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IMPERIAL 5194; JUNE 1952



This is one of those “might’ve been” records… a song that the artist had strong feelings for, one that the record label felt was a surefire hit and which seemed to satisfy a lot of the current trends in rock ‘n’ roll, but which was quickly overshadowed by the flip side.

Since two-sided hits weren’t exactly commonplace at the time this one got lost in the shuffle, but it’s become something of a cherished deeper cut among Smiley Lewis followers in the years since.

With a hang-on-for-dear-life attitude it’s easy to see how this could’ve been a hit back then if things had broken differently, but in cases like this where the general consensus seems to be the side that got ignored was better, the question inevitably (if unfairly) becomes which fan base had it right?

The ones who came of age in the ensuing years who may have different sensibilities based on later developments in rock ‘n’ roll which altered their perceptions… or was it the actual audience who had the final say back in 1952, whose tastes were the only ones that ultimately mattered when it came to sustaining a career in real time.

Or were they both right?


Come Back To Me
Normally we’d end that query by asking “Were they both right… or were neither constituency right?”… but since we’ve already weighed in on the actual hit side and gave it a perfect score, that latter part of the question is kind of moot.

But the first part still holds and since we judge each side of every release independently of one another, the jury is still out on this one for another few minutes… unless you’re one of those people who doesn’t want to wait and scans down to see the score before reading why we came to that conclusion.

Alright, go ahead you big babies if it makes you happy.

For the rest of you (the smarter, more patient and dignified people in the audience) we should start by giving some background on Lillie Mae and why Smiley Lewis in particular felt so strongly about it… or about her as it was.

Lillie Mae was the name of his real life mother who had died when Smiley was little and naturally he did what he could to remember her, including naming his touring car after her. (This was a good decade before there was a TV show called My Mother The Car – I kid you not – and though I’ve never seen it, I’m fairly sure it was not inspired by Smiley Lewis’s family, no matter the similarities it may have shared).

This song he wrote here however may at a glance be “inspired” by losing his mom, since the majority of the lyrics are simply repeating ”Please don’t go, I love you so” but upon closer inspection is definitely about a different kind of relationship, which frankly makes it kinda weird if you think too hard about it.

Since the audience at the time however knew none of this, they can take it at face value… for whatever that’s worth.


I Want A Home
First the good… in fact the very good… this song has got an infectious vibe to it, something highlighted by almost every single facet of the record from Smiley’s ebullient lead – despite his despair over potentially losing this woman – and the vibrant way they put it over.

You can clearly see why Imperial Records thought so highly of this and pegged it as the best chance for a hit following his year long sabbatical from recording… not his choice it needs to be stated, but rather Imperial’s decision.

Now that Dave Bartholomew had returned to the fold and was producing for them again, he made sure his old friend Smiley got another session, co-writing this – the musical side of the equation, or at least the arrangement – and meshing some of his stalwart musicians in among Lewis’s road band led by the great pianist Tuts Washington.

The record doesn’t give you much of a chance to catch your breath after a clarion call opening from the horns. They launch into Lillie Mae at full throttle, Smiley blasting out the bare-bones message over and over while being answered vocally by the band who are somewhat off mic, or at least down in the mix, but clear enough where they’re a constant presence.

It’s hard not to get caught up in that spirited declaration with hand claps providing much of the backbeat while Washington’s piano is merely filling in some of the cracks.

But while that’s one of the visceral joys of the record, it’s also arguably its weakest part. The arrangement is devoid of actual music during the bulk of the song, which tends to be a drawback when it comes to making records. The melody is conveyed entirely by Lewis’s voice and because the lyrics are simply repeated multiple times it quickly gets monotonous because it doesn’t tell a story, merely sets a story up that we never do learn more about.

The instrumental break is a breath of fresh air because Herb Hardesty provides some much needed color with his saxophone, starting off with a stuttering riff that gets verbally answered by the others in phonetic fashion ( “Duh-Duh-Dat-Duh”) with Lewis’s voice out front, before Hardesty takes the song out for a bit of a walk before getting reined back in with more of the same vocal chants.

The only real creative moment here wasn’t even written most likely, but rather ad-libbed by Smiley down the stretch as he speaks to this woman, telling her how sad he’ll be without her and then answering him using “her” voice, telling him she’s crazy about him too.

That’s the most colorful and endearing part of the record and in that time it becomes hard not to like Smiley… despite the fact it’s about the only information we get regarding this relationship, confirming it’s most definitely not his mother.

But it’s not as if you were actually bothered by him the rest of the time, because even while he wasn’t following the normal rules of the record game he was still getting us worked up through his enthusiasm alone.


Please Don’t Go
This is a really unusual record to grade because the normal attributes we think of when we quantify “great” or “very good” records are conspicuously absent here.

There’s hardly any lyrics or story to speak of, not just in terms of telling us what is going on, but also in varying things up from one stanza to the next. It’s almost as if the record gets stuck in that first groove and can’t get out until it’s halfway over.

There’s also no instrumental accompaniment worth noting outside of the sax solo which is fine but hardly earth shattering. The rest of the arrangement is mostly just the vocal back and forth and it could be that the band weren’t even holding their instruments as the tapes rolled. That’s an unusual thing to see in a rock record.

Yet in spite of these obvious drawbacks Lillie Mae contains a lot of things we instinctively gravitate towards… it’s animated, invigorating, unrelenting and welcomes you into the fold with their camaraderie. Let’s never forget that rock ‘n’ roll, at least in the singles era, was best appreciated in a communal setting with friends and drinks and dancing and who knows what else going on. This record embodies that while simultaneously breaking all of the rules for achieving that. There aren’t many good songs you can say that about.

The whole thing is a paradox. It’s a sad premise that comes across like a party is taking place… it features a great band who barely play a note, a fantastic producer who basically just turns them all loose in the studio without any oversight and an engaging singer and songwriter who just repeats one line for most of the run time.

Yet it’s good in spite of that! Or maybe it’s good because of that?

I dunno the reason other than it sounds a lot better coming out of speakers than it has any right to considering the flimsy construction. But while it is not the equal of the hit side, which was less exciting but better written, played, sung and produced, this is hardly a non-essential throwaway that one might expect considering how little “song” is actually there.

In short, it deserves to be exactly what it wound up being in the end – a cherished non-hit flip-side, unquestionably flawed but charming all the same.


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