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Success in life is built largely on good ideas but good ideas alone aren’t worth nearly as much as their reputation attests, they need to be followed with solid execution of those ideas.

Just as you can redeem a subpar song with good technical qualities in music, you can just as easily sink a song that had everything going for it with subpar choices in how to carry it out.

The end result of both of these examples might actually be the same – something tolerable, maybe even modestly enjoyable, yet hardly living up to their best qualities and this record is proof of it… a potential hit done in by an arrangement that had no real chance to convey what they were going for.


Passes By
If you were to write a one line bio of Mel Walker for a music compendium it would probably read something like: “Rock balladeer who scored eleven hits with Johnny Otis’s ensemble in early 1950’s”.

The key word there would be “balladeer”, as his sleepy baritone was the key to most of those hits.

He was not necessarily a romantic crooner, as many rock balladeers were, and at times he was used as almost a comic figure as the sly provocateur in some battle of the sexes with Little Esther, but for the most part he specialized in expressive languorous songs that voiced emotional turmoil, usually over broken relationships, and he did it as well as anyone of his era.

What was largely missing from his résumé was examples of the uptempo side of rock which is what makes Feel Like Cryin’ Again such a welcome addition to his portfoilio.

Though the title makes it seem – maybe intentionally – like this is another bread and butter song from him, the reality is this is as close to a rhythmic workout as we’re likely to get from Walker… which is why it’s so disappointing that while his performance is solid and the composition itself is fine, the musical backing he gets is so poorly chosen by Otis.

It may still contain enough positives to be a fairly good record, but it has the unnerving appearance of being intentionally sabotaged to keep Walker confined to a more restrictive stylistic box, because surely no competent bandleader in their right mind would frame such a song this way in 1951.


The Rain Begins To Fall
Since the first sounds we hear are among the biggest offenders in this misguided arrangement, let’s start with that horn section which is bogged down with trumpets, trombones and alto saxes, but no baritone, giving the lead-in a show-band flourish that may be faster paced than we expected for a Mel Walker recording, but is woefully out of place for the kind of rocker they want to convince you this actually is.

When they allow the two tenor saxes to take part behind Walker’s lead both James Von Streeter and Lorenzo Holden are reduced to carrying his water, barely permitted to announce their presence with the kind of power they have it in them to display. The whole horn section here might just as well be transplanted from Johnny Hodges’ misleadingly titled Castle Rock for all the weight they bring to the table.

Too bad too, because Feel Like Cryin’ Again, while no lyrical masterpiece, is still pretty effective in taking the general Walker perspective of being down in the dumps over a failed relationship and turning it on its head by the increased pacing alone. The concept of marrying a dejected point of view with a spry musical structure isn’t new but it works consistently well because you’re taking advantage of the yin-yang dynamics at play.

The words say one thing, yet the music says another and provided you can compartmentalize the two areas while listening, the combination of the two divergent approaches brings added impact to the performance. Walker’s rarely sounded so infectious, yet he’s in misery over seeing his ex-girlfriend on the street, giving some indication that she’s the one who has moved on and is living the good life without him.

Luckily the first instrumental break carries this mood forward pretty well… not perfectly mind you, but it’s reasonably effective by allowing the tenor saxes and especially Pete Lewis’s sterling guitar to lead the way.

Unfortunately after that Otis jumps in with a vibraphone solo… yes, you read that right, a vibraphone solo. Now Johnny plays them well but this is NOT the place for one, primarily because it’s not the kind of song for one. No matter how nimble his work on them may be, there’s nowhere near enough impact in the sounds they can make to give this the kind of presence the song is calling for.

Considering the saxes only were background sounds during the first half of the solo with Lewis more or less in the lead, just let THEM handle it with some explosive lines of their own, ramping up the energy before handing it back to Walker. Or, if you feel that’d be too jarring a transition just start with the saxes as that allows them to slowly build to a climax before giving the ball to Lewis who can keep the intensity on guitar while dialing down the explosiveness leading back into Walker’s return.

Either way that’d be only about a million times better than letting Otis try and make vibes sound “tough”.

The problem is you can’t simply dismiss the intro and second solo from your listening experience and since those same over-matched horns take the fade as well, closing it out with a whimper instead of a bang, you’ve all but wasted a very solid vocal turn by a livelier Walker, plus some good lyrics and some of Lewis’s most stinging licks on guitar along the way.


Just Couldn’t Satisfy
For as successful commercially as Johnny Otis was over the past two years, for as good of a songwriter and bandleader he was, there was always a sense that he regretted it took so long for him to break through.

He began playing professionally years before and had success in live venues in more of a big band style without getting the chance to record. When he did finally secure a recording contract the big band style he appreciated was long since dead as a commercial powerhouse and so he admirably adapted his personnel to fit the new rock landscape. But from time to time there were still vestiges of that outdated style cropping up, as happens here in his effort to give the non-rock horns a beefier part.

When he then tries to shoehorn his own vibes into the mix as well, the punchiness Feel Like Cryin’ Again requires is all but lost, undercutting what rightfully should’ve been a strong contender for a double-sided hit.

It’s still got enough to recommend overall, but rather than be a welcome change of pace for Walker and perhaps a pathway to more of the same down the road, it winds up making no real impression which of course means their willingness to tackle more uptempo songs with him in the future will be severely limited.

The record itself may be a mixed bag but it’s easy enough to envision a revised arrangement with honking saxes (and an absence of vibes) being something that would not only turn heads, but give Otis and Walker’s discography a welcome jolt instead of being merely a case of a good idea sunk by bad execution.


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