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SAVOY 847; MAY 1952



Record companies usually saw the value in having a demonstrably better A-side on their singles. It just makes sense… for starters two equally good songs would split jukebox plays, radio spins and wouldn’t necessarily get you more sales.

But usually companies, at least in the 1950’s, were going to put something worthwhile on the B-side, unlike in the 1960’s when Phil Spector used to toss on slapdash instrumentals so that nothing would detract from the elaborately produced hit on the top half.

Though it may not have been completely intentional here, Savoy beat him to it by a decade by putting out a non-commercial B-side that was about as far away from the star turn Varetta Dillard turned in on the flip… one that intentionally sounds as if it wasn’t just another style of music, but almost another artist altogether.


Answer Back And Please Don’t Fail
One of the risks you have when you sound like someone else who is currently releasing records themselves is the fact that in a sense the public is going to get twice the amount of songs than normal.

When Little Willie Littlefield came along sounding like Amos Milburn it helped propel him to stardom but in time it possibly cut into both of their success. Rather than get maybe four singles a year to appreciate Milburn’s unique approach, you now might feel as though you’d gotten eight, diminishing your interest in their shared sound at a faster rate than had it just been one of them who was delivering it.

That was certainly true of the raging sax instrumentals that dominated 1948 and ’49. Countless artists released similar sounding cuts, not copying each other per say, but all trying to induce mayhem with their horns. Some were great, some merely adequate and some were complete wastes of time until they all merged together and diluted the reception of the whole lot of them.

But Varetta Dillard was different. On Easy Easy Baby she was practically doing an impression of Ruth Brown, adopting every aspect of her technique from vocal tone to phrasing to the little asides that Brown had pioneered – but apparently failed to register for patents.

We know this to be true because Dillard didn’t sing like that on every song, including A Letter In Blues, which is miles away from anything Brown had done or would attempt.

In the future Dillard would turn in almost equally credible take-offs on other popular female rock stars, so this was a unique ability for record companies to exploit. But the problem was that if she did it every single time out, on both sides of the record, it could backfire by overloading audiences on the “Ruth Brown experience” which might make even Dillard’s better attempts in that area fall on deaf ears… to say nothing of what it might do to Brown’s reception for her own records.

So they deviated from that here about as far as they possibly could, knowing this wouldn’t be the hit, but perhaps making the hit stand out all the more in the process.


To Tell You I Miss You
With Mickey Baker’s guitar and intermittent freestyle horns superimposed over a plodding pace, this record typifies the growing split between the juke joint locales that helped give rise to rock ‘n’ roll and the more streamlined approach meant for the urban jukebox that rock was now catering to as its fanbase quickly broadened.

An oft-overlooked component of any music history is how the shifting listening experiences factor into how the music itself changes.

In the late 1940’s the first wave of rock artists were using records as a form of advertisement for live venues which consisted of rural juke joints, sometimes tobacco barns or clubs with no sit down audience. The clientele naturally were slightly older than those who began gravitating towards the records themselves, which is really what fueled rock’s popularity.

Because of the split in audience between those paying money to see them live and those spinning the records on jukeboxes for a nickel, it took awhile for the music to sort things out as the companies saw the benefit of catering to the patrons of the records themselves, which in turn only made the artists more popular with that younger demographic and so the material began to cast off the traits that appealed more to the older fans they encountered on the road.

All of which is to say that A Letter In Blues is firmly aimed at the slightly older, more rural juke joint crowd that most of rock had left behind. It’s still an appealing sound, but one that belongs in an environment that no longer carries nearly as much weight in 1952.

Dillard handles this well, her “natural” (?) voice is strong and expressive and if the slower pace forces her to hold notes longer than she’d like at times, she’s not losing her grip on the song in the process.

It helps that the song itself is so generic. The basic framework where guitar and horns are used to add color in between the verses and allowed to improvise within that context to keep things interesting (and Baker in particular is terrific throughout) was something used on hundreds of songs in this milieu over the years while Dillard’s mixture of longing and assertiveness never fails to draw interest in these settings.

But the story offers nothing new, no clever twists on the same old plot of desiring a man who has wandered off, no lyrics that cause you to sit up and take notice, nor even a chance for Dillard to really show off her power and intensity with a stop-time interlude, the one go-to aspect of this kind of song that was left out here for some reason.

It’s well done for what it is, but what it is just happens to be three or four years – and a couple hundred miles – out of date.


Won’t You Say You’ll Come Back Home
Though this was not aimed at the charts by any means, that doesn’t mean it didn’t serve a purpose.

For one it gave Dillard experience with material she might wind up having to play on the road in venues where the make-up of the audience might be considerably different from her last stop.

It also may have been Savoy’s way of coping with the fact that – The Four Buddies aside – they were not tapped into the primary means for achieving rock success in 1952 and so maybe they’d be better off at least cultivating a smaller, but by no means irrelevant, audience who were just outside of rock’s main demographic, though were still rock fans in the larger sense.

But mostly A Letter In Blues worked to give Varetta Dillard the opportunity to put her Ruth Brown outfit back in the closet and show that she wasn’t merely a shameless copy-cat who was riding on someone else’s coattails.

The song itself wasn’t going to do all that much for her beyond that, but if it showed audiences, the record company and even herself that there was more to her than just being somebody else’s shadow, it did its job.


(Visit the Artist page of Varetta Dillard for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)