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REGENT 1022; AUGUST 1950



Being in the spotlight, yet perennially in the shadows of others who take up much more of that spotlight, can’t be an easy thing to come to grips with if you’re a performer.

When it’s not just one person but rather two people that are overshadowing you, then there probably comes a point when you figure why even bother?

Luckily we’re not quite at that point yet with Mel Walker, the most underrated third star in rock’s biggest act.


Should’ve Got The Other Kind
Let’s take a step back and ponder the situation from Mel Walker’s point of view for a minute here.

In the seven months since he’d made his debut on record he’d sung on five records that would hit the Top Ten on the national charts, two of which went all the way to Number One.

He was a young good-looking former star athlete with a warm distinctive voice, a great delivery and the image – on record at least – of a confident ladies man, making him in every respect the kind of performer that young Black America in 1950 should’ve been eager to celebrate.

The two people dwarfing him in recognition were… a white guy who led the band while playing vibraphone of all things and didn’t even sing yet and a mousy voiced girl barely into puberty whose looks were, to be generous, best appreciated in a dark room.

If THEY were drawing so much acclaim in spite of those apparent deficiencies then Walker should’ve been viewed as the brightest star in the sky by comparison, yet he was falling short when it came to recognition, both at the time and in the years since.

So on Strange Woman he took matters into his own hands a little more, co-writing the song with Otis and crafting a slightly different persona for himself, one that incorporated his already established drowsy delivery with a wryly humorous bent that cast him in the position of somebody who could use a little bit of sympathy hoping that maybe that would drop the hint to listeners that he was in line for a little more credit.

He didn’t get it… but hearing how well this comes off there’s little question that he should’ve. Then again, couldn’t he always say that?


With A Woman Like This
Though humor had definitely been a vital part of Walker’s strengths as an artist, it wasn’t ever done in quite the way he approaches it here.

In most of his songs, duets with Little Esther who took the bulk of the lead vocals, Walker was the one playing off of her, the one she was infatuated with, annoyed with or sparring with in some form or fashion. As a result his humorous lines were at her expense, not his own, but on Strange Woman that gets turned on its head because here he’s definitely setting himself up as the one to be made fun of, even as he plays up his misery with a straight face.

Since this is a co-write and we know Otis handled the musical side of the equation, that means Walker probably came up with the story itself, if not the entire lyrics. Whoever was responsible, we’ll say Mel, shows a great sense of story telling… note I didn’t say song craft, though this IS a well crafted song, the feature that stands out is how gradually the plot reveals itself and with it, how dramatically the focus shifts from seeing Walker as a mostly sympathetic figure to one who’s probably deserving of his misery, if only because he’s so painfully dim.

The plot finds him bemoaning a cheating partner, something that anybody with half a heart could find reason to offer him solace for having to endure. Yet with that comes the realization that to spare yourself further hurt you need to get out of said relationship before it becomes toxic and eats away at your dignity and self-respect.

But while Walker is unquestionably sad about these turn of events it soon becomes clear they’re not the first time he’s faced such a problem with this girl. At each turn she’s astride some other man while he continues to act bewildered by her actions.

She’s a nymphomaniac… a recidivist bigamist who is relying on his unwillingness to admit there’s a pattern to her behavior here and end this relationship before she sleeps with every man in town.

Because it starts off with such a familiar premise and because Walker sells it in a way that we fully expect for such content, we’re not prepared for how it gets increasingly absurd until we’re nearly at the end and Walker’s turning a blind eye to the fact she’s humping every guy in sight. When the payoff finally hits us – and him – the first time around we find we have to go back and listen again to hear how masterfully it was set up and pulled off.

Walker never lets on too much that it’s headed down this road, or at least all the way down this road. The humor earlier on would normally be all we’d get in a record like this, a throwaway line to make us smile before returning to a more despondent or angry conclusion. But Mel continually takes it one step further, then another, then another, until we finally realize we aren’t going back to a more traditional approach and by then we feel we’re almost as gullible as he was for not seeing what was unfolding before our very eyes.

If you want a lesson in spinning a tale this isn’t a bad place to start.

Drives Me Crazy
A key to selling this so effectively though is in how Otis frames it.

From the snake charming trumpet on the intro to the slinky guitar weaving its way in and around Devonia Williams’ piano setting the rhythm, it takes on a very docile appearance. Only the horns rising and falling like an old man’s breathing during an afternoon nap gives even the slightest hint that something is poised to surprise you.

The stop time bridge distracts you from the ensuing punchlines and the low key ambiance they all create lulls you into a sense of security.

We KNOW where Strange Woman is going, we think to ourselves, because all of the markers for this kind of song are present and accounted for. Except the mounting evidence tells us differently if we could only pull away from the sleep they’ve lulled us into so that we could see it unfolding.

Without any solos to get in the way and purposefully throw your senses for a loop, this record still works very well if you don’t pay too close attention to what is being said. Then Walker’s vocal patterns, the subdued accompaniment and the broader theme that is evident without scrutinizing it too much, all fall into place and leaves you satisfied that you got something slightly better than average.

But when you look closer – assuming you can admit you didn’t see the surprises behind doors number two and three – then you really begin to appreciate how it all came together.


Out Of My Mind
If you haven’t heard it, or more likely forgot that you had because you DID whiff on the gradual joke being built up at his expense, don’t go into this thinking it’s laugh out loud funny or SO intricately clever that they should be building monuments to these guys or something.

It’s not a record that will leave you in awe… nor is it intended to be.

But what it IS in the final analysis is an example of simple creativity, taking what we expect and twisting it just a little so that it takes on a different meaning altogether, where the target of their mockery isn’t who you assume it is going to be, but rather the one delivering the song in the first place… and by extension those of you – of us – in the audience who didn’t see it coming despite the warning signs.

Strange Woman is a song about gullibility, pure and simple. In the story the gullible one is Walker himself for not having his eyes open for what’s really happening. But when it comes to those listening to the song without paying enough attention to really hear it, the gullible one becomes you and me.

Next time through listen to how Mel uses the title the first time he says it, calling her strange because she “just won’t treat me right” and then when you figure out the full story you’ll see the strange one is the guy who can’t put two and two together and is wondering why it’s the doctor who’s pulling up his drawers after his girlfriend pays the doc an office visit.


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