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APOLLO 429; AUGUST 1951

 
 

 

Like many companies of the late 1940’s and early 50’s, Apollo Records had struggled to get ahead in the ever more competitive field of independent labels catering to black audiences.

They’d gotten most of their sales and acclaim for their gospel line thanks to superstar Mahalia Jackson and so they’d always be able to pay the bills with her in tow, but while the total sales from gospel might eventually keep them on pace with secular oriented companies, gospel tended to sell consistently over long periods rather than have quick flurries of sales and jukebox spins which would earn them hits.

As a result the label tried their hand in everything else with limited success – jazz, blues and rock – but it wasn’t until they landed The Larks that their fortunes began to turn.

The Larks were both the best and in some ways the worst thing that happened to Apollo during this stretch. They gave them hits and credibility in rock, both of which were positive developments, but because they were SO versatile – a former gospel act whose material ranged from transforming pop ballads into rock gems to basically inventing the idea of vocal groups tackling pure blues – the label used them for every innovation they could think of, almost all of it well done but perhaps costing them a singular identity in the process.
 

 

Different From The Rest
You’ll notice that the label for this record has The Larks as just the secondary artist listed, the first being Apollo’s bandleader, former jazz sax ace, Bobby Smith who’d cut a few rock instrumentals of his own in the past for the label without much success.

Why they’d put his name first when The Larks were currently enjoying their first hit – and when this record is clearly focused on the vocals – is anybody’s guess. Maybe Apollo’s tightfisted owner Bess Berman owed Smith money and rather than pay him off she was throwing him a bone, hoping to get a hit out of it and placate him. Who knows.

Regardless, the story here isn’t who deserves the credit but rather it’s about the song, one we’ve already delved into when it was released last month by Billy Wright who adapted it from a two year old record by fellow rocker Paul Gayten, and now once again is tweaked in its delivery by The Larks to take on a slightly different tint.

At its root this is still a story centered on the prevalence of cover records in popular music, something rock ‘n’ roll had been mostly avoiding until recently as the style was more focused on establishing artistic individuality than in merely using artists as vehicles for delivering variations of the same material as pop always did.

But even though we decry the practice that results in yet another version of Hey Little Girl, even we have to admit that it’s interesting to watch how each of these figures have tried to keep their unique artistic traits at the forefront of their interpretations of these songs.

If that means Bobby Smith has to be credited for helping to shape this in a way that distances it from Wright and Gayten, not to mention other competing versions of John Godfry, The Treniers and Professor Longhair, so be it.
 

I’ve Got Love For You
The musical backing here is fantastic to start with as the piano contributes the slower rhythm with the left hand and a deliberate melodic right hand at a faster pace which balances out beautifully all while the drummer’s light skittering cymbals and a distant guitar awash in a murky haze add crucial ambiance.

As a result the record has an immediate rock feel that pulls it far away from their last effort – and first hit – Eyesight To The Blind which was The Larks venturing into blues with Allen Budd’s semi-acoustic guitar sounding as if he had walked out of the cotton fields.

By contrast this is a citified track without being too elegant and jazzy, always a potential stumbling block especially when you have a verified jazz man leading the band. But Smith knows his stuff when it comes to arrangements and here he lays back altogether, letting the other instruments set the mood before he makes his first appearance discreetly answering the vocals during the mid-section.

His saxophone does step out during the instrumental break playing a drawn out solo that takes its sweet time without sacrificing intensity, sticking to the upper register with a shimmering metallic sheen to his tone that gives the record a distinctive sound without dominating the overall impression.

For that job we turn to The Larks themselves who sing Hey Little Girl in unison throughout, their blend emphasizing the lower range which sets it apart from their work when either Eugene Mumford or Bunn takes the sole lead, making it sound practically as if it were another group altogether.

It’s a warmly inviting sound that comfortably envelops you, which is a good thing because the lyrics have been stripped down until there’s virtually no story left.
 

Talk For You
Whereas the other renditions focused on the actual ACT of a guy coming onto a girl – be it crudely, insistently or erotically – The Larks shift the entire ambiance to one of almost demure longing, thereby removing the idea that the object of their affection might be uncomfortable finding herself in the spotlight.

Instead the way they frame this gives the impression that she may not even be aware of their desire for her (if they’re merely fantasizing out of earshot) or at least allows her to be in control of the exchange since they’re so self-effacing in their praise for her.

Though I can’t say the mostly suppressed urges they’re showing on Hey Little Girl with their re-written lines makes for a more exciting record, the performance is a lot more consistent because of it. Their voices are the picture of measured discretion… showing just enough urgency to get the point across, but keeping the all-consuming desire in check so as not to scare her off.

With such a tight varied arrangement that offers so many subtle moments of inspiration while still allowing the musicians to show off their wares and with vocal harmonies to be envied, this might be both the weakest of the renditions on paper thanks to their neutering of the lyrics with virtually no story arc or resolution, yet the most satisfying because of how they all put it over.
 


 

Pass My Test
Because the song takes on so many different personas depending on the interpretation by all these artists, it’s effectively a modern day folk song wherein the basic theme and structure remains the same but it’s adapted to suit the needs of whoever is using it.

In this case The Larks’ need is to find a way to deliver those sublime harmonies and a more complex, somewhat gauche, narrative would undermine that goal, drawing attention away from what they do well while also subverting the image they’re hoping to establish on Hey Little Girl.

By contrast Paul Gayten was emphasizing his high-opinion of his cleverness and charm as a character, not quite off-putting but definitely someone you’re more wary of. Billy Wright is much more up front and crude in his attempts, endearing because of his brashness more than his lecherous intent.

The Larks are trying to appear modest and diffident in their approach even as they remain pretty persistent in their pursuit. I’ll leave it up to the ladies to say which method is most effective in winning their hand, but I will say that while I liked all three renditions to date and found each of them worked well with what they were trying to do, The Larks won MY hand so to speak with their record.

The story’s not over yet though, but they’re the leaders in the clubhouse so far.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of The Larks for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)
 
 
 

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 

 
Paul Gayten (January, 1948)
 
Billy Wright (July, 1951)