No tags :(

Share it

IMPERIAL 5194; JUNE 1952



Let’s just be done with it by using the most obvious and suitable name for this sudden injection of a strong guiding hand back into the Imperial Records family in the form of producer Dave Bartholomew…

We’ll call it The Domino Effect.

Intentional irony aside that comes from reuniting Bartholomew and Fats Domino which will soon turn the latter into a creative and commercial juggernaut, it wasn’t JUST Fats who stood to benefit from having rock’s most promising songwriter/producer back in the fold… it was every other artist the label signed starting with Bartholomew’s old pal, Smiley Lewis, who not coincidentally has been altogether absent from the release rolls for the past year, not long after Dave departed the company under acrimonious circumstances.

What a way to welcome them both back… with a Bartholomew produced national hit that proved right away that dominoes wasn’t the only game he could play in the studio.


When I’m With The Right One
There’s no sign that Smiley Lewis was actually dropped from Imperial Records and given his release soon after Dave Bartholomew left the company at the beginning of 1951, but considering that Lewis had just one release after that and it was with Bartholomew producing the record (possibly on the sly without the record label knowing it) it’s obvious that for whatever reason, be it a lack of faith, a subtle dig at their former employee, or no one capable of putting together a session for him, Imperial had just left Smiley Lewis idling at the curb for over a year rather than taking him out for another spin.

That was unfortunate because Lewis was a prolific songwriter, led a good band and had a big enough regional hit in the past – with Tee Nah Nah – where whatever he might’ve come up with on his own would’ve been worthy of a release.

Now that Bartholomew had been coaxed back by Lew Chudd to run their operations in New Orleans, one of the first things he did was bring Lewis into the studio in early June for his first session in quite some time.

Obviously the label were thrilled to get Bartholomew back on board after having to deal with underhanded Al Young’s brutal production attempts, but we can still admit that there was a little pressure on Dave to come up with something worthwhile… something distinctive… something commercial… to justify his heralded return.

Ironically it wasn’t with The Bells Are Ringing that any of them were placing their bets, even though it paid off handsomely and confirmed his magic touch.

The initial focus was on the flip side, a more uptempo rocking song very close to Lewis’s heart and so they simply needed a slower song to pair with it. Now granted, considering the circumstances Bartholomew was sure to come up with something good – he was not going to risk submitting a simple throwaway cut at this juncture, even for a flip – but even though it was obvious this was a better than average B-side, surely none of them thought this was going to catch fire like it did.

All of which shows that even as he was creating a Top Ten hit with a good deal of influence, Bartholomew was still learning a bit about the fickle commercial market as he went.

Lucky for him – and lucky for us – he was such an apt pupil.


Baby, What Is Wrong With You?
Listening to it now this record has such a hypnotic feel to it with the lurching horns offsetting the jittery piano and topped off by Lewis’s melodically droning vocals that you wonder how anybody would risk letting this go to waste as a flip-side of an artist’s first single in more than a year.

But a lot of the images it calls to mind come from later incarnations of similar ideas when it comes to Dave Bartholomew productions.

Though he and Smiley wrote this together, Lewis undoubtedly coming up with the lyrics which are… interesting… if a little off-beat and whimsical, though endearing all the same, the melody is one that Bartholomew would refine later on with a string of classics that were a touch faster, but with a similarly mesmerizing rise and fall pattern.

You might say then that The Bells Are Ringing is sort of a prehistoric prototype for that approach, but in reality it’s more of the downcast version, for even though Lewis is ostensibly singing about sex, the fact of the matter is his preferred partner is steering clear of him for the time being and he can’t figure out why.

My guess is that he’s not going lonely in her absence, at least if the band and Lewis’s vocals are any indication, as while they might not be hopping around the bedroom trying to pull off their drawers to jump into bed with a chorus line of willing bevy beauties, they hardly sound as if they’re spending the night alone shedding tears while gazing at her picture, drowning their sorrows in cheap booze and passing out alone, sprawled across the bed.

That’s a good deal of the joy of this record, how all the parts seem to push against each other’s sensibilities. The basic theme is about missing someone, but he spends most of his time talking about “making love” – in every imaginable locale, at every time of year, in any type of weather! The horns initially give the impression of being slightly mournful, yet even though their pattern doesn’t change, they start to sound as if they’re swaying after awhile, changing your impression from it being a sad song to one of blissful contentment.

Rather than make The Bells Are Ringing a confusing mess, the contradictions somehow seem to pull it together and give it more gravitas. People react to disappointments in love in all sorts of ways and it’s hardly uncommon to try convince a prospective partner to join you by pointing out the benefits of their hooking up, even as he’s bemoaning her absence in the process.

Yeah, he may be disappointed, sad, even angry – and he hints at all of those things – but he’s also hopeful that they can reconcile and in fact seems to expect it, so maybe this isn’t the first time they’ve been on the outs with one another.

With a slightly raucous sax break by Herb Hardesty – the intro of which Bartholomew felt was played in too high a key, and he’s definitely not wrong from a technical standpoint, though that’s what gives it the anxious restless feeling – and Lewis’s voice swelling as he returns to the forefront, the yearning tone being easily mistaken for budding excitement, this is such an easy tune to get caught up in with its addicting sing-songy melody that it’s not surprising that when it ends you don’t know which way is up… nor do you really care.

Maybe she didn’t join you for a late night assignation after all, but neither you nor Smiley went unfulfilled in the bargain.


In Lover’s Lane
There are those who feel that – lack of a roll call of major hits aside – Smiley Lewis is the equal of any New Orleans artist in rock’s first half century.

Despite this being one of those few hits to his credit, I’m not sure if The Bells Are Ringing is among the first pieces of evidence a lot of those proponents would offer up to make their case for Lewis’s historical re-assessment.

But then again, that in of itself is a pretty strong argument on his behalf, for they’re either underrating just how good this is, or they’re claiming he’s got a stockpile of songs even better than this gem in his war chest.

At the time this came out however, none of that was an issue. What mattered then was getting a great artist back in the studio cutting records with the producer who would arguably define this decade of rock more than anyone.

It stands to reason that with all the hard-feelings and prolonged uneasiness over their split Imperial Records was going to give Dave Bartholomew a really long leash and not be quick to second guess him regardless of the commercial returns early on, but both the label and the producer had to breathe a lot easier when this got their renewed partnership off to a successful start in ways that couldn’t be disputed by anyone.

I guess the song was right after all… when you want to get back together with someone it never hurts to smooth over the hurt caused by the breakup with something that makes reconnecting sound a little sweeter.


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