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FEDERAL 12038; JULY 1951

 
 

 

The day to day routine of this site should be pretty apparent after five years and 1,500 reviews of rock’s early history. The same artists show up every few weeks or months with new offerings, the same labels are releasing a steady stream of records and while inevitably some of each drop off the radar while others take their place, there’s a predictable ebb and flow to it all by now.

So as a change of pace this is a record that’s not really vital in rock’s story at all, in fact some might say it barely qualifies, but it allows us a chance to take a brief step back and sort of take in part of the larger scene before diving back in tomorrow with a classic record that will help hurtle us into the future.

Call it a meaningless diversion if you want, or you can be kind and say it’s a welcome respite from daily grind. Either way though it’s a good way to take stock of things in mid-1951 as rock ‘n’ roll heats up even more during the summer months.
 

 

Ran Out On Me
You’ll notice a few things looking at the record label that should be familiar.

The first of course is the company itself, Federal Records, a subsidiary of King which was started late last year to entice former Savoy producer Ralph Bass to jump ship, as Syd Nathan would let him run the imprint virtually independently of King with whatever artists he could sign. The parent company would pay for the sessions, for the pressings and for the distribution and advertising (and take the profits of course… this wasn’t charity after all) but Bass would be given a free hand to essentially run his own label with no financial risk.

Bass’s biggest coup had to been to take Little Esther with him from Savoy, something he was able to do because she was underage and therefore not bound by her contract, but he would have to wait for Esther’s professional benefactor Johnny Otis, who was over 18 and thus still in servitude to Herman Lubinsky for another year.

But that leads to the second thing you should notice if you’re paying attention which is half of the writing credit – Johnny Otis. You see, despite not being officially able to record for Federal, Johnny had still been contributing songs under aliases and lending use of his entire band – minus his own distinctive vibraphone – to Esther’s Federal sides and though none of them had clicked it was still seen as just a temporary setback, a quirk rather than a troubling downward trend.

And that brings us to the final notable feature of this, one harder to discern without substantial knowledge of Otis’s background. One of his best friends and an early bandmate in the Omaha territory bands of his formative years was saxophonist Preston Love, who in case you were Wondering had not joined Johnny’s band when the latter got his big break a few years back because by then Love was playing alto in Count Basie’s band.

Since that time though Otis became a huge star overseeing a wide array of musicians and singers, while Love remained a working musician, gigging most of the year for modest pay and certainly no widespread acclaim. Now that he had some pull Otis convinced Ralph Bass to give his old friend a record deal of his own in the hopes of improving his prospects.

What was the harm? After all, Bass wasn’t paying for it.
 

Have Mercy On Me
Going by titles alone, this side is probably not the one rock fans would reach for first, as the flip side called Voodoo promises to be much more alluring.

Unfortunately it’s also much less rock… not at ALL rocking in fact, more like a jazz mood piece marred by a theatrical vocal by baritone George Williams.

It’s fairly exotic and well played for sure, but if you’re one of those who found Jerry Butler’s 1960’s detour into movie themes like Tarus Bulba to be a waste of his talents in between his rock output that preceded it and his return to rock which would follow later in the decade, here’s where you might think he got those ideas. Though Williams can sing alright, he is far too stilted to be very effective, especially in such a quirky song as that.

Which is what makes the more unassuming Wondering an unexpected treat.

No, it’s not a great rock record by any means, but if you strip away the stylistic requirements for our preferred genre and let it exist in its own space it works pretty well.

The melody is clearly drawn from Drifting Blues, the classic Charles Brown side with Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers from 1946, but this leans into the haunting vibe more and with Love’s saxophone answering vocalist Charles Maxwell it does give it somewhat of a rock ballad feel, but it’s still a buttoned-down type of rock if you want to be truthful.

The arrangement which is fairly straightforward to start with becomes almost avant garde for awhile in the middle stretch as Devonia Williams contributes a piano interlude that sounds more like wind chimes being played, almost like an ominous warning in a black and white samurai flick on the late late show before seguing back into something a bit more melodic.

There’s trombones and trumpets and other atypical rock instruments wafting into the picture but Otis’s arrangement manages to fit them in okay, drawing out suspense as the break goes on. Maxwell’s return on vocals is drenched in echo giving added resonance to his paranoia in the song’s best passage and while it doesn’t have quite the tension filled payoff we were hoping for, it’s still a fairly gripping performance for someone who’s merely complaining about his girl walking out on him for unnamed transgressions.
 

Hang Around My Door
You’d think with Otis’s recent run of massive success that Preston Love might reconsider his options and ask to to join up with his friend on a full-time basis, and surely Johnny would be amenable to that (they already were writing together occasionally, as a Mel Walker side around the corner was penned by the two of them).

Instead he’d continue to follow his own trail for a lot longer, though they would have a second session for Federal in which Otis was by then free to play on the sides, only one of which qualifies as rock though. In the mid-1950’s Love would be credited as the main performer on some sides Otis had cut for his own Ultra and Dig labels, even though Love didn’t play on any of them (he was back in Omaha leading his own band at the time) but Johnny was trying to get his buddy a hit to help his prospects further, showing just how deep their friendship ran.

But eventually, after Johnny had put music on the back burner and was involved with politics and writing in the mid-1960’s, the two would play together officially on the 1968 LP Preston Love’s Omaha Bar-B-Q featuring Johnny’s super-talented teenage son Shuggie on guitar which remains a cult-favorite to this day.

As for Wondering, while it’s Love’s debut as a headliner on record, it’s little more than a blip on the radar for either of them… a decent record that has the misfortune of being slightly out of place in any dominant style of the day.

The rest of their output from their sessions with Federal, save that one later cut we’ll get to in 1952, shows just how broad their musical interests were however, as we get straight pop, jazz and atmospheric experiments that are even far less commercial than this.

But at least we get something to mark the importance of the their enduring friendship and to try and glean some insight into Otis’s thinking at a moment in time when his career was approaching a state of flux. That’s what friends are for.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: