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REGENT 1018; MAY 1950

 
 

 

With so many different tasks to undertake – and so many different personalities to keep happy when doling out assignments – it’s frankly amazing that Johnny Otis was so prolific during this calendar year when virtually everything he touched turned to gold.

In the past few years he’d assembled a band that was second to none with almost every member of the loose-knit group capable of headlining instrumentals… from multiple saxophonists in his lineups to a hot-shot guitarist, rock-solid pianist and Otis himself on drums. Until recently however they’d lagged behind when it came to striking gold with those turning in vocals for him but in late 1949 he finally put together the core singers who’d take him and his outfit from being seen as merely highly respected musicians to being the most all-encompassing juggernaut in all of rock.

He first put together The Robins to compete with the best in the business before losing them this winter in a dispute over money and credit, but by then he’d already turned 13 year old Little Esther into the biggest star in the industry with her first few releases after signing with Savoy. Then, needing a male counterpart, he recruited former local football star Mel Walker and he was now molding him into a vocal heartthrob.
 

 

Dreaming Of You
As with all of those under his aegis, Otis seemed to know exactly what each singer was capable of vocally, but also sensed how crafting a persona to fit that voice could pay long term dividends for them all as he took particular care to forge an identity that listeners could latch onto and feel connected with from one record to the next.

For Walker, a sleepy voiced baritone with lady-killer looks, he cast him in two ways that took advantage of their unique circumstances as a recording unit. When pairing him with Esther, as with their first side together, Mistrustin’ Blues, he took on the role of a guy who had a little TOO much going for him when it came to his appeal with the ladies – good looking and sweet enough to win you over when it mattered most, but with a sly cockiness that could be both attractive and yet a little maddening if you wanted him to be more attentive.

Yet for solo performances Otis transformed Walker into a more vulnerable figure, in the process making those same female listeners who might take mild offense to some of his earlier behavior feel a lot more sympathetic and protective of him when he expressed his sadness on such tunes as Cry Baby which became Walker’s first solo hit.

Those two sides covered most of the bases in terms of potential stories they could tell, the types of songs they’d play and give their prime constituency two very realistic images to relate to without ever making Walker too unlikable no matter which direction they headed.

With Dreamin’ Blues he’d seem to be closely following the latter technique… from its title on down it has the appearance of another languid ballad, but it’s what Otis subtly does within that framework to shake up that prototype which shows just how forward thinking Johnny Otis was.
 


 
 

I’ll Move The Earth For You
When you hear Otis’s fragile vibe work opening the track against intentionally indistinct horns laying down a soft sonic bed in which only the jittery drums provide any wrinkle to the presentation, you may start wondering how this is different than much of what Otis has served up before.

The tempo is unhurried, the featured instrument is fast becoming a trademark of Otis’s sound and as Walker comes into view his vocals are warm and laid back which give you every reason to think this is just another song rolling off the assembly line – one that’s still appealing, but hardly challenging.

In fact if you let yourself you might even hear traces of the all-time classic cocktail blues song, Driftin’ Blues, sung by Charles Brown fronting Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers back in 1946 with none other than Johnny Otis sitting in on drums. Maybe an updated version of it with some different instrumental textures, but a song and delivery meant to lull you into the same type of mesmerizing spell.

Yet right away Otis starts pulling on those familiar threads, unraveling them to alter your expectations and before they can pile up at his feet he starts weaving them into something a little different which casts Dreamin’ Blues in a whole new light.

The first – and more obvious – “lift” comes from a more recent song firmly in the rock ballad mold, as the three note opening of the initial line Walker sings is melodically “borrowed” from The Orioles Tell Me So, forging a faint connection in listeners minds without many of them fully being aware of it even as it’s happening.

Because it immediately shifts to a new melody there’s not enough time to firmly place it before you are forced to deal with something else instead, in this case the sharp piercing guitar of Pete Lewis that comes in as Walker dramatically pauses and then latches on to a different melodic thread altogether, showing that opening was more of a creative tease than anything… a way to hook you before spinning things off in another direction.
 


 

Throw The Stars Away
Once you’re drawn in Otis uses those last two components – Walker’s mellow voice and Lewis’s bristling guitar – to play off one another now, creating a sonic yin and yang technique that prevents you from ever riding either one for too long. Mel is the cool sweetness on the plate while Pete is the faint spicier flavors of the dish.

If either one of them take things just a little too far it’ll throw the entire song out of balance but somehow it never happens… Lewis doesn’t run wild with a sizzling solo and though Walker has moments where you think he might start emoting more passionately, he brings us only to the edge of that jumping off point before effortlessly pulling back, in the process giving Dreamin’ Blues the appropriate tension but with a more subdued release.

Throughout all of this the other instruments are floating around in the ether, discreetly adding colors to the picture – those vibes that fade in and out, Devonia Williams’ stealthy piano fills, the horns that manage to swell momentarily but somehow fade into the scenery before you can avert your eyes from the center of the stage of really focus on them.

It’s an arrangement built on constantly shifting angles and perspectives, some creative slight of hand and the power of suggestion more than emphatic declaration and most impressively it suits Mel Walker’s delivery perfectly, allowing him ample room to come in and claim the song – and its listeners – for himself.
 

What Else Is There To Do?
Although his performance may be restrained in a traditional sense, Walker is clearly designed to be the most vital aspect of all of this, the guy who holds everything together and makes that overall arrangement come to life, gradually easing away from that subdued delivery he uses early on while continuing to add subtle elements of yearning to the sober self-reflection the lyrics are laying out.

Dreamin’ Blues paints Walker’s character as someone alone with his thoughts, speaking to a girl he once had who is now out of reach, yet there’s a definite fantasy vibe here as well, almost as if you can picture him filling in the parts about them being together in the past to bolster the image he has of her from a magazine cover or pin-up picture on his wall.

Because of this he’s naturally going to sound pitiable, if not out and out pitiful if you’re more cruel than sympathetic, yet he never wallows in despair about the fact they aren’t together, but rather seems almost content with it. The slight buoyancy of his soul offsets the darker theme of loneliness as his voice takes on added urgency at times before melodically sliding down the scale to let him settle back down safely on the ground.

It’s a masterful vocal performance, one that’s technically superb for sure but which is even more striking for the way in which he navigates the rocky emotional terrain without losing his footing. He nails every aspect required to put this over… gaining sympathy without begging for it, offering hope while still mired in dejection, wooing listeners with those honey-rich tones and yet never raising that voice to draw attention to it.

Prior to this you could argue that Mel Walker was simply the right guy in the right place at the right time to become a budding star, but here, though he’s still helped by having the best bandleader in all of rock, it’s Walker who definitively states his own case for stardom.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist pages of Mel Walker and Johnny Otis and for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)