No tags :(

Share it

RCA 20-5069; DECEMBER 1952



It’s never easy to peer into the future and predict things with much accuracy, especially cultural shifts based on taste and exposure to new ideas.

Maybe that’s why the mainstream music industry of the 1950’s held the line and tried keeping change at bay. At least with traditional pop music things changed at a glacial pace, so they knew where they stood from one day to the next. Not so in rock ‘n’ roll for which they had an added disadvantage of not understanding or appreciating it, even when it had the potential to make them money.

Yet they knew they risked being left behind altogether if they refused to acknowledge it and so labels like RCA made tentative forays into rock ‘n’ roll without realizing that the guy they were currently touting would be one of the genre’s most important figures not long after they got rid of him for not living up to their expectations.

Of course to be fair not even a dedicated rock fan might’ve been able to see clearly enough into the future to know just how he’d pull that off.


Don’t You Wait Until It’s Too Late
We’ve already come across Otis Blackwell once before in a duet with Viola Watkins on Jubilee Records, but while he’ll have a number of quality records under his own name over the years, it will be with his songwriting that he’ll ultimately leave his mark on rock ‘n’ roll.

Yet here we get both and if his voice is hardly star-material, he already shows that his approach to crafting a song is slightly different than his early 50’s contemporaries… but of course how could anyone in late 1952 realize the more compact arrangement building tension to set off explosive releases was the sound of tomorrow?

But then again, doesn’t it stand to reason that RCA-Victor saw something in Blackwell that prompted them to sign him in the first place?

No, don’t be silly, they had nobody who really believed in this music on an aesthetic level and so unsurprisingly Blackwell’s signing to the label was little more than a favor to publisher Joe Davis who had seen something in Blackwell.

Davis is an interesting guy, initially a songwriter who was instrumental in the careers of many big names, especially pianist Fats Waller, he soon realized the value of owning the songs and moved into publishing which led him to start quite a few record labels, many conceived as a tax dodge to avoid paying excise tax which got him in hot water with the IRS. Eventually he set up an arrangement with MGM to take his own records, forcing them to pay the excise tax. So there’s little question he was a sharpie always looking for an angle.

But to say he was just a cheat would be to underrate his other contributions, as in the 1950’s he cut a lot of New York vocal groups and put them out on his own labels. Blackwell was someone who ended up there as well after his RCA releases starting with Wake Up Fool failed to sell.

But the mere fact that Davis was a big enough name to get the label to sign Blackwell in the first place shows his importance in the industry and with RCA still trying to figure out this rock ‘n’ roll thing, you’d think they might’ve trusted Davis’s musical instincts if not his business practices and stuck with Blackwell a little longer, especially since his debut for them isn’t half bad.


You’ll Have A Much Better Feeling You’ve Got Somebody Next To You
Give RCA de facto rock producer Joe Thomas credit for one thing… he used good session musicians anchored by guitarist René Hall, who was one of the few rock figures signed to the label as a solo act himself. Joining him here is old friend Frank “Floorshow” Culley on tenor saxophone and Budd Johnson on baritone, giving this a very authentic feel.

What stands out though is the arrangement itself as much as the guys playing it and here’s where we have to indulge in speculation, as I’m sure Thomas would like you to believe he was responsible but though he’s written his fair share of songs for would-be rock acts alongside Howard Biggs, they were hardly very challenging leading you to believe this was somebody else’s handiwork. Joe Davis himself was said to “supervise” the session, but that usually means they were having a sandwich and flirting with the secretary.

Therefore the two most likely candidates are Hall, who’d become one of rock’s best arrangers by the late 1950’s, and Blackwell himself who wrote the song and thus had the original conception for it if nothing else.

Whoever is responsible though deserves a lot of credit because Wake Up Fool is a ball of coiled energy with Hall’s vibrant guitar opening that leads into a decidedly funky drum pattern by Roland Jefferson that is like an aural interpretation of Tourette syndrome – all twitchy action confined to a small space.

Blackwell doesn’t wait for the pauses to chime in, but rather he sings directly over this, smartly drawing out the lines which gives the song the yin-yang effect that makes it so effective. He’s reasonably calm and collected as he dispenses some broad advice about needing someone to spend your life with, while the rhythm section might actually be the ones he’s lecturing because they sound as if they’re in desperate need of Adderall.

But that’s what makes the record crackle as the backing throughout this is so mesmerizing that you’re almost at risk for losing track of the story and allowing Blackwell’s voice to become merely another instrument rather than to stand out. That might actually be to its advantage because his nasal high pitched whine is odd enough, but it’s the tonal quality that really makes it hard to digest. He’s a tenor that is cutting a song ideally suited for a baritone where the weightier presence would give the entire song more power.

Though he doesn’t appear to be addressing someone specifically if going strictly by the lyrics, his voice makes it come across as if he’s complaining which leads you to think he’s chastising a girl who turned him down. But those same lyrics would sound more dismissively threatening if he had a more resonant voice, driving home the warning that lays beneath it all which suggests that a lonely life is a miserable life.

Yet the story – no matter which way it’s taken – is solid because the underlying message is true, while the individual lines show good craftsmanship and combined with the quirky arrangement it’s a hard record not to feel some affection for. It desperately could’ve used a sax solo to give us a break from Blackwell’s voice and the unrelenting distinctive pattern behind him, but otherwise this shows a lot of promise in a number of ways which surely was something that RCA should’ve realized and sought to capitalize on down the road.


When Your Time Is Done, You Can’t Come Back Another Day
Of course they did no such thing.

It’s fine to do somebody like Joe Davis, who was important in the industry, a favor, but it’s clear that was all it was.

Otis Blackwell got just one session, cut four songs and got two singles and while Wake Up Fool was adequately promoted now that RCA was at least putting their money behind these rock efforts in weekly Cash Box ads, it wouldn’t do much good because none of their artists had much credibility with the audience either because they were older refugees from other musical backgrounds, or in Blackwell’s case, a younger, untested – and rather odd sounding – singer without a dynamic personality to hype.

Still, what he shows here is that his conceptual ideas are really good, his songwriting is sharp and his understanding of the genre is first rate, none of which could be said about anyone else in RCA’s camp when it came to rock ‘n’ roll.

So while this was chalked up by the company as a relative failure, the real failure was in not having anyone on board who could see Blackwell’s strengths – and that of the session musicians – and figure out how to best utilize them, if not for his own records then for the influx of young talented rock acts they should’ve been signing these last few years.

You just wonder if anyone there appreciated the irony when they ultimately got that guy in Elvis Presley and saw Otis Blackwell’s name as the songwriter of some of his biggest hits.

Nah, who are we kidding? They probably forget they ever met him.


(Visit the Artist page of Otis Blackwell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)