Tags

No tags :(

Share it

ATLANTIC 887; OCTOBER, 1949

 
 

 

Can something be both a colossal mistake and yet still a pretty good example of someone’s talents?

We’re about to find out, because if ever there was an example of both qualities it’s surely this record, a completely misguided second effort by someone who’d soon be the leading light of female rock acts and the pillar of Atlantic Records growing stature.
 

 
Plain To See
Hopping on a bandwagon is never a good idea, no matter how promising the rewards for doing so may seem while standing on the sidewalk watching that bandwagon start to roll down the street.

Atlantic Records, not yet the venerated label it’d become in due time, was starting to find its footing as 1949 progressed but was still a long ways off from having their fortunes stabilize, especially now that their first two stars, Joe Morris and Tiny Grimes, had departed for greener pastures.

That should’ve been something of a concern to Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, and I’m sure at the time it was, but in all of the interviews Ertegun ever gave recounting Atlantic’s rise he usually jumped from one high point to the next after briefly touching on the hit and miss early years, not wanting to delve too deeply into their missteps.

Had he been more forthright then there’s no doubt that recounting the fall of 1949 would’ve marked a low point in their progress, not just for losing Grimes and Morris, but more so for their terrible decisions on what to release from their two remaining stars. First they inexplicably followed up Stick McGhee’s instant rock classic Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee, which had been the label’s biggest hit to date, with pure blues cuts that were far removed aesthetically from what he’d scored with, thereby severely curtailing his momentum, something he’d never regain on his way to being an historical afterthought save for that breakthrough hit.

Then with Ruth Brown who was coming off a Top Five hit with her debut, the sublime So Long from this past summer, they at least tried tapping into the same emotional vein with a cover version of the recently released I’ll Get Along Somehow, but it was poorly chosen in every conceivable way if they truly wanted to advance her career. While it would become a small territorial hit in some spots, it was dwarfed in sales and style by the original and in the process prevented Brown from building her own style for the time being.

But as we know being a flop, or even a bad idea to tackle in the first place, doesn’t mean the results themselves are worthless and without merit. Ruth Brown was too good of a vocalist to ever be wasting her time when she opened her mouth to sing and while the choice of the song itself – foisted upon her by Ertegun and Abramson who were desperate to latch onto a rising hit – was a bad move, if anyone could pull their collective asses out of the fire through sheer talent it was definitely Ruth Brown.
 

Though I Miss You
First let’s stop for a minute and get our bearings, just so everybody is fully aware of the circumstances surrounding this release.

Brown had only gone into a studio once since last spring and that was just a few days earlier in Philadelphia when she reunited with her still legal husband, but an eternal asshole, Jimmy Brown, who after abandoning her TWICE, the first time when he wanted to carouse with other women when he and Ruth had begun a fairly successful career together on the smaller stages of the East Coast, then when Ruth got a contract with Atlantic a year ago, the fall of 1948, Jimmy Brown showed up out of the blue asking to tag along and she agreed like a sap (which she fully admitted later that she was) and as a result instead of flying to New York as planned they drove up and en route got into an accident which nearly killed her. That’s when good ol’ Jimmy left her for a second time because he didn’t want to be caring for a cripple (her legs had been shattered and she was hospitalized for months).

Back on her feet and near the top of the charts Jimmy returned for another unwelcome encore in her life and convinced her and Atlantic Records to sign him to a contract as well, and she accompanied her “husband” on two songs which thankfully went unissued, since all Jimmy Brown deserved was a case of smallpox, the gout and the rapid onset of male pattern baldness for his transgressions.

A few days later, free of Jimmy (no word of whether he saw a saucy girl walking her poodle down the Broad Street and hopped out of the car to chase after them) Ruth was back in The Big Apple cutting tracks with Budd Johnson’s group, including a cover of the just released I’ll Get Along Somehow by newcomer Larry Darnell.

We know WHY Atlantic chose to cover this, that was just standard practice in the late 1940’s and into the mid-‘50’s. The songs, not the artists, were simply viewed as “product” and each record company sought to get in on the action of any new song that was making waves. But rock ‘n’ roll was in the process of changing that mentality and while it’d take awhile for that change to fully take hold it was already becoming clear that originality or individuality or whatever you wanted to call it, was being valued far more in rock circles than it ever had been on other musical styles.

This was especially true for songs which were utterly unique to begin with, such as Darnell’s version of this song which had been completely reinvented by adding an extended spoken interlude, ramping up the dramatic context of the established storyline and making it instantly recognizable and utterly idiosyncratic… in the hands of Larry Darnell and Larry Darnell alone.
 

