indeed be the sincerest form of flattery, but there’s another saying to remember as well…

Flattery will get you nowhere.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Lonnie Lyons for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)