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SAVOY 849; MAY 1952



Call this the calm before the storm, though truthfully it’s been all TOO calm for Mel Walker’s commercial prospects for awhile.

Though he was one of the breakout stars of Nineteen Fifty when he sang on multiple huge hit duets with Little Esther, not to mention a bunch of solo hits of his own, the well has run fairly dry as of late as the vaunted Johnny Otis conglomerate has become scattered to the wind.

But as we’ve seen before in rock ‘n’ roll, that wind has a way of rather suddenly becoming a full–fledged storm, except in this case it’s not quite the kind anyone expects to roll in off the water.


Belongs To Someone Else
It’s tough to know how to write about the storms on the horizon like this before they hit, but since we teased it we might as well delve into it a little further.

Just a few weeks after this was released, singer Mel Walker would break his contract with Savoy and depart to Mercury Records and officially rejoin Johnny Otis who’d been with that major label since the beginning of 1952.

Lawsuits ensued.

We’ll get to all of that before you know it, but the real story with Help Me Blues isn’t what’s about to happen, but rather what has already happened since this was recorded way back in March of 1951.

As mentioned, Johnny Otis bolted for Mercury Records as soon as his own two year contract ran out with Savoy, thereby costing the label their most reliable and prolific star… or should we say “stars” plural.

Little Esther had already departed a year earlier since she was underage and thus not legally bound to her deal and while she failed to come close to matching her success once she landed with Federal Records, that probably wasn’t much comfort to Herman Lubinsky who might’ve been glad his competitor wasn’t getting hits with her, but neither was he and try as he might ol’ Herm discovered you can’t pay the electric bill with spite.

With Otis now gone as well, it meant the songwriter and bandleader that propelled Walker to fame wasn’t going to be joining Mel Walker in the studio as long as Walker remained with Savoy where he was locked up for another year, so these last sides he’d cut with Otis were about all they could expect in the way of marketable material unless the company came up with something on their own.

Unfortunately for them Walker wasn’t about to wait to find out if they could.


To Get The One I Love Off My Weary Mind
Anybody who’d listened to a single Johnny Otis led record over the past two and a half years knew instantly upon hearing his vibes open this record just who was responsible for it.

That instrument was practically an aural fingerprint of his work and a vital mood setter for the kind of laments they specialized in.

Perhaps that was one reason why Esther’s sides with Federal made no impact despite Otis’s band backing her in the studio and Johnny writing much of it, as he himself was unable to add his distinctive touch on the instrument to her records anymore since he was under contract elsewhere.

But on Help Me Blues that’s obviously not the case yet and with his familiar vibes setting the tone it just sounds like a Mel Walker song before Mel himself even opens his mouth.

When he does start to sing in his languid dulcet tone he impresses as usual. Though he had rather narrow range and was stylistically limited, preferring mostly slower songs like this one, when he got a good one he remained hard to beat.

It’s a fairly typical record for him, as with its downbeat perspective as Walker bemoans how the girl he loves is with somebody new, and as such the song really wouldn’t have to do much more than that to suffice for most listeners. It’s got a easy flowing melody and the lines themselves match that effortless feeling, but it’s when you pay closer attention that you see just how well crafted this really is.

Take for instance how Walker gives the impression of self-pity in most of his reflections, when in reality he’s actually using that sorrow to pick up a NEW girl, telling whoever is listening… whether at the bar if you take this as scene out of his own life, or on the bandstand singing the song to an audience, or even on the record itself which is being spun by countless single girls… that he’s looking for someone to take her place.

If their hearts go out to him, and considering he was a good-looking rock star my guess is they will, he’s probably getting laid tonight with this approach.

The second bit of genius on Help Me Blues belongs to Otis though, who has Leard Bell back Walker’s singing with a heartbeat effect on his drums throughout the song. It’s very noticeable as the drums are way up in the mix, yet the actual purpose might elude you unless you focus on them and realize they’re representing his own anticipation of hooking up with a different girl after being tied down for so long to the one who’s recently left him.

On the surface it doesn’t seem like that much different of an arrangement as all of the rest of the components are pretty standard for the Otis/Walker sides… some lively piano fills from Devonia Williams (who co-wrote this with Otis), faintly moaning horns and a nice distant trumpet at times, plus Pete Lewis’s sleepy guitar solo… but the drumming tweak alone gives this (pardon the pun) a notable pulse that is really special.


I’m Afraid It’ll Be Too Late
Maybe – just maybe – Herman Lubinsky didn’t know when this was released that Mel Walker was about to jump ship from his label, because he did promote this heavily at time, even mentioning the departed Johnny Otis in the ad, swallowing his pride to make sure that jukebox distributors would be more likely to stock it with another big name attached, especially since Otis was so crucial to how this record sounds.

Though Help Me Blues didn’t make the national charts, it was a hit in a few cities on the regional listings but unfortunately just as it may have been poised to take off it was undercut by Walker’s first release on Mercury which stole its thunder and grabbed the action.

That’s when the storm arrived and it’d take awhile before things calmed down again.

Yet like a lot of approaching storms, the weather right before it hits often seems unusually pleasant… maybe there are dark skies in the distance that are easily seen, but the serene balmy air will fool you into thinking that it’s going to be pleasant from now until eternity.

Don’t anybody tell Herman Lubinsky that he’ll soon be standing out in the rain with a soggy cigar clenched in his teeth, cursing these traitorous artists of his.


(Visit the Artist page of Mel Walker for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)