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PEACOCK 1531; MARCH 1950



Today we say hello to an artist that we’ll be saying goodbye to forever tomorrow, so don’t blink or you’ll miss him.

It’s actually surprising there haven’t been more artists who never had anything else released after that initial single, though I suppose since most sessions, even for newcomers, consisted of four songs that meant most of them would at least be afforded a follow-up release, no matter how bad the first offering did in the marketplace.

But here’s someone who, while certainly not a potential superstar who saw his chance at success thwarted by shortsighted record execs, at least had enough skill to have you wish that somebody else along the way gave him another shot.


The Guy Across The Table
The fact that most artists do in fact get multiple releases over time actually makes it easier to write about them down the road since there’s bound to be more information available on their lives and careers than had they just wandered in off the streets, cut a song or two and drifted away into oblivion.

But for those who did just that their name on an obscure single oftentimes provides the only evidence we had that they once plied their trade in this field.

Such is the case presumably for Willie Holiday, a name which certainly doesn’t help our modern day efforts to uncover some information about him since it is one scant letter off from being the same name as one of the most revered singers of all time who recorded far more prolifically in this same era.

That Billie Holiday was a female and Willie was a male doesn’t make this quest any easier however, nor does the fact that Willie cut a rock single and the estimable Lady Day specialized in jazz. All we really seem to know is that Willie Holiday was 17 years old in 1950, had been discovered by a Houston disc jockey named Trummie Cain who used to hold weekly talent contests at The Lincoln Theater and that Holiday parlayed that brief moment of local celebrity into a one-off record for newly minted label Peacock Records.

But we also know that he cut more than just the two songs that appeared on both sides of his debut single, maybe quite a few more, but there was no follow up released and so he quickly faded from sight. Being just a kid he probably looked at this as a hobby and when no career was forthcoming he entered the real world, got a job, had a family and probably passed away not thinking anybody was crazy enough to care to examine that solitary record he released so many years before.

Luckily for him though there are such lunatics out there because I’ve Played This Town is actually pretty good. In fact it’s good enough to wonder why a label that was still struggling to establish itself like Peacock didn’t release his other material, and it also raises the question as to why Holiday didn’t try his luck with other local imprints like Macy’s and Freedom who at least should’ve been interested to see what else he might capable of churning out with a little more time.

Who knows… maybe they all thought that in rock ‘n’ roll teenagers like him, no matter how much promise they showed, would soon be over the hill so why bother?


Bailing Out Now
As with other recent Peacock releases by similarly obscure singers the backing band is credited as Eric Von Schiltz and His Big Six, an unlikely sounding name for a rock band which made it doubtful that it was going to draw many curious souls. But had people known that this group included the legendary Jay McShann and other veteran jazz reared musicians that might’ve been enough an inducement to at least check the record out on a jukebox because the band is really what stands out here.

They kick things off already in third gear, horns bursting off the line with an efficient riff, the guitar laying down accent notes in the breaks while the drums, bass and piano are churning in rhythm underneath it all. This is the sound of a tight professional unit with their eye on the bottom line… that is, coming up with something suitable for the needs of the artist, the style and the record without necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel.

I’ve Played This Town is therefore an easy song to latch onto, sounding comfortably familiar without it being a rip-off of anything more distinctive. A run of the mill idea that transcends its limitations by virtue of the band’s skill.

When Holiday comes in he’s indeed the weakest part of the record, yet not altogether a detriment either because of the enthusiastic attitude he projects. His primary drawback is his nasal tone which makes hearing some of the lyrics an exercise in frustration, and that’s with modern sound equipment no less… you can imagine trying to understand some of this on a jukebox after a few dozen spins had worn down the grooves.

But it’s not an impossible task and when you get the details down you find that the general story is suitable for his aims as well. The “playing” the title refers to the social scene being played out as he’s leaving to find better prospects somewhere else. The impatience he displays vocally is appropriate for the circumstances and you get the gist of his meaning as much from that delivery as the specifics of the plot which touch upon losing at gambling after somehow procuring a “gob of gold” (come to think of it, maybe that’s why he never made more records – he struck gold elsewhere!).

The band might not have any better idea of his activities but they obviously think he’s up to no good the way they carry on: horns honking, blaring and whining, piano hammering away as the rhythm section’s pulse quickens throughout the instrumental break which features a really strong sax solo that fully understands what its role is.

Call it “generic precision” in terms of music, lyrics and at least the attempts of Holiday the singer, and leave it at that.


Three Jacks And A Queen
Because there’s so little information on Holiday with which to build a profile on him there’s probably bound to be some wild speculation about other more devious record company shenanigans behind this release… from the possibility he was actually named in an effort to draw in listeners curious to see if this might in fact be Billie Holiday herself, to more nefarious tactics about using him as subterfuge for recording someone else already under contract elsewhere.

None of those hold much water though though despite the intrigue.

Take for instance the circumstances surrounding his discovery by DJ Trummie Cain at a talent contest in 1949. Cain’s most famous discovery at one of those shows that year came with Juke Boy Bonner, a blues singer who had a long recording career without really becoming a big name. Yet in spite of his talent show win that supposedly “launched” his career, Bonner didn’t get his first record deal until the mid-1950’s so you’d be pardoned for thinking that Holiday might in fact be Bonner, who was the right age no less, just 17 himself in 1950, and was getting a chance much closer to his moment of local recognition.

Possible maybe, but unlikely, not only because no one has yet made that connection but because stylistically and vocally they’re not very similar. Though certainly someone’s voice can change appreciably in five years, especially when that marks the transition from teenager to young adult, Holiday’s nasal tone probably wouldn’t disappear completely in the interim.

Yet there’s ANOTHER singer who was already a star and famous for his nasal tone who happened to do a session for Peacock at this very time while hiding his identity… none other than Floyd Dixon whose first release for this label came out this month under his real name, Joe Riggins Jr. We’ll get to that one down the road when it’s re-released on Aladdin who purchased it from Don Robey along with the rest of Dixon’s sides, but people might jump to the conclusion that I’ve Played This Town was one of those efforts that didn’t get picked up or perhaps got lost in the shuffle somehow.

Mmm, no. Though indeed the nasal delivery is close, the other more discernible vocal characteristics aren’t and Dixon wasn’t exactly trying to disguise his presence by altering how he sang even though he was signed to another label.

Thus we’re left with what we started with… a hopeful amateur getting his shot at the brass ring and coming up short. No dirty dealings, no slight of hand and no intriguing mystery to be found.

Time For Me To Go
For a one-off artist who had just enough talent to get in the door but not enough to keep that door open for very long I’ve Played This Town at least shows Willie Holiday had the requisite enthusiasm to be a good fit in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s also not hard to grant a 17 year old kid some leeway for not having a refined technique, so all things considered chalk this up as a minor victory for effort alone.

But when the real stars of this modest effort are the well-known band, who WERE playing incognito, maybe the bigger story is that in the wild west of independent record labels you had a right to expect anything and everything each time you cued up one of their records… or could expect nothing at all and sometimes be mildly surprised with the results.

More often than not however it was just a crap shoot to which of those outcomes you’d wind up getting.


(Visit the Artist page of Willie Holiday for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)