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MODERN 20-778; OCTOBER 1950



Never a star but frequently in the orbit of them was a woman who had a career that lasted a half century, comfortable shifting styles to suit the times… or the record label or the band she was paired with as the case may be… but always handling each assignment with a disarming self-assurance.

For this reason it might be best to call Mickey Champion a role player, someone who couldn’t carry a team – or a record company – but could fill in and deliver whatever was necessary to keep them on track until the headliners showed up.

In 1950 what was necessary for so many independent labels was rock ‘n’ roll, even if she was singing it with a group that weren’t entirely rockers.


It Never Goes Like It Should
First the bite-sized biographical background for Ms. Champion, the married name of the woman born Mildred Sallier in Louisiana who reputedly impressed Louis Jordan on tour when he saw her sing in church that he offered to take her on tour with him as an opening act – something the aunt raising her refused to let her consider.

After graduating high school she married non-musician Norman Champion and moved to Los Angeles where she made a name for herself singing in clubs. But now she was in her mid-twenties and divorced – but keeping that great surname – she signed with Modern Records after a brief ill-fated turn on 4 Star Records and began her career in earnest.

There’s some uncertainty whether she was paired right away with Roy Milton, who was not signed to Modern, but rather Specialty, but since the two of them would soon be shacking up together and since we’ve only been able to mention Milton in passing as one of rock’s most vital fore bearers, this is as good a time as any to delve into his importance.

Of the 1940’s stylistic predecessors the general consensus is there was the aforementioned Louis Jordan… and then everyone else. But first among the “everyone else” was undoubtedly Roy Milton who in the mid-1940’s became the vital next step in the evolution that would eventually lead to rock ‘n’ roll.

His band, the exquisitely named Solid-Senders, featured Camille Howard on piano and frequent vocals (also getting her own releases backed by the band under her own name) but while both could sing alright it was instrumentally where they really excelled, shedding some of the swing elements that Jordan still featured and focusing more on emphasizing the rhythm. Their R.M. Blues in 1946 was one of the most important pre-rock milestones in the genre, showcasing many of the elements that would soon be building blocks of the next wave of music.

But when rock began to emerge in 1947 Milton, now past forty years of age, was already too successful and too set in his ways to radically update their approach, though songs like Hop, Skip & Jump from 1948 clearly shared a similar mindset and would be done by future rockers down the line. Occasionally they’d inch closer to it though and in the summer of 1950 they hit with Junior Jives, probably the closest he and the group got to making a pure rock record under their own name featuring Junior Rogers scorching guitar.

Clearly Milton was looking to capitalize on rock even if he was aware he couldn’t fully give himself over to it, and so leaving aside the real-life sparks between them which resulted in a wedding and two children, Mickey Champion proved to be the ideal bridge to the next generation.

Whether it’s Milton’s band backing her on I’ve Got It Bad as some suggest, or Johnny Otis’s crew with whom she’d worked on the road, subbing for Little Esther who was too young to work nightclubs following her big hits this past winter, isn’t full clear. But what is clear is the Mickey Champion could handle herself just fine no matter who was playing behind her.


Don’t Gamble With My Love
Despite the big names that might be involved, the band here is only doing what’s necessary to put across the song, but little more. Opening with rolling horns and some decent drumming followed by a slightly whimsical piano, this is a standard arrangement taken from Chapter One of the rock handbook for beginners. It’s not played well enough to suffice despite being rather unimaginative, forcing the novice singer to carry the weight of I’ve Got It Bad on her pipes alone.

For her part though Champion is pretty spot on throughout this, seizing control of the song, gently coaxing the melody along and delivering it all with a self-assured voice. She may not have a golden throat but she’s better equipped than Little Esther when it comes to pure tone. Whether she can mine the lyrics for the same kind of emotional connection as her younger “rival” however is still to be determined because aside from being a fairly straightforward arrangement, this is also a pretty by-the-numbers composition as well.

Though the title doesn’t give the theme away there’s a gambling motif this tries to use and although it doesn’t find a good way to connect itself to the title line in the chorus, the lyrics themselves are pretty effective when taken in isolation. You just wish they built a better story around it so Champion would have a clear destination in mind rather than try and milk each individual line to make up for the vague plot. That she pulls it off as well as she does shows she’s hardly lacking for confidence or know-how when it comes to presenting herself on record, an intuitive gift that would go a long ways in always ensuring she had plenty of opportunities even when the record sales didn’t live up to their expectations

Try And Play Hard And See
Musically their lack of creativity is definitely a hindrance, though not a fatal one. The worst decision being their choice to give too much time over to the trumpet which is called on to answer each of her lines during the first half. The first time or two you hear it there’s no reason to wince, but the more times it replies the more lackluster it sounds, simply because it’s doing nothing to surprise us.

They redeem themselves rather unexpectedly however halfway through when the trumpet bows out and lets Pete Lewis’s guitar take over the responsory role for the middle-section. There’s no question this is Lewis rather than Rogers, as Lewis’s harsh snarling tone is unmistakable and if anyone can provide an unexpected spark to the proceedings it’s definitely him.

His lines are quick and biting, drawing blood on their first notes and then at times ripping the flesh a little more just for good measure. It gives I’ve Got It Bad not just the musical kick it needs, but also adds a little weight to the concerns that Champion herself is voicing.

The solo is really well played but because it’s so much more assertive than everything around it it causes a slight disconnect with the rest of the song, something accentuated when Lewis hands things back over to the trumpet down the stretch and sucks the air out of the record in the process. But rather than bemoan that, just celebrate the fact that Lewis’s guitar is easily the most notable aspect of this recording and it’s to her credit that while it’s around Champion isn’t overwhelmed by its presence, even if she doesn’t quite raise her game to try and match it.

In the end this is the kind of record that fits seamlessly into the scene without standing out, hardly a criticism but probably not something you’d champion either (pardon the obvious and terrible pun).

Learn The Golden Rule
Usually you can’t accurately assess an artist’s entire half century career by just their earliest releases but with Mickey Champion you probably could.

She was skilled enough to leave you satisfied with her work, yet not dazzling enough to be a must hear artist. She understood how to deliver a song and had a good enough voice to be suited for all types of material, yet she wasn’t distinctive enough to define any one style.

As for I’ve Got It Bad, that too would wind up being very prescient when it came to much of the rest of her output over the ensuing decades… wherein she often had solidly crafted songs to work with, yet few that screamed “hit” on the lead sheet alone.

In other words Champion was – depending on how you want to frame it – either a really good journeywoman singer who’d make the most out of fairly middling material, or she was too nondescript to ever be a star without being given a lot more to work with.

Essentially they mean the same thing… she was average. But we’ll take the former description because she was consistently average, which when you come right down to it is something to be proud of. You’d always get what you paid for out of her in other words and be satisfied with it, even if you rarely – at least on record – got too much more than that.


(Visit the Artist page of Mickey Champion for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)