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The road Ruth Brown had been headed down since signing with Atlantic Records has covered an amazing amount of ground but she’s traveled it remarkably quickly.

Determined to sing classy pop and jazz-tinted ballads, Brown’s attempts in that realm were commercially stagnant even if her artistic standards were generally pretty high. One hit with a hybrid type record on her debut was all she had to show for her efforts after a year and a half when she was talked into cutting an uptempo rocker in late 1950 and promptly scored the biggest chart topper by a female rocker yet.

Since then her course as been clear – racier songs that rode the rhythm and got your hips moving yet still featuring tight cohesive bands and high production values.

But with nothing but success over the past year maybe they got a little cocky for here it sounds as if they’ve recorded her in a tobacco barn with a pickup unit of musicians with little rehearsal and shoddy equipment, surely thinking that with the roll she was on it didn’t matter what the record sounded like, people would buy it just the same.

They quickly learned otherwise.


Left Me Standing Here
A little while back when covering Fats Domino’s version of his Don’t You Lie To Me, we mentioned the name Tampa Red, a bluesman with a long career who generally doesn’t get much, if any, credit for his rock influence while other bigger names whose styles were much less directly connected with rock – Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters – tend to get far too much credit.

But Tampa Red began recording in the 1920’s and since he didn’t sell – or even rent – his soul to the Devil, there wasn’t much interest shown in him by later historians who tend to take their cues from a handful of white artists from Britain when it comes to bestowing credit on Black American blues acts and as a result Tampa Red is all but unknown today.

Yet the actual impact of his work on the first generation of rockers was far higher than most bluesman of any era, whether through the artists themselves drawing from him, or in the case of Shine On, a record label turning to a song of his in an effort to broaden the potential appeal of their top rock act, Ruth Brown, by adapting one of his recent songs, originally titled Since My Baby’s Been Gone.

That had only been released this past summer and while that kind of loose infectious blues was no longer the dominant strain in a commercial realm, it definitely had a stronger musical connection to rock ‘n’ roll than the brilliantly primitive How Many More Years by Howlin’ Wolf or John Lee Hooker’s meditative I’m In The Mood, both of which would be huge hits in the coming months.

Though it didn’t quite work here its relative failure to connect may have actually helped to show Atlantic Records what their formula for success entailed – and pointedly – what it didn’t.


Tryin’ To Drink My Blues Away
Though Ruth Brown has got a larger ensemble working behind her than the three pieces Tampa Red used, the studio band led by Howard Biggs seem far more concerned with appearing shambolic, apparently to give the impression of the loose roadside jam session they envisioned Red’s having been.

The problem is Tampa Red’s original sounds much tighter and more focused than Ruth Brown’s barrelhouse reading of the song. Whereas Red’s is driven by Johnny Jones piano which remains squarely in the pocket while Ransom Knowling’s bass and Odie Payne’s clickety-clack drumming are concerned only with maintaining the simple rhythm, Biggs’ own piano on Brown’s rendition is intentionally sloppy, even throwing a few bum notes in to give it a disorganized feel.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have some appeal in this way, but the string of hits Brown was riding before this never sacrificed precision for excitement and when they do just that on Shine On, it can’t help but stick out.

They’re trying too hard to create a false musical setting in other words and that’s never going to be as satisfying as fine-tuning the attributes to suit their star by focusing on what they know works for her based on past arrangements.

Similiarly Brown herself is being asked to play up the drinking angle, presumably because it conveys a more desperate frantic state of mind, even though Tampa Red was never careening out of control on the original. When you have someone of Brown’s vocal talents this kind of adjustment reeks of overthinking the problem by half.

Thankfully she doesn’t let herself get too carried away by their instructions and is able to keep her performance within the boundaries of good sense, appearing sad and yearning but not falling apart at the seams. The strained vocal isn’t her best from the standpoint of tonal quality however and you wonder if lowering her pitch and taking on a slightly different perspective, one of indignant frustration that this guy had the gall to leave her, might’ve worked better as it’d have still allowed her to express the same basic feelings but would’ve made her seem less like a victim and more like somebody who’d simply met her match.


I Don’t Want Nobody Else
Speaking of meeting her match, look who’s on board here to provide the most important musical assist to the record… none other than her companion Willis Jackson who filled this role on her first smash, but then had gone off on his own after that. It was Brown who got him signed to the label – although presumably she wasn’t responsible for the lightweight reading of Harlem Nocturne that had been featured on his first single released this past summer – and it was Brown who now insisted he back her in the studio.

It was a good move to make too, especially for Shine On (Big Bright Moon, Shine On) (as its full title read) which needed someone powerful to bring this slapdash arrangement in line.

On Tampa Red’s record, in addition to playing guitar he took the solo on kazoo, which was his preferred instrument as of late. It seems like it’d be a poor choice but he blew it with a rhythmic insistence that was somewhat endearing and while the quacking tone wasn’t very compelling he was judicious in its use and was able to get away with it.

But no kazoo is a match for Jackson’s tenor sax and he blows up a storm here, bringing some much needed gravity to what had been at risk for floating away without much resistance. The other horns behind him may be a little ineffectual and Biggs’ piano is far too busy, but the shuffling drums and Jackson’s presence hold this down until the tail end when they dramatically switch the tempo for the kind of showy coda they hoped would bring the house down in live settings.

It probably wouldn’t, but you can’t claim they were just resting on their past laurels even if heading in this direction wasn’t quite the one they were best suited for.

I Think I’m On My Way
It’s always interesting to see how a record company reacts to a sudden surge in popularity of one of their acts based on a new approach they’d taken along the way.

With Brown the shift from classy ballads to boisterous rockers was a smart one, unleashing her power and tapping directly into the mood of the biggest audience she could possibly target. Yet once Teardrops hit they tried to just tweak the melody and hope that’d be enough to stir the same passions in their listeners.

They got some hits and she was still great, but they were faced with diminishing returns each time out so with Shine On they tried keeping the same rolling rhythms but took it further away from the earlier songs with their undercurrent of sophistication, choosing instead to push this a little further into what they probably perceived as a rural market.

It doesn’t work as well as they hoped, there’s still far too much going on for the song to get a powerful visceral reaction, but doesn’t altogether fail at it either. The record’s best attributes are Brown and Jackson and the more they focus on the style they’d perfected earlier, the better off this is.

But since we get on record labels for sticking too closely to formula all the time we can’t fault Atlantic for trying to move beyond it a little here, yet that minor experiment winds up showing is that they were on the right track before.

Confirmation by default.


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