No tags :(

Share it




At the risk of contradicting our own advice from yesterday when we stated that Smiley Lewis’s best bet for a professional rebirth was for him to hook up with old pal and new Imperial Records producer Dave Bartholomew and let his good judgement as to material, arrangements and overall direction guide your choices from here on in…

Well, let’s just say that while it was still a sound game plan, that doesn’t mean that EVERY decision Bartholomew would make would come up roses.

Like say, I dunno, the B-side of Lewis’s first Imperial effort, a good enough song that’s done in to a degree by the choices made by Bartholomew himself.


So Far Away
It’s probably not fair that for the second side of his first release in twenty-nine months, and just his second single release overall, full stop, that Smiley Lewis is taking a backseat in the review to Dave Bartholomew, someone for whom we’ve already spilled tens of thousands of words, both for his own records as well as the increasing number of acts he’s now writing and producing for.

But music oftentimes is no different than life itself in that neither one is “fair”. So, while Smiley Lewis is indeed the credited artist for Lowdown the focal point of the record winds up being Dave Bartholomew.

I sincerely doubt this was intentional on Dave’s part, yet I’m not quite sure he wasn’t aware of the possibility when he was running this session and therein lies the problem.

Though Lewis’s powerful baritone can withstand the assault of any sound emanating from a recording studio, if just for sheer volume and distinctiveness alone, he meets his match here with Bartholomew’s unwieldy trumpet which handles the intro almost exclusively, squawking, growling and blaring its notes with a flourish.

Unfortunately for both us and Smiley alike the sound is an anachronism for rock ‘n’ roll in late spring 1950, as this is clearly reaching for a jazzy feel of the kind of hip nightclub that Bartholomew had long envisioned himself in but which, by this point, was beyond his reach.

Not that he couldn’t play well enough to cut the mustard in those clubs, but rather those clubs were the province of artists who were no longer trying to make music that would result in hit singles. The R&B charts were increasingly the realm of rock ‘n’ roll in the black community these days and succeeding in that market was the aim of Smiley Lewis and Imperial Records – and thus by extension Dave Bartholomew as well.

Normally Bartholomew understood this better than most, but while he’d be a faithful proponent of giving the rock fan what they were after (as they did with Tee Nah Nah on the top side), occasionally he couldn’t help but wonder if there was a way to combine the two approaches and still be commercial… to somehow pull in the more sophisticated jazz listener to rock, or more likely drag the rock fan into the jazz milieu from time to time.

It doesn’t work that way of course, rock fans were picky about such things as he’d soon find out. But here on this song, despite the two competing sounds mixing like oil and water at times, it doesn’t quite wind up being an utter disaster either.


I Can Hear My Baby Calling
One listen to Smiley Lewis’s strong metallic-sheened voice and you knew what made him so formidable as a singer, but he also knew how to use that voice in ways that he probably didn’t get credit for then, nor does it get talked about much now.

On Lowdown he resists the urge to try and match that startling trumpet intro by showing off his own power and instead he stays true to the song’s message, rising enough at the start of the lines to establish the proper dynamics, but then quickly downshifting to hit the appropriate despondent mood.

Smiley’s conflicted emotions are teased throughout, almost as if he hasn’t made up his own mind how to feel about the tenuous ongoing relationship with his lady friend, and the lyrics are vague enough to feel suitable for the job at hand without actually committing to a definitive plot that may wind up boxing him in.

Lewis navigates this uncertainty with real skill, never anything but in complete control, his voice discreetly showing off both its range and nuance – I love the way he purposefully allows his voice to catch and rise up on the word “baby” a third of the way in – while staying locked in on the melody despite the sometimes wandering, sometimes indecisive and sometimes utterly bewildering backing track that he finds himself saddled with.

That’s this song’s downfall, such as it is, and yet in spite of, or maybe even because of that confusion in the arrangement, the record has a lot more quirkiness than your standard dime a dozen B-sides to date.

You Would Not Understand
Okay, that trumpet… let’s start off by saying there are times here, such as when Bartholomew throws in a musical quote from “Here Comes The Bride”, that you wish somebody stuffed a sweatsock in the bell of his horn.

But there are other times, as incongruous as it sounds on the surface, where his playing actually comes across as appealing… or at least intriguing, such as the notes he sends up and lets hang in the air like a badminton birdie.

Would those parts have been more effective if played by a tenor sax? Yeah, certainly more appropriate and commercial anyway, but had he swapped instruments in the arrangement it’d only mean that we’d have more time and inclination to focus on the other mismatched parts such as the clunky piano that seems far too boldly played for what it’s contributing, or that bluesy guitar solo, half off-mic almost, that seems dropped in from another record entirely.

Whichever way you choose to dissect this, Lowdown is not one of Dave Bartholomew’s finer moments as a producer, yet it’s a testament to Lewis’s abilities as a singer, and Dave’s creative flourishes that can’t help but come through even in the most unpredictable circumstances, that this doesn’t fall flat on its face either.

I’ll Come Home Someday
None of the participants here, Lewis, Bartholomew or Imperial Records, were being judged on the quality of their B-sides, especially for an artist making his return to the singles market after such a long sabbatical. Thus it would hardly be fair to suggest they were in trouble for taking undue risks on an idea that might’ve been best left on the shelf.

Yet even if we have no choice BUT to criticize some of those choices – that’s our job here after all – the end result is hardly something to be embarrassed about. In fact there’s still more than enough here to be modestly admired.

Maybe the best case to be made for Lowdown, at least in an historical sense, is that it allows us to see the decisions that will go on to shape rock music over the next decade being made in real time… where Bartholomew tried something that he probably knew didn’t have a great chance of success, yet also because it was the B-side to a more surefire winner he also knew it didn’t have the burden of responsibility for Lewis’s commercial prospects.

Call it indulgent if you want, write it off as a failed experiment, or be a little kinder and chalk it up as being a harmless curiosity, but keep in mind that with any artist the decisions that pay off in the long run are often only settled on after all other options have been discarded through trial and error.

For an obvious “error”, you could do a lot worse than this.


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