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IMPERIAL 5072; MAY 1950



There’s a certain kind of person who after making a few sloppy mistakes when playing a game (video or board game, I’ll leave that up to you based on your DOB) will begin to intentionally sabotage their own efforts from there on in… essentially throwing the game without officially throwing in the towel and quitting altogether.

It’s frustration personified and of course it doesn’t do any good, not only ruining your own chances at making a comeback, but also ruining the enjoyment of someone else’s victory because of your petulant immaturity.

At one point or another though pretty much everyone’s been guilty of doing this and if you’re inclined to admit to behaving that way then you’ll surely find a lot in this song to relate to, because here we have one of rock’s greatest producers fouling things up from the start and then – almost deliberately it would seem – compounding those mistakes one after another until the entire record becomes one hot flaming mess.


Follow You Sometime
For an artist who was rather pityingly was referred to as “Hard Luck Smiley” because of his inability to find consistent favor with the public despite a decade of really good records, it’s rather disconcerting to see one of his earliest attempts get screwed up so badly.

Smiley Lewis was in no position to complain however, having had to wait until he was 34 years old before getting his first chance to record for DeLuxe in 1947, then despite a really good debut he was dropped from the label and forced to scrape by playing local gigs while waiting for another chance that in all likelihood would probably never come his way.

Yet when his neighbor from childhood Dave Bartholomew was signed by Imperial Records at the tail end of 1949 to oversee their efforts at getting a foothold in New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll he quickly brought Lewis into the fold and produced his breakthrough local hit, Tee Nah Nah earlier this year, kicking off a twelve year run with the company that would ensure he never had to look for work outside of music again.

So considering he only got a second chance thanks to his relationship with Bartholomew you can understand Lewis’s reluctance to ask Dave just what the hell he was thinking as the tapes rolled in Cosimo Matassa’s studio while they bumbled their way through Slide Me Down, a title that suddenly seemed far too ominous considering the results of what they were capturing that day.


Slowly Walked Away
The song itself was written by Smiley and while it’s hardly qualifies as being lyrically deep, it’s still a fairly decent look at romantic devotion as he starts off by spelling out those things in a relationship which generally go unstated.

Despite his desire to be the rock solid partner with this woman he’s sort of caught emotionally between expressing adoration and revealing his insecurities, for as the record goes on he gives the impression that he might be setting himself up for a fall if she doesn’t feel the same way about him and so he sort of hedges his bets a little to protect himself.

Though conceptually that’s a good idea, showing just how tenuous love can be since it relies entirely on two different people remaining internally compatible even as life changes around them, he doesn’t have time to delve into this unease with any real depth or insight. As such Slide Me Down – even with a better arrangement – would have trouble really making a deeper impression on listeners who were hoping for a more well-rounded story.

As always though Smiley’s vocals are able to suggest a little more than may have been evident on paper, admirably easing off the volume to convey the uncertainty he’s feeling as he tries to gauge whether or not this relationship will endure. He’s still plenty distinctive with that sharp edged echo-laden tone of his, but he’s being true to the sentiments by holding back some in his delivery, careful not to project so much power that it’ll overwhelm the message.

However what he probably didn’t expect to have to contend with was an intrusive band that somehow manages to overwhelm Smiley himself!


When You Got Your Big Money
By any measure Dave Bartholomew is an immortal in the realm of songwriting and production, one of the most prolific hit makers of the 1950’s and as responsible as anyone for defining the sound of rock during this era… yet he wasn’t infallible.

Last time out with Lewis he showed this with Lowdown, which although it was only a B-side to a far better major regional hit, suffered from Dave trying to force his own jazz-rooted trumpet into the framework of a rock song. The sounds were incongruous and while he managed to keep it from completely going off the rails, it showed that his own learning curve was still in the process of being worked out.

On Slide Me Down he makes things far, far worse thanks to the same ill-conceived ideas when it comes to merging disparate parts, only this time he manages somehow to have even MORE instruments out of place and then compounds this mistake by putting them much higher in the mix until even the powerful baritone of Lewis is lost in the din.

