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With this record we’ve reached the end of one of the better sustained run of success in rock ‘n’ roll history, at least in terms of chart action in the singles era.

It wouldn’t be until some cat named Presley in 1956-1957 that a rock artist dominated a similar stretch like Johnny Otis had dominated 1950 and 1951 as this marks the 12th and final hit of his two year stint with Savoy Records.

That he achieved this with a revolving cast of singers and musicians, each record seemingly highlighting a different combination, made it all the more remarkable.

But all good things must come to an end and with the defection of Little Esther at the start of the year they had little choice but to rely increasingly on Mel Walker who may have been as good as always but consequently the variety in the records began to diminish and with it the hits were fewer and farther between.


I’m Crying Because I’m By Myself
We know that songwriters often take inspiration from their real life experiences, crafting a story around something that happened to them… embellishing it for dramatic purposes of course, but retaining the element of truth which allows it to better connect with the public who may not know of the circumstances behind it, but if the subject is true to life then chances are they’re familiar with it in some form or fashion themselves.

Because Sunset To Dawn came out in the fall of 1951, ten months after Little Esther packed her bags for Federal Records, you might be inclined to think that Johnny Otis was writing this as a response to losing the biggest draw in his unit and framing that loss in the context of a make-believe romance with her frequent duet partner Mel Walker,

In fact the first section could almost be a deposition for what happened from a psychological point of view as Walker bemoans the loss of his partner, stating “The only girl I’ve ever loved put me down for somebody else”.

Now we know full well they weren’t a real-life couple, they only played those roles from time to time on record, but the parallels are uncanny. Esther was Walker’s – and Otis’s – ticket to the big time and she did indeed leave them, or at least left their shared label, for another one.

Of course they were all still touring together, recording together incognito and so the only one who’d be justified singing these lyrics as it pertained to Esther would be Herman Lubinsky, Savoy’s skinflint owner who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Besides, when you learn this record was cut way back in August of 1950 when Esther was still firmly ensconced at the label and recorded her own songs with them for Savoy that same day it loses some of the juicy speculation that seemingly went along with it.

Oh well, audiences at the time didn’t know this and so you couldn’t blame them if they wanted to read more into the song than was ever intended. Truth be told though, while it certainly would add a little more intrigue to the record, it really doesn’t need the added boost of notoriety that might bring because on its own this is another stellar example of what Otis and company did so well throughout that magical year.


Blue And Lonesome
There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking to be found here, as it uses the same basic template that so many Mel Walker led tracks with Johnny Otis featured with a languid pace, a bluesy motif and an intriguing mixture of piano, vibes and electric guitar as its primary backdrop.

But that’s hardly a detriment when the formula is so good, so reliable and so suited to their collective strengths, provided they have a decent story to go with it and with Sunset To Dawn that’s definitely the case.

Removing the specter of Esther’s imminent departure from your interpretation of the lyrics, something none of them were aware of at the time this was written, you still have a poignant look at a breakup in the rear view mirror as Walker seems to have been caught off guard by his love’s departure and as such is more stunned and shaken by it than angry or sad.

It’s like his breath has been taken away as he tries to collect his thoughts to formulate an explanation that will ease his mind and put everything into perspective. To that end the couplets are well crafted, insightful and fairly deep, yet still come across as natural rather than a stab at literary pretentiousness.

Walker excels at displaying the kind of wounded vulnerability shown here, looking inward as he sings rather than attempting to court sympathy by revealing his plight. The arrangement certainly helps by letting Otis’s vibes provide the haunting atmospheric touches while Devonia Williams’ piano acts as the stabbing reminders of his pain which Pete Lewis’s guitar then tears open to seemingly make him suffer even more, picking at the scab slowly, one note repeated ad infinitum before switching things up once he finally gets down to raw skin.

Everything fits together seamlessly as is the case with most of Otis’s best work where subtlety takes the place of flashiness, letting the mood settle over the record like the nightfall described in the song. As with a few other singles of theirs this is one best suited for the time they lay out, three o’clock in the morning, a half empty bottle of bourbon within reach, lights off, window open to hear the endless silence that envelops you in your time of sorrow.

A classic mood piece for brokenhearted insomniacs.


Feels Like I’m Living In My Last Hour
During their two years with Savoy, Johnny Otis and company had recorded so many tunes that the end of their contract in a month’s time was not the end of their releases on the label, as the company naturally pulled out other tracks in the coming months hoping to get a last flurry of sales out of their biggest names, but nothing else clicked like this one did.

Sunset To Dawn crept onto the national charts in Billboard the second week of January 1952, by which time Walker and Otis had cut records with Little Esther for Federal and then decamped elsewhere themselves… a questionable decision that we’ll get into when we’re faced with those records down the line.

For now though it’s worth noting just how special this association had been for all involved. Savoy never again had a rock artist – or artists as it were – who came close to matching the widespread appeal of Otis, Esther and Mel and in time the first of the notable independent labels chronologically – and one of the first to enthusiastically embrace rock in 1947 – would all but turn its back on the genre when they proved unable to find anyone who could connect with the ever younger audience the music was pulling in.

For his part Johnny Otis, though by no means finished as a big name or a hitmaker, would never again command the type of attention for his output as he did during these past two years when he established a prototype for a versatile band with multiple vocal stars that was currently at its peak in rock thanks to those like Joe Morris and The Griffin Brothers who took their cues from his work on Savoy.

Meanwhile Mel Walker, the sleepy voiced heartthrob who proved the perfect foil to Esther’s quirky sounding ingenue, soon saw his own career derailed by drug problems and his spot as rock’s most valued balladeer taken by Johnny Ace, another who would find success working with Otis, albeit with the latter uncredited.

All in all though it’s hard to understate how special this run actually was. At a time when rock was becoming more flamboyant, Otis had toned their work down and hit upon a previously unexplored niche that audiences couldn’t get enough of.

But now after two years of a steady stream of first-rate sides in this vein those same audiences essentially told them they’d had enough, thanks for everything though and it sure was good while it lasted.


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