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IMPERIAL 5072; MAY 1950

 

 

When charting the course of an artist’s career you expect a certain ebb and flow to take place, a series of sudden jumps and brief retreats as they established just who and what they were trying to be creatively.

But when early in that arc you come across a record that is a conceptual disaster, even if in yesterday’s case it was hardly entirely the artist’s fault, it forces you to step back and take stock in the story as it unfolds… Was this just a momentary blip on the radar and we’ll soon return to the more predictable path forward, or was it a troubling indication that the journey is going to become a lot more complicated and the ultimate destination far more uncertain?

For Smiley Lewis, someone who never quite became a star despite being a reliable presence in rock for almost an entire decade, the dominant theme of his career in the history books was that he had a few really great sides that were near-misses commercially earning him the Hard Lucky Smiley tag.

But now coming off a song which didn’t work in any conceivable way you might wonder if those handful of widely praised records that are so often referenced when recounting his story were themselves somewhat happy accidents, merely sporadic aberrations to a much more mundane day to day existence as a borderline figure in rock’s deeper plot.
 

 

Don’t Care What You Do
If that intro has you worried that you might be asked to turn in your Smiley Lewis Fan Club membership, fear not, for while this effort might not be worth getting TOO worked up about, it clearly shows that when left to his own devices Smiley Lewis still had plenty about him worth celebrating.

Not to pile on Dave Bartholomew, whose ill-conceived arranging choices marred Slide Me Down – albeit hardly a song that had the potential to be much more than mildly serviceable regardless of how less annoying he brandished his own trumpet in support – but the major difference between that side and this comes down to just “simplicity”.

The handful of songs that Lewis has released to date show some good songwriting instincts alongside some fairly mundane efforts… a few catchy melodies being mined that inevitably lead to some melodic repetitiveness the next time around.

In other words, Lewis was still coming into his own, figuring out what worked and what didn’t while having those experiments unveiled on record for all of us in the cheap seats to pick apart.

But the one thing that made Lewis’s best work so enjoyable was the interaction between him and his band led by venerable pianist Tuts Washington. Though Tuts was present on the other side, he wasn’t in his element, forced to merely add to the cacophony of sound rather than contribute anything notable.

On Growing Old however Washington is back in the driver’s seat, steering the song with his keyboard work as much as Smiley does with his singing, the two of them playing off one another with a sense of mutual respect and sheer joy that is intoxicating to hear.
 


 
 

Love Only You
The thirty year absence of Tuts Washington from the recording studio is one of music’s great crimes, robbing the public of who knows how many hours of listening pleasure through the years.

Although it was his own decision to leave Lewis after repeated personality conflicts as Lewis’s stature grew, the loss of Tuts’ melodic playfulness was something that couldn’t be replaced in Lewis’s band, even with studio aces taking the parts, and the way in which Washington shapes Growing Old with his choices proves this out.

Ostensibly the song is about lust mixed with sorrow as Smiley is head over heels about a girl who either cheats on him or they aren’t even together and he’s merely wishing they were and is upset that she’s dating other guys instead of him.

Either way that combination of elation and sadness is a tough thing to reconcile within a song that must share the same basic musical framework. This isn’t an opera where you have different movements to convey entirely different emotional moods, it’s just a two and a half minute rock single where everything must somehow fit together and yet somehow support the shifting perspective.

Leave it to Washington to do just that via some deceptively simple adjustments in his playing.
 

Satisfy My Soul
As the song starts out Lewis is expressing blissful optimism, recounting how much this girl means to him and so Tuts is mirroring that happiness with his most flamboyant playing. If a piano – an inanimate object – can sound as if it’s uncontrollably grinning with eager devotion, then Tuts Washington is the guy brushing its teeth so you can see those ivories gleaming.

His playing is quirky without making an issue out of it as his impeccable sense of timing gives him the license to bend the normal rules of accompaniment while still providing the grounded support that all singers need to keep the song on track.

His left hand anchors the circular rhythm leaving his right free to bounce all over the place, delivering some tasty lines which, aside from being just a lotta fun to listen to on their own, manage to provide the perfect tonal compliment to Lewis’s vibrato soaked baritone. The two sounds seem at odds in concept but they compliment each other beautifully, the dancing treble keys taking the edge off Lewis’s metallic quaver while Smiley’s voice serves to ground the piano’s notes that zip around like fireflies on a June night.

But as the song goes on his playing becomes slightly more subdued, a subtle shift in which Washington truly shows his musical intelligence. This gradual easing off of both the percussive qualities and the dexterity of his playing perfectly coincides with Smiley’s transformation from the buoyant outlook he started with to a darker vision as he realizes this girl is never going to be true. By the end, following a natural bridge between the two shores provided by the sax solo, Washington has reined himself in completely… the patterns are still in line with some of what he played earlier, but the mood they conjure up is far different thanks to the more controlled manner in which he delivers them.

Yet it never sounds anything but natural as it goes along. Whereas yesterday’s arrangement stood out for all the wrong reasons, this arrangement – provided you’re looking closely at it that is – stands out for all the right reasons and that comes down largely to the dignified genius of Tuts Washington.
 


 

After All
Bringing this back full circle to the idea of simplicity as a key component in highlighting Smiley Lewis’s strengths, let’s hand it to Bartholomew for keeping the production so basic.

Though there aren’t a lot of moving parts here Dave managed to make it continually interesting by judiciously employing the horns… the moaning intro that stretches its notes like pulled taffy… a sax solo that can justly be called “discreet” as it manages to add to both the rhythmic and melodic foundations already offered by Washington’s piano without adding TOO much, thereby upsetting the balance… and the fade which subverts its Richard Wagner lift which provides an ironic coda for the song considering its “love lost” conclusion.

Everything falls into place nicely, there’s no ill-fitting parts, no struggle over supremacy between the musicians themselves or a tug-of-war between the band and the singer. Best of all Growing Old never becomes redundant, each section brings something different to the table to picks up where the last part left off and takes it someplace else in a natural and entirely satisfying manner.

As a result this is not just an enjoyable record, but a continually interesting one, promising something new with each subsequent listen.

Though it may not be the the type of song to become a slam-bang surefire hit, it’s also not the kind of song that anyone should ever be unhappy about hearing.

Ultimately what it does is get Smiley Lewis back on the right track, reconfirming his promise and reminding those around him that when it comes to eliciting the best performances out of him, the key is to keep it simple… or in Tuts Washington’s case, deceptively simple.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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