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IMPERIAL 5124; MAY 1951

 

 

Whenever he was asked to look back on his work as New Orleans’ greatest producer of the 1950’s there was always one sticking point with Dave Bartholomew… his inability to break Smiley Lewis out into the larger market.

He was using the same band in the same studio as his hits with Fats Domino and others, Lewis was a good songwriter and frequently Bartholomew himself co-wrote the songs, and Smiley had a distinctive voice – loud, clear and ebullient – but for some reason the national hits were mostly lacking.

Around New Orleans he sold great, the locals knew Lewis well from his performances around town, but the further away you got from the Crescent City the less interest there was. Bartholomew could never quite figure out why.

Here’s the record that might provide that elusive answer.
 

 

I’m Awful Mad, It’s Awful Sad
Before any Smiley Lewis fans out there get their panties in a bunch, let me start off by saying this is a GOOD record. It’s upbeat, joyous and fun to hear.

But it’s also a little… quirky.

Yeah, that’s the word for it. Quirky – you know, unusual.. slightly atypical… somewhat odd even and in 1951 any quality that couldn’t be immediately processed by fans risked having that record fall by the wayside.

That may not be the true reason why Bee’s Boogie failed to click, but it’s the one that jumps out at you when you hear it in the context of the spring of 1951 as a lot of this record fits squarely in the rock that was storming the charts.

It’s got a hard-charging tempo, a lively piano and at times adds some nifty drum rolls, all which are engaging sounds. Lewis himself may have a vocal tone that takes awhile to get used to – a little strident at times with what we like to call around here a “metallic tone” – but his singing style is really infectious, he never loses sight of the melody and sings with a natural rhythmic quality that seems to skim along the surface of the song.

As for the theme of the record, what’s not to like? It’s an cheerful ode to a girl that throws in some remarkably detailed specifics told in a charmingly innocent way and the wordplay is first rate, flipping the title (and eliminating the second “e” in her name) to have it mean something else.

It may not be the deepest composition and Lewis might not be approaching Roy Brown when it comes to vocal prowess and even the lack of an identifying lead instrument like Fats Domino’s piano might hinder its instant appeal, but you’d certainly think that someone as unique as Smiley Lewis would have little trouble drawing attention.

Unless that was the problem… not so much Lewis himself, but the way in which Dave Bartholomew framed this record in his first freelance job rather than acting as the official producer/arranger as in the past.

Dare we even suggest that there might’ve been some attempt to stick it to Imperial Records after acrimoniously leaving company months earlier. Would he do that to Smiley, his old pal from the neighborhood, or was he merely using this as an opportunity to stretch out and experiment now that he didn’t feel the need to be commercial for a company who’d done him wrong?
 


 
 

Watch Yourself Boy, Don’t You Mess Around
When you think of rock ‘n’ roll, particularly the New Orleans variety, you think of rhythm, you think of swirling tenor saxes with booting solos and you think of stomping backbeats. Throw in a boogie piano – and certainly on a record called Bee’s Boogie you’d think that would be front and center – and you have ingredients that were as reliable as any in rock for a dozen years or more.

Granted the singer had to be good and the material fairly appealing on its own, but as Bartholomew himself proved over time, you could take this formula a long ways with just a few tweaks along the way.

But what he does here is more than tweaking that formula, it’s re-writing it – or trying to anyway – treating Smiley Lewis’s record as something of a test for his own creative urges. Though we get Tuts Washington’s piano kicking it off, we then get a bass solo which follows… an interesting sound for sure, but one that may throw a listener who can’t remember when they last heard one.

Then there’s the matter of the lightly riffing horns behind Lewis’s vocals which sound distant and submerged. They balance okay with Smiley’s voice, we’re not suggesting they were clashing, but rather it’s not the kind of grab you by the throat kind of horn refrain we’re used to hearing.

Speaking of which what comes next – the very thing that defines this record – is so unexpected that you couldn’t very well write about or talk about the song without mentioning Michael Waldren’s trombone solo.

That’s right, a trombone solo. The first – and if not quite the last, one of the few – in rock ‘n’ roll. Bartholomew makes it fit but when you’re expecting a tenor sax to honk away and get this instead you’re caught off guard to say the least. It’s not for nothing that Waldren’s nickname was Frog… one listen to the croaking sounds his trombone produces will tell you why.

It goes on for 24 bars – more than a half minute if you’ve got a stopwatch on it – and due to the nature of the instrument it can’t offer much variations like a sax can. As a result it comes across like a gimmick even though it’s certainly it’s not being done for laughs, but if it undercuts the song’s momentum it doesn’t really matter what the intent was, only the results. When we finally DO get a saxophone it’s Joe Harris’s alto, not one of the tenors on the session, taking much of the bite out of the performance.

Then there’s the fact the drums, which in the turnaround are crackling, yet rather than emphasize a tougher beat Earl Palmer winds up lightly clicking away behind the horn, a jazz trait even though this is not a song you’d associate with jazz in any other way.

By the time Lewis wraps up the story you haven’t been thrashed around like the best New Orleans rockers have done, there’s no adrenaline spent, nothing to make your heart pound or your pulse quicken. It’s intriguing but never gripping… a curio, not a hit.
 


 

I’m Coming Back Strong
Let’s cut right to the chase and ask ourselves, would this have been a hit with a tougher more muscularly aggressive arrangement?

Or at least would it have been more easily accepted with a few more typical musical touches to its name?

I think so. That’s not to say people don’t like Bee’s Boogie well enough as it is, but it sticks out because of Bartholomew’s oddball choices rather than as a galvanizing classic, meaning a lot of people find those attributes amusing because they’re so uncommon.

In the singles era you had two songs every three or four months that had to connect with the public in order to keep the artist at the forefront of audience’s mind. Established artists could afford to have a commercial miss and not suffer the next time out because their name recognition assured they’re next sides would be eagerly anticipated, but Smiley Lewis wasn’t in that position yet. He needed THESE sides to be hits to get him to that next level where experimentation like this wouldn’t be a setback if it happened to be met with more confusion than elation.

On an album this kind of thing would be much more welcome because it’d offset the normal arrangements to a degree, giving the listener some variety in his output. But when you have one shot to score a hit and you’re placing your money – and his career prospects – on a trombone solo of all things, maybe the reason Dave Bartholomew kept wondering in interviews why Smiley Lewis had trouble scoring hits was to deflect attention away from some of his questionable production choices along the way.

This is still good and well worth hearing, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a surefire hit which is precisely what he needed.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Smiley Lewis for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)