Just One Picture Of You
Naturally Atlantic screwed this up in every way imaginable. Let’s recount the ways:

First off they never should have touched it to begin with for the reasons just laid out. It was now Darnell’s song through and through and their swooping in trying to grab sales was crass enough to begin with. More than that however no matter what they did they simply wouldn’t be able to top what Darnell had done and since his was so unusual it was foolish to even try.

Which brings us to the second way they botched this. Though wrongheaded in their attempt, Ertegun and Abramson weren’t deaf and they weren’t fools, as great a singer as she was they knew Brown couldn’t beat Darnell at his own game and so they initially didn’t try and take it on head to head by doing a straight rip-off all down the line. Instead they excised the spoken dialogue that made up Part Two of the record altogether and simply released the first part, the song itself, thereby absolving themselves of some of the guilt I’m sure.

But it was the spoken dialogue which was the drawing card to Darnell’s version so if Atlantic was indeed trying to pull in buyers who’d loved Larry Darnell’s take on it, then those people would be angry and confused at hearing Brown do the same song without the most notable section of it included.

In other words, why cover I’ll Get Along Somehow and leave out the part that made it big enough for you to want to cover in the first damn place?

So now having dug themselves a hole too deep to climb out of they promptly pulled it back off the market, removed the original B-side (Rocking Blues which we’ll get into tomorrow) and reissued this with the spoken Part Two serving as the new B-side… and that full-length version is what we’ll review here.

But by this point I’m pretty certain everyone involved, from Ruth to Ahmet and Herb, and perhaps you as well, would like us to forget it altogether.
 


 
 

All You Gave Was Conversation
Let’s start off by switching things up from where this review seemed headed – and, spoiler alert, where it will end up all the same – by saying that the original release, that would be I’ll Get Along Somehow (Part One), the standard song itself, is pretty good.

Not great, and definitely not fully appropriate for rock ‘n’ roll with its somewhat stilted musical elements they inject, but Brown herself can’t help but sing it really well. As always she’s completely believable in the role she’s cast in, selling the lyrics and the feelings behind it with assurance. Her reading turns the rather rote lyrics into something approaching profound self-examination.

The supper club backing music is far too outdated to be suitable for our needs, but if nothing else this would’ve made a decent B-side of a more slam-bang rocker… provided it wasn’t competing with a version made indelible by a newly conceived second half which made this side merely a prelude.

But that’s where this goes off the rails, both Atlantic’s decision to challenge Darnell’s superior rendition as well as Brown’s uncertain handling of the spoken section of I’ll Get Along Somehow (Part Two) which sounds like a poorly executed first attempt, something they might’ve been convinced to shelve when it was clear that she couldn’t properly handle it. Had they been determined to release it as a two-sider from the start then they almost certainly would’ve had her run through this again until she delivered a smoother take on it, not only vocally, as she clearly fumbles some lines, but also in getting her in the right frame of mind to be believable in what she says.

Considering that Brown would go on to become a legitimately first rate actress, winning a Tony on Broadway and turning in a scene stealing performance in the original movie version of John Waters’ classic film Hairspray, it’s obviously something she learned over the years because her acting here is stilted and awkward from the moment she starts to speak rather than sing.

Nothing about this rings true, she’s merely reading lines – badly at that, missing words, altering the meaning unintentionally – and is completely out of her element and she knows it. This type of performance was so novel when Darnell did it that the odds were against anyone else having the natural instinct to do something similar without immersing themselves in the template until it became second nature. Darnell had been doing this for some time on stage in New Orleans so for him it was as natural as breathing, but for anyone else it was like trying to climb a ladder wearing roller skates. You could conceivably do so and “get” the role you were trying to play, but you weren’t going to be comfortable doing it on tape right away.
 


 

All I Have Left
If Part One is a passable record, out of place for rock though it may be with the accompaniment, it’s still sung well enough to be admired, Part Two is a disaster in every way and something which Brown had to be cringing at when it got released.

We can excuse her bad performance and chalk it up to being asked to handle something completely out of her realm, so the bad grade here falls entirely into the lap of Ertegun and Abramson for thinking that trying to hop on a bandwagon after they’d already scored with Brown was a prudent move to make.

Not only does this show no confidence in her ability to repeat that earlier success without a gimmick, but it puts her in a no win situation. If somehow this did become a big seller it would be obvious to anyone with a set of ears that it paled in comparison to Darnell’s, and if it fails, which it thankfully did, it would prevent Brown from following up her hit with something that might extend her run. The more time you wasted with nonsense like this the more distant that hit got in the rearview mirror.

Luckily for Ruth she was good enough, and Atlantic was quick enough to see the error of their ways, to overcome this self-made obstacle, but that won’t save them from being skewered for trying something so boneheaded in the first place.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Ruth Brown for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)
 
 
 

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Larry Darnell (October, 1949)