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REGENT 1018; MAY 1950

 
 

 

Artists who devote themselves to one dominant vocal approach are always at risk for becoming redundant and so there’s a constant need to offer new wrinkles within the same basic formula.

Mel Walker for the most part was able to do that thanks in largely to Johnny Otis’s versatile production techniques, but also in no small part to the stylistic nuance Walker was able to inject in his ballads when it came to his vocal delivery.

But while both Otis and Walker try and make this record unique, their efforts are a little less successful in that regard and so for the first time you feel as if you’re merely getting a variation on a theme… still modestly appealing, but ultimately much more fleeting.
 

 

I May Look For Somebody New
The lyrics are the first sign this might’ve been something of a throwaway cut (hardly surprising considering the vast amount of songs Otis was churning out) as they use only simple platitudes to describe the morose feelings of a man who has lost at love.

Each line in Helpless might be tolerable enough to suffice in of itself but when stacked a top one another it becomes a little too much, a series of vague generalities rather than specific issues that might otherwise come alive with some deeper true to life details.

That these are also mostly taken from the oft-recycled greatest hits of maudlin lovelorn sentiments in song only adds to the sense they come up short in terms of evoking real sympathy and instead are looking for crib note shortcuts to generate the appropriate response.

That’s a huge hole to dig yourself out of but Walker does his best, using something of a weary, almost exasperated, delivery, as if he’s not just brokenhearted over these events but vaguely annoyed and frustrated by how things turned out in the romance department.

His tone and breathy pauses definitely had some impact – directly or indirectly we can’t be sure – on Johnny Ace down the road (someone else Johnny Otis backed in the studio, although after Ace had already established his on record persona), but while Walker certainly has the voice to meet its demands, he’s shorn of a great melody to really pull it off effectively and so there’s times where he’s clearly grasping for a note to latch onto but is met instead with melodic gaps that find him lurching about in the dark.

Though Walker never lets it unnerve him you also get the sense he’s not entirely comfortable with his own performance and that’s a shame because his voice still sounds as good as ever.
 


 
 

Playing Second Fiddle
Where Johnny Otis redeems himself somewhat and at least gives Walker some solid footing to plant himself on, is in the arrangement, specifically in how it alters the musical scenery from the vastly superior top side, Dreamin’ Blues, by adding a prominent saxophone as the main support.

As with so many of Otis’s productions of this time Helpless kicks off with his own vibraphone laying down a dreamy scene before Pete Lewis’s guitar chips in to transition to the vocals. It’s a nice sound but once Walker arrives it’s a little too sparse, trying to create a pensive, reflective mood by holding back an instrumental onslaught so as not to upset the balance of the track. But without something in its place – a better melody, more lyrics to compensate for the lurching pace, or even a vocal group harmonizing wordlessly in support – there’s not enough there to fill out the picture.

Luckily the one thing Otis turned to in order to establish that atmosphere is a languid horn which is by far the strongest attribute of this record, discreetly shading Walker’s vocals with subtle lines that seem practically whispered but which lend far more pathos to what Mel is singing in the process.

At other times the horn raises the volume to bolster those vocals more emphatically, giving the lines a greater presence to match Mel’s forays into showcasing an increasingly determined attitude and finally there are a few moments when all the sax does is answer them without committing to expressing its own opinion on what Walker is saying, just sort of nodding along as if in a one-sided conversation.

All of that is really nice and a tribute to Otis’s overall judgement to always spotlight something different from one track to the next. Sometimes he held out the horns altogether in favor of guitar and piano, other times he basically flipped that on its head and let the horns have the biggest supporting role while the others sat out or laid low. There’s an admirable confidence in this, especially knowing how so many record labels, producers and artists alike stuck so closely to precedent after notching a hit, scared to deviate from formula.

Though this is hardly on par with their best sides – Walker and Otis both – it’s not because they switched up the musical traits, but rather it falls short in spite of mixing things up.
 


 

I’m Left Behind
Obviously not every side of every single is going to be a gem, especially when Johnny Otis had to keep coming up with new material for so many different artists… not to mention touring behind them across country for weeks on end. In that light it’s actually surprising that more of their collective output in the magical year of 1950 didn’t disappoint.

Though it can’t help but suffer in comparison to their best work – and though maybe I’m being a little too tough on it for a few obvious flaws that keep it from breaking even in my book – I’d argue that Helpless is not so much a disappointment per say, but rather it’s more a victim of time constraints and the lack of opportunity to focus more of their attention on shoring up a weaker track through additional run-throughs.

This comes out sounding just good enough that they surely figured it’d be more than adequate for the flip of a much tighter production on the top side… and in that sense they were right. It’s only now, almost three quarters of a century later, when we no longer can to look forward to hearing additional output from them anymore that we might feel a little let down… but only a little.
 
 
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)