The record kicks off with a bluesy guitar which is an interesting choice to make, though not one that necessarily spells trouble for while we know that New Orleans rock is built on piano and sax, the city certainly has its share of stellar guitarists as well. With the growing prominence of the instrument the last year in rock arrangements it’s hardly the worst idea to see if it could become a distinctive element of Lewis’s sound going forward.

Unfortunately however, while it’s well played it’s also far TOO bluesy for Lewis’s musical persona. He’s not a raw urban bluesman, he’s a bluesy rock artist and there’s a huge difference. This is the sound of a club on the South Side of Chicago in a cold harsh winter, not the sound of a steamy New Orleans house party as the humidity envelops your senses and as such Lewis is bound to sound out of place on his own record.

If that were the only problem we faced it’d be enough to throw you off balance but you might still be able to appreciate some aspects as the guitar eased into the background, but instead what it’s replaced with in the arrangement is far more damaging.

My Last Dime
Yeah… the trumpet. The bane of rock ‘n’ roll to date, a misunderstood and misused instrument that was the primary casualty when the jazz of the 1930’s and 40’s were forced aside by the rock of the late 40’s and 1950’s.

Dave Bartholomew of course was a trumpet player, and a good one at that, someone who seemed to grasp that his instrument of choice was not going to be very relevant in rock ‘n’ roll and so he wisely began to downplay it on his own records. Once he did so his own output immediately improved, and he followed suit when producing others by either removing it completely from the best work he’s overseen thus far with Imperial – The Fat Man and Stack-A-Lee – or at the very least keeping it well out of the spotlight.

But the temptation to bring it back to the forefront must’ve been overwhelming for him at times, almost trying to defiantly prove it was possible to meld it to another stylistic frame and have it work in spite of itself.

On Slide Me Down this reaches its nadir, as he intrudes all over Smiley Lewis’s song, sinking it in a squawking aural assault that has you almost begging for someone to put everyone – Dave, Smiley and your poor eardrums – out of their misery.

Bartholomew envisions his horn as the responsorial voice to Lewis, but while that decision might be defensible in theory, in execution it becomes a train-wreck as Dave too often ramps up his playing, screeching lines at full volume while Smiley is downsizing his own vocals by comparison, throwing the entire concept out of whack.

Is this supposed to be some sort of razzing technique designed to mock Lewis’s doubts? No, unless you envision Dave heading to the recording session right after conferring with a psychologist, so what you’re left with is someone determined to show off his own skills at the expense of the song and the artist he’s responsible for guiding.

Now when Dave tones down his trumpet along the way it’s not awful to hear faintly in the background. Had they had saxes carry the moaning replies instead with Bartholomew only adding a few intermittent touches it might’ve even been modestly acceptable, but instead he’s the dominant figure on the record and not only does it clash with the singer, but it also runs counter to the story they’re all trying to sell.

Toss in a few bum notes by those other horns early on, along with the apparent discomfort the entire band shows when trying to get a firm handle on the deathly slow pace, and it’s easy to see how this is one take that should’ve been discarded altogether before brainstorming a suitable revision to the entire thing over a long lunch.

My Ship Will Sail Someday
Though this is hardly one of Lewis’s more widely known tracks (good luck even finding a 78 label scan, the 45’s included here are reproductions) and it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking this collision of mismatched sounds as being anything less than a complete disaster, I’m sure considering the name recognition – and lasting respect for – the major players on the scene this might have a few defenders somewhere.

But that’s not why I refrained from giving Slide Me Down the absolute lowest possible grade here, though I certainly considered it after having my ears start to bleed after four or five straight listens. Instead I took each of the elements out of the larger package and isolated them, seeing if it were merely a case of them being incompatible when crammed together, or if they were all brutally bad even when shorn of everything else around them.

Though doing so didn’t reveal any welcome surprises, it did show that some of the misbegotten parts, stripped to their skivvies, weren’t as atrocious as they seemed with all of them lined up together.

Is that some sort of a compliment in disguise? Hardly, but I think in the end they’ve all suffered enough that they don’t need me to compound their pain any more.


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