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KING 4527; APRIL 1952



It’s a question as old as rock ‘n’ roll itself… well, at least the second stage of rock as the Nineteen-Fifties dawned… and that is: What do you do once what you did that made you successful yesterday falls out of favor today?

Keep plugging away at what you excelled at, hoping beyond hope that at some point it comes back into vogue even as you and your career become more irrelevant with each passing day?

Throw in the proverbial towel and up and quit music altogether?

Or do you hunker down in the studio and try something new?


‘Til I Don’t Know What To Do
Yesterday with the usually infallible Chuck Willis we saw what might happen when you explore a new avenue that had no future.

Though the attempt itself often makes the failure rewarding, provided it gives you a clearer outlook on what to avoid and what you should pursue instead, we tend not to remember those missteps very long, because in music it’s the positive outcomes that become celebrated and imitated.

Today we have proof of that as we see what happens when those venturing into new territories find precisely what they were looking for resulting in creative renewal that can rejuvenate an artist’s career, give birth to another artist’s career and – down the road anyway – further expand the possibilities for yet another unconnected artist in some small way.

Our association with Sonny Thompson has been a long and mostly rewarding one to date. He was among many musicians at the birth of rock who were not looking for stardom, in fact not even really looking for his own releases as an artist, but who – through fortune and fate – managed to score one of the biggest hits of the 1940’s rock scene, helping to usher in the instrumental craze that dominated those years and helped to bring the entire genre into the public eye.

The hits dried up for him after that first year, then the instrumental itself began to fall out of favor with rock fans impatient for something more varied, and when the company he worked for folded he landed at King Records which already had a stable of first rate artists which made Thompson more or less superfluous. There was always the option that he could – and did – settle back into being a session musician, but having tasted stardom and gotten better paying gigs as a result, he was determined to find another way back to the top.

With I’ll Drown In My Tears he found that way by taking a back seat to a vocalist with whom he’d create a rewarding second act for a career that at this point seemed to be on the verge of stalling.

Of course, in the long run, fate still delt Sonny Thompson a losing hand in terms of receiving credit for his revival, as this was one of the few songs he didn’t write – producer Henry Glover penned it – and so the windfall of songwriting royalties eluded him after this record was remade a few years later by Ray Charles who had an even bigger hit with it and forever claimed the song for himself.

But none of that should diminish the unexpected joy of seeing Thompson back in the spotlight again with a very alluring leading lady by his side.


If You Don’t Say You’ll Be Home Soon
As of late we’ve seen a number of instrumental stars from rock’s early days – Paul Williams and Hal Singer this month alone – release records with vocalists to try and get them back into the charts. In their case, as with Todd Rhodes at King Records dating back even longer, it didn’t quite work even if at times the results were well worth the effort.

Thompson had tried this tactic himself already with mixed results. The last time he had someone named Royal Grant butchering a song called Blue Piano, easily the worst thing to come out with Thompson’s name attached to it. Much better was his letting Jesse Edwards handle the vocals on Jumping With The Rhumba earlier last year.

But a male instrumentalist working with a succession of male vocalists didn’t quite have the same visual appeal as having an attractive female accompanying him. Sure enough everything clicked right away when Thompson found in Lula Reed a unique and unlikely co-star, a vocalist with a high-pitched squeak to her voice that against all odds and contrary to the basic rules of aural attraction, comes across as almost seductive rather than gimmicky.

Because there have been comparatively few female rock singers to date, their styles are more distinctive and for every truly gifted vocalist like Ruth Brown you have those like Little Esther or Laurie Tate whose atonal deliveries sent many a vocal coach into hysterics.

Whatever it was about that sound which appealed to rock fans of the day Reed fits the bill even though she’s got a sneaky sense of melody and moderation in her approach. I’ll Drown In My Tears gives her the chance to show off both of those attributes, as it’s a slow lament about longing to be with her man, sounding measured in her despair even as she occasionally brushes against the possibility of breaking down completely before pulling herself together.

Thanks to the immortal later rendition by Charles we can’t help but be aware in the Twenty-First Century of the song’s key facets. The gently swaying melody that rises and falls with such unerring precision… the deep introspective lyrics that double as a public plea for reconciliation… and an overriding feeling – a weary resignation actually – that this declaration of desire isn’t going to change the outcome in the least.

All of that is unshakable in the composition, so the question becomes how effectively the band and vocalist pull it off irrespective of how Brother Ray re-worked it down the line.

This version doesn’t have quite the same dramatic swings, the arrangement choosing instead to play things a little tighter to the vest as the band is mostly adding tones, not leading Reed along. Whether it’s Thompson’s piano, Lord Westbrook’s guitar or the horns of Brooks brothers (David and Dennis), the fills they add are discreet but exquisite, especially David Brooks’ tenor which get the most expressive answering lines.

If there’s a flaw to be found it’s not a musical one, but rather one of elocution, as Reed constantly gets the tense of the title line wrong, singing “drowned” rather than “drown”. We’re tempted to dock a whole point for it (Kids are listening, dammit, and they need to know proper language skills are essential in life!) but as aggravating as it is, it’s offset by one moment of sheer brilliance towards the end when she downshifts after her most impassioned squeal while the music folds neatly underneath her in a way that’s absolutely sublime.


I Won’t Be So All Alone
There are a number of really great rock originals in history that soon get overshadowed by an even more impressive cover version or remake by someone just as – or more – monumental in the big scheme of things.

If we want to start a barroom trivia contest we could list the corresponding artists but leave out the song titles and most intelligent people will be able to fill in the blanks… Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley… Bob Dylan and The Byrds… Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin… Creedence Clearwater Revival and Ike & Tina Turner… Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C…. Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston… you surely know all the tunes in question and we could probably add a dozen more that most well-versed rock fans could pick out with relative ease.

But despite being a #5 national hit in its own right, Sonny Thompson and Lula Reed’s original I’ll Drown In My Tears would almost certainly not be something many could recall when playing that game and seeing their names sitting alongside Ray Charles.

Granted Thompson and Reed, though both hitmakers in their day, were not quite on the same level as the above artists but even so a great song that was a legitimate hit on an important label at a crucial time in rock’s development deserves more respect than what it gets in the history books.

Well it gets it here. Not out of charity, or sympathy, or a sense of overdue historical justice, but because the record itself does more than enough to earn it, just as it earned Sonny Thompson a well deserved second act in his own professional story.


(Visit the Artist pages of Sonny Thompson and Lula Reed for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)