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SAVOY 859; AUGUST 1952



Welcome to Part Two on our discussion of “breakthrough” records.

In Part One we examined Chuck Willis who was allowed to pursue his own creative muse without much interference by OKeh Records who knew they had in him a talent that was bound to pay off eventually. After the success of the A-side of his last release they’d be rewarded with consistently strong sellers for the rest of his time on the label without needing to try and find a gimmick each time out to score a hit.

For that unwelcome alternative plan we land on Varetta Dillard who ALSO scored a major hit last time around, but because it was with a record designed to trick listeners into thinking they were hearing another major act instead of her, it wound up doing Dillard little good in the long run and as a result proved not to be quite the breakthrough Savoy Records had hoped.


The First Time I Looked At You
Record labels will tell you in rare moments of candor that “hits are hits” and how they get them matters far less than IF they get them.

Since they can’t pay bills on “artistic quality”, they may have a point when looked at from their point of view, but since the record industry relies on artistic appeal to meet their business needs, it pays to try and balance those things out better than they do.

Varetta Dillard was a talented vocalist who by all rights should’ve taken the spot on Savoy Records’ depth chart recently abdicated by Little Esther… someone who scored the label hit after hit before leaving for greener pastures.

While Esther was a highly skilled interpreter of a song’s emotions, her style was rather limited by her mousy voice whereas Dillard had the power, tone and versatility to excel in a variety of approaches.

Unfortunately that versatility was misused by Savoy who saw that she could mimic other singers with uncanny accuracy and consequently they used her to imitate the reigning Queen Of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Ruth Brown on Easy, Easy Baby, which gave Dillard a #4 hit this summer.

But what good did it do you if half those in the audience that it was Ruth Brown on Atlantic Records singing it? Even those who paid greater attention to the name on the label were not likely to be highly anticipating Dillard’s next outings as they would’ve if the song and delivery had been more original, for they knew that there was a limit to how far you could go if all you did was copy somebody else.

That’s a pity, because on Them There Eyes we finally get to hear Varetta Dillard sound like Varetta Dillard and the results are fantastic.

Yeah, she had nailed the Brown impression as well as it could be done, so maybe the results in terms of the quality of the records are a push in the betting parlance, but the difference is there was a future in this approach that was largely negated by first intentionally placing her in somebody else’s shadow.

But then again this particular song cast a pretty long shadow in its own right that she had to contend with.


Fall In A Great Big Way For You
You might be asking yourself how could Varetta Dillard stand out as an original when she was singing a song made famous by other far bigger stars from other musical genres?

Good question.

The song itself dates back to 1930 and was a jazz standard long before Dillard wrapped her vocal chords around it. The artists who’d already sang it on record are a veritable who’s who of legends… Louis Armstrong… Billie Holiday… Peggy Lee… Kay Starr.

But Dillard leaves them behind stylistically and reinvents this as a pure rocker, doing away with the coy delivery most other females had used when demurely complimenting a fella for Them There Eyes, trading that approach in for one where she’s the one dripping with confidence, accelerating the pace and ramping up the power shown in the vocal performance compared to everybody else.

It completely transforms the entire nature of the song. Yes, she’s still turned on by him, but she’s not timid about sharing that information, waiting nervously for him to reciprocate. Instead she’s the one pushing the action, putting him back on his heels and taking charge of the budding relationship.

In other words she’s showing us the intrinsic difference in rock ‘n’ roll, where assertiveness takes the day.

She’s helped by a great arrangement too, as the band seems to embody all of the key components of rock ‘n’ roll’s next five years, from the stabbing guitar to the melodic sax underpinning it and the thumping drumbeat. The featured tenor solo might not be the most riveting standalone feature on the record, mainly due to a lack of melodic direction, but there’s no complaints about its tone, its energy or the skill with which its delivered.

The star though is Dillard, who sounds unburdened by just being allowed to handle this in a manner she sees fit rather than trying to envision how somebody else would tackle the song. She romps and stomps, growls and sighs, shouts and moans with a sure hand, rolling along as if she was expressing her true emotions for the object of her desire as opposed to singing it as if she was reading somebody else’s words set to somebody else’s music with somebody other than the rock audience in mind.

We’re still only a short ways into Dillard’s career, but purely in terms of performance this is going to be hard for her to top.


You Better Watch Out
The grading of this side is made slightly more difficult by the last side we reviewed, as Chuck Willis cut a version of Louis Jordan’s classic pre-rock hit Caldonia that featured a similarly re-worked arrangement that altered both the musical backing and the vocal attitude from its origins in a way that made it far more suitable for rock ‘n’ roll.

We liked it a lot and praised those changes, yet because the song itself was so tied to Jordan, who was by no means a dimly remembered name from the distant past, we had to go easy on our response, simply because it was not going to elicit the kind of innate reaction from rock fans due to its lingering familiarity by someone else.

It could be argued that the same is true here, as Holiday released a remake of her 1939 version this just last year and the song itself hadn’t been out of the repertoires of top flight singers since its first appearance more that two decades earlier.

But while that will prevent this record from attaining a perfect score, there is a notable difference from the job Willis had with Jordan’s record, in that Dillard had a song that was much further removed from the basic rock ‘n’ roll sound in all of its previous renditions. That alone makes the job she does to bring Them There Eyes into this realm much more noteworthy.

One wrong step along the way, just a tentative vocal line or an arrangement that pulled up a little short with an instrument or two, would undermine the entire presentation.

Instead Dillard and company almost convince you that this wasn’t some older song being hauled out for its name recognition alone, but rather that it was something totally authentic for her to be singing and consequently made it authentic for the rock audience as well.

Reaching back for standards is always going to have its pitfalls, if only because you first have to erase an already established image in order to create your own, but Varetta Dillard shows that with the right state of mind it was always possible.

Too bad her commercial breakthrough a few months back had rendered her subsequent artistic breakthrough an afterthought.


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