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The ground rules on this site are simple and pretty self-explanatory… we’re covering every rock ‘n’ roll single released since the genre’s birth in 1947 in chronological order. No exceptions.

But that doesn’t always mean the task is made easy, especially when non-rock artists join the fray for a song or two, trying to capitalize on rock’s commercial potential without ever intending to make a full-fledged commitment to the genre. Usually, though not always, that’s where we tend to draw the line and keep them out.

Luckily in this case our decision to include today’s record was made easier by the guy making his recording debut by co-starring with non-rock singer in question Though he’d never have any hits as a singer he had plenty of hits as a songwriter for some of the biggest rock acts ever to grace a stage and we can’t tell their stories without starting HIS story at the very beginning.


Tell Me Darling, Are We Through?
It’s a shame that an artist like Viola Watkins doesn’t have a more lasting musical home to be housed in where she might earn some plaudits for her work. But that’s one of the dangers of coming along in between eras where the fading trends of yesterday meet with the rising tide of tomorrow.

Watkins was born in 1907 and was fairly accomplished, having studied piano at Juliard, but it took a decidedly long time paying her dues before getting signed to recording contracts in the mid-to-late 1940’s (first for Ebony Records, then Super-Disc before landing at Jubilee in 1940). Not surprisingly for someone of that era she resides firmly in the realm of the handful of established black female pianists who sang at the time in what can sort of be termed a “flippantly cool and somewhat racy” brand of music defined by the likes of Julia Lee, Nellie Lutcher and Mabel Scott all of whom cut some very popular – and some truly great – records.

Unfortunately those records were not what we comfortably slot in any of the major genres. Maybe they were closest to jazz in theory, but clearly well outside the kind of highbrow jazz which has a lasting following. Perhaps you’d classify them as blues, but if so they’re an upscale type of club performances which runs counter to the dominant image of Delta and Urban blues that continue to be praised nearly a century after the fact. Because all of those artists themselves pre-date rock and didn’t alter their approach enough to fit into our field when it came along they’re not in luck there either when it comes to being properly feted today.

Hence they’re stuck in that eternal no-man’s land – or is it no-woman’s land in this case – of transitional artists, bridging the gap from the dominant earlier genres of jazz and blues to the later behemoth called rock ‘n’ roll without belonging to any of them.

Watkins’ efforts fit well in that lineage, but by the time she was recording in earnest the commercial appeal of that type of music was falling by the wayside, especially for those who’d yet to make a name for themselves with the public. Yet Watkins persevered and was definitely given a fair shake by Jerry Blaine on Jubilee, as she got five releases over four years despite no tangible returns on them. Now, trying again to break her through to maybe a different audience than she’d prefer, he lets her have a duet with a new singer named Otis Blackwell on Really Real and she delivers a fair approximation of the basic rock delivery.

It wouldn’t be the last time Watkins would hook up with a rock act, though in spite of what you may have read elsewhere NOT on the flip side of this, a dreadful ballad called Paint A Sky For Me, but those associations wouldn’t do her much good in the future either.

Now that we’ve gotten the backstory of Watkins out of the way however it’s time to focus on the real find on this record… the estimable Mr. Blackwell.

You’ve Been Real Swell, You’ve Really Been A Real Good Friend
Though many of rock’s for-hire songwriters of the 1950’s never achieved any name recognition for their work, Otis Blackwell was one who did, something that tends to happen when guys cutting major hits from that work include the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Willie John and countless others over the years.

Also unlike many of his peers who had to either submit mere sheet music, or hire singers to cut a demo, Blackwell had the advantage of being able to sing his own compositions and let the artist follow his interpretation (Presley reportedly mimicked every aspect of his demos).

As we’ll see over the coming months and years on his own solo sides, Blackwell was in fact a good singer with a slightly odd voice… a higher pitched metallic laden tone that seemed to have its own internal echo chamber housed somewhere in his larynx.

Because he had written Really Real – or co-written it along with Watkins – that explains his presence here, seeing as how he never signed with Jubilee as a solo performer.

The record is certainly designed for rock ‘n’ roll – suggesting it was more Otis than Viola who was responsible for its conception – but with the added allure of a Latin beat that was popular at the time. That also points to Blackwell, who would favor that funky rhythm in various forms over the years.

That quirky intoxicating pattern gets the intro to itself before being joined by vibes and saxophone which help to create a semi-exotic feel. When Watkins comes in she sings with a little more assertiveness in her voice than on many past efforts and more or less nails the laid-back confidence of the girl who is bidding her beau goodbye despite them having a good relationship, one which she’s looking back fondly on throughout the performance.

Truthfully, the record sounds better than the composition… at least the story itself which is a bit confusing. The lyrics are good FOR that story, as Blackwell gets answering lines that add another dimension to the song, but it doesn’t quite make sense from a narrative perspective. Not that some happy couples don’t break up, but in a three minute song we need a better explanation for their split than we get here.

Their exchanges are convincing – he’s upset she is leaving while she’s telling him it’s nothing personal – but we never quite DO get a handle on her reasons, even as she offers up some vague explanations. It’s clearly not an impetuous emotional decision on her part, there’s nothing he’s done to piss her off, there’s no animosity and she seems to have no destination in mind, no other guy waiting for her, and though she may be a bit melancholy over her decision, there’s no sign she’s actually sad or is going to have second thoughts once she walks out the door.

The only plausible reason we can come up with is just a case of being restless to live a more footloose existence, but that would be easy enough to get across with a line or two in the closing refrain which would’ve wrapped it up nicely and boosted the reception of this considerably.

Instead it’s a well-crafted atmospheric performance from singers and band alike that is too ambiguous to fully get its hooks in us.

It’s Been Real Nice, I Had A Good Time
For once we have to give credit – or at least not harangue and criticize – Jubilee Records for their decision here.

Maybe it wasn’t even THEIR decision, if Watkins and Blackwell co-wrote this together for a duet then it sort of had to be performed that way, but Jubilee at least let them cut the song in the manner it was intended and then promoted it with the attitude that it was a legitimate contender for chart action.

Maybe it would’ve been too had the storyline of Really Real been just a little clearer, but then again while everything else here works pretty well there’s still a feeling that this is a stylistic outlier to rock ‘n’ roll… at least the dominant rock hits of 1952.

That’s not the worst thing of course, we like records that take chances and offer up something new, and as stated the arrangement is appealing and both singers handle their vocals well. But it’s also something that if it had been really successful would’ve given labels like Jubilee, as well as any following suit, an easier route to take for moving away from what were shaping up to be rock’s defining characteristics – aggressive, explosive, exciting sounds.

By contrast this was something intriguing at best. Nice to have the opportunity to hear, especially as it introduces us to someone we’ll be spending a lot of time with in the future, but also something which – like Watkins herself – was bound not to fit in and therefore be left behind.


(Visit the Artist page of Otis Blackwell for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)