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Here’s something which proves that an artist can come up with a song that is perfectly emblematic of its time, something that is well conceived, written and executed at every level and yet still wind up with a record that seems… underwhelming somehow.

Chalk it up to predictability or a lack of real ambition other than to turn in a serviceable cut destined for a B-side, but it’s a strange phenomena to not be able to seriously pick apart a record’s flaws and yet still not find it anything about it that’s more than blithely acceptable.

Ahh, but that’s music isn’t it? Where the key to unlocking a listener’s heart isn’t necessarily found in the bold brush strokes in a performance, but rather in the subtler way the colors are blended together which might explain why this is no more than average.


If I Can’t Be There At Seven, I’ll Be There At Eight
You can’t help but wonder what Stick McGhee had been thinking a year ago when suddenly, two years after he’d last stepped foot in a studio, he was urgently summoned by a little heard New York label called Atlantic to re-cut a song he’d already done back in 1947 that had been based on a decidedly off-color barracks ditty from his Army days.

When that record, Drinkin’ Wine-Spo-Dee-O-Dee promptly zoomed up the charts, giving McGhee a #2 hit and providing Atlantic some much needed breathing room between them and their impatient creditors, the two parties involved seemed to be at the start of an improbable, but profitable, relationship.

But while McGhee certainly wasn’t going to turn down the opportunities this presented, it’s entirely possible he had already put his brief “career” as a singer behind him by the time he got a second chance at stardom.

Since he hadn’t been prepared to cut a session when that fateful call came last winter he and his far more successful blues guitarist brother Brownie sort of threw together some ideas cribbed from blues songs and made due with those at first but they knew that kind of thing wasn’t going to be what kept people interested in Stick McGhee. If he wanted a long career now he’d have to give them more of what audiences came for, which was rough and ready rock ‘n’ roll.

It may have taken a little while to get his feet under him but by the sounds of this record he had no trouble falling into line by the time they went back in the fall for a follow-up session. My Baby’s Comin’ Back has all of the attributes of a standard rock song of the day, all of it sounding completely natural… even effortless… which might be why that even as it contains everything you’re expecting it doesn’t have that unspecified spark of freshness to really jump out at you and make a deeper impression.


Lock The Doors And Throw The Keys Away
Maybe the first “problem”, such as it is, can be found in the fact that there’s absolutely no lead in to this. McGhee starts off the song cold, the first chord of the guitar coming a split second after his voice penetrates your consciousness giving this a looser, sloppier feel than is usually advisable for a record, almost as if you stumbled across on a run-through of the song rather than a final take.

Once the music kicks in there’s obviously more structure to My Baby’s Comin’ Back with guitar, piano, bass and drums all working in tandem quite effectively in laying down a tough rolling groove that you certainly aren’t going to ever object to immersing yourself in, but even so there are times when McGhee feels a little bit like he’s competing with them rather than complimenting them.

Maybe it’s that his pace is just a hair too fast, maybe the entire track, music and vocals alike, should’ve been taken a little slower, but you never really feel comfortable with this as a result. There’s a strong urge to like it because all of the parts are suitable for the job but there’s the unmistakable feeling that another take could’ve pulled it all together in much more coherent fashion.

Yet when stopping to focus on each element you still have plenty of admiration for their skills. Though the rhythm guitar doesn’t have quite the same impact as the foreboding rumble of Venus Blues it still carries with it a slightly edgy aura to it but in order to appreciate that you need to squarely focus in on it and let the rest of the instruments fade to the background which isn’t easy to do with the drums galloping along, determined to make their presence known.

Big Chief Ellis on piano is adding to the enthusiastic commotion during bulk of the song but is easily lost in the din, only standing out when he gets an opportunity to chip in with some hammering treble flourishes in the break.

That however is soon overtaken by the horns which start off with a halfway decent – if simplistic – riff in unison before the trumpet takes over on the lead. It’s not badly played, not even really out of place as so often happens with that instrument on rock tunes, but it’s not adding enough muscle to the arrangement at this point. In fact it’s arguably Stick’s vocal exultations themselves which carries this part of the record as he is shouting encouragement from the sidelines.

Most surprising however is the fact there’s no guitar solo to be found and considering their efforts in that regard on the rest of the tracks from this session its absence would appear to be a real loss. But even though it’s missed there would’ve had to have been some extensive re-working of the arrangement just to fit it in, as My Baby’s Comin’ Back never lets up for so much as a second.

With everything crammed together the way it is there’s not much room left to catch your breath, yet in spite of the frantic playing it still can’t help but come across as more a case of burning off nervous energy rather than exhibiting actual excitement.

Gonna Rack ‘Em Back
We run into much the same problems with the other aspects of the record starting with the song itself, a fairly standard story about a guy eagerly anticipating the arrival of his girl.

As with most of McGhee’s compositions the lines themselves show nice craft – and we have to note that Ahmet Ertegun takes an early co-writing credit on this, indicating perhaps that he had the original idea based on re-crafting an older tune – but whatever the source My Baby’s Comin’ Back is hardly a rudimentary and repetitive lyrical exercise as so often happens on more generic ideas.

In spite of that though the lines don’t quite have the kick that they should. They manage to provide a momentary smile without really making a lasting impression. McGhee’s voice is as consistently strong as usual but you still get the sense this was merely going through the motions – while the effort is there, the inspiration is slightly lacking.

Where it DOES falter considerably however is the presence of the band providing a responsorial vocal chant to cap off the chorus, echoing the last line sung by Stick in a distant slightly atonal fashion.

Again, the idea itself makes some sense – McGhee is happy about seeing his girl again, he’s throwing a party to celebrate her return and so there’s bound to be others around to join in the planning of these festivities and they’re naturally going to get caught up in his enthusiasm. But even if you were to say that their presence is acceptable – and their lack of vocal dexterity was easily explained if Stick is the host and they’re little more than the refreshment committee who’ve already begun sampling the beverages – it doesn’t ADD anything of value to the performance… if anything it detracts from it by making it appear more staged than it has to be.

The Lights Are Out
None of these issues are mood-killers though, nor are any of the slightly subpar facets of the record enough to sink it overall, but since there’s also not enough that’s exceeding expectations it means the end results aren’t going to be very memorable.

Maybe I’m being a little too harsh, expecting more than is reasonable, but My Baby’s Comin’ Back never seems like anything more than a run-of-the-mill song carried out by very competent musicians and a singer who may have a good voice, be in the right frame of mind and have no trouble imparting the message required but nobody involved seems entirely invested in the outcome.

In other words on a record like this you need to palpably FEEL the excitement building and this is merely a decent facsimile of that… an acceptable reproduction for sure, but not much more than that.


(Visit the Artist page of Stick McGhee for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)