FEDERAL 12066; MARCH 1952



Oh, what the hell, why not?

Let’s just get them all out of the way at once and then we can be done with these guys for awhile.

Not that we’re getting sick of them, mind you, but it’s just that we’ve been discussing at length the saga of Johnny Otis and his ill-conceived decision to leave a deal with Federal Records on the table and take a more lucrative one from Mercury Records instead which kind of killed his chances at remaining relevant after being rock’s most prolific star the last two years.

So rather than spread these out and be forced to catch everybody up on matters, we can sort of wrap things up with his partner in crime, guitarist Pete Lewis with the rest of Otis’s band in tow mere weeks after Johnny hung Federal out to dry.


Mapping Things Out
Okay, so what’s the deal here? We know Pete “Guitar” Lewis well, but not as a solo performer. He’s been one of Johnny Otis’s right hand men the entire time Johnny was under contract to Savoy.

Lewis was no stranger to Federal Records of course, as Otis’s band slipped in the studios under cover of darkness over the past year to surreptitiously back their former vocal star Little Esther for the label.

Of course Lewis was always free to sign with any label he wanted as a solo act, as the Savoy contract had been strictly with Otis. The same was true once Otis decided at the last minute to jump ship to Mercury Records once his Savoy deal was finally up in December 1951 rather than uphold his handshake agreement with Federal’s Ralph Bass to join that company instead.

So that explains why Lewis not only continued to record with Johnny at Mercury, but was in fact the featured musician on both sides we just looked at – the stupidly titled, but very good, Goomp Blues and the well-played but out of place One Nighter Blues, which was too bluesy on his end and too jazzy on Ben Webster’s side of the aisle.

But here’s where we can speculate some as we try and make sense of Johnny Otis’s seemingly bad decisions.

We accused him of simply taking more money from a bigger label and said how wrongheaded that had been, not just because he went back on his word, but also because Mercury wasn’t suited for rock ‘n’ roll. On top of that without vocalists at his disposal Johnny’s options were decidedly limited and far less commercial than had he gone to Federal and gotten to work again with Esther and the vocal group he scouted and brought to that company, The Royals.

Yet maybe he had something else in mind, as evidenced with Lewis cutting Louisiana Hop under his own name with the rest of Otis’s band in early January for the very company he had just spurned.

Otis may have figured that he’d have the best of both worlds by hoping his output with Mercury would reach a slightly older audience that company was more in tune with and who’d be appreciative of the bluesy or jazzy inclinations he still had. At the same time by letting those in his band, as well as Esther who still had a year to go on her deal, record for Federal it would allow him to stay in Bass’s good graces while his band earned extra money that didn’t come from his own pockets while at the same potentially giving the whole troop more hits with which to boost their appeal at the box office.

It didn’t quite work out that way of course, but maybe you can’t blame Johnny for dreaming.


Center Stage At Last
Let’s get two things out of the way first. One is that Johnny Otis, though perhaps present in the studio, does not appear on the record, just as he hadn’t with Little Esther in the past. Maybe that was due to being afraid to run afoul of his contract with Savoy and now Mercury. Everyone else here however – from Leard Bell on drums, to Devonia Williams on piano and Mario Delagarde on bass – were members in good standing of Otis’s deep and diverse crew.

The other thing of note is that this song, credited to Lewis as a songwriter, is “tougher” than his recent sides that Johnny wrote for Mercury.

Was that because Federal Records were targeting the rock crowd more fervently than the aspiring major label Mercury, or just one of those random things as chances are they all worked each one of the songs out to a degree in the studio together or on the tour bus, club or backstage over the past few weeks.

Regardless of how it came about, Louisiana Hop (reputedly the state where Lewis was originally from) is an excellent display of his talents as Bell’s ticking time bomb cymbals and snare and the ominous horns on the intro lead into Lewis’s snarling guitar that winds its way around your senses playing melodic lines that never quite work their way into a memorable riff.

Despite a seeming lack of refined focus the interplay is good, as the horns give us a circular pattern that grounds this while Lewis runs wild.

Every note he plays is dripping with tension as he takes this at a medium tempo which simultaneously lulls you into a hypnotic state, yet keeps your heart racing nervously as he slithers along with deceptively quick maneuvers, always seemingly ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Even when he yields to let the sax take a relatively basic solo Lewis remains a lethal threat just flicking its tongue from the weeds.

There’s no wasted moments here, everything falls into place nicely and though there’s hardly a wide market for guitar instrumentals, especially one that seems threatening rather than inviting, anyone who hears this certainly won’t doubt the skill of Pete Lewis… nor will they comfortably turn their back on him after this.


Lurking In Dark Corners
Somehow, despite Johnny Otis’s apparent overtures to Ralph Bass to try and keep their professional relationship from falling apart I have to think Ralph was a little pissed off that all he got out of their friendship was some instrumentals without much commercial potential (the flip side of this, Crying With The Rising Sun was a vocal that was pure blues, not a style Federal seemed interested in) and a mousy voiced singer who appeared to be on the downside of her career before being old enough to drive an automobile.

Of course considering Otis’s own hitmaking days were rapidly dwindling as we speak – for the time being anyway – it didn’t turn out well for any of them.

Well, maybe it did for Pete “Guitar” Lewis, who shows what he can do on Louisiana Hop and does so under his own name for once rather than being the anonymous guy with a guitar delivering some blistering fret work only to see Johnny Otis take the bows and collect the royalties.

It’s funny that the last three sides we’ve examined all featured good playing by Lewis and yet all suggest that there’d be nothing worthwhile to show for these exercises due to the realities of the market which wasn’t quite in tune with this sort of thing on top of which having to contend with the unfortunate business decisions that led us to this point.

This one might not be suited for the kind of frivolous house party that rock thrived in, but listening to it would be sure to get your baby to hold you tight there once the lights went low.


(Visit the Artist page of Pete “Guitar” Lewis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)