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PEACOCK 1531; MARCH 1950



There’s something to be said for artists who can consistently sound “right” for their era… for their musical genre… for their specific stylistic bent… for the cultural climate around them. In other words, you were pretty much assured that their records were never going to seem ill-fitting on a playlist or sound decidedly subpar when compared to the average releases of the day.

But when those same records that fit well enough in the general milieu were also not anything to stand out from the pack, or worse yet, were designed to be mistaken for another more established artist of the day, then you might be destined for a career in anonymity… that is, if you were even able to sustain a career at all.


Every Night And Every Morning
We said yesterday, and will reiterate it again today, that at the very least Willie Holiday earned himself a second chance, one he never got. Peacock Records had more sides in the can of his but never released them and so we never got to find out if these were the best he could do or not.

But what his two released sides showed however was that he was perfectly appropriate for early 1950 rock ‘n’ roll. It was generic material maybe, but well executed, reliably hitting the right moods for what it was aiming at and giving the sense that Holiday belonged there despite his youth and inexperience.

It may not be much consolation seventy years after the fact, but far greater talents have walked away with much less to show for their debuts than this.

No matter what his story is we can pretty much tell that Willie Holiday was unlikely to ever reach full-fledged stardom with his nasal tone and inability to outshine the band on either an uptempo romp like the top side, I’ve Played This Town, or the more downcast ballad flip that adorns this side of the record.

But that he was able to competently hold his own in both approaches was something to be admired at the very least, especially for someone as young as he who was making their first appearance in a professional studio singing in front of some very notable musicians with plenty of experience.

Yet whereas on the more boisterous A-side the band took the reins and forced Holiday to hang on for the ride, which he did quite admiringly for the most part, on My Woman Put Me Down the roles are reversed as Holiday leads the way dialing up the emotional pathos to sell a song that’s perfectly suited for listening to at three o’clock in the morning with your bleary eyes fixed in a faraway gaze.

That’s its main selling point, its lovelorn perspective, one of about a thousand similarly themed songs in rock so far it would seem, but one which had surprising resiliency as a topic when handled with a deft lyrical touch and subtle musical accents to never allow you to notice it was the same old scenery being wheeled out on stage for use in a different play.

What did that scenery consistent of you ask? Start with a halting piano, add a low moaning sax that has a tendency to drift into the ether at the end of its lines like a train disappearing into the night. To top it off toss in a singer who needs to unload his feelings but is in no hurry to do so and as a result he takes you on a meandering ride through his emotional turmoil, never getting too high even when recounting the early joys of a relationship, nor getting too despondent when breaking the news that she up and left him for no apparent reason by the end.

But it’s not just the script that’s familiar in this case, for if you didn’t know better you’d think they brought in an actor from a bigger stock company to play the leading role.

Built Up From The Ground
One sign of just how big an artist is at a given time can be found in the number of vocal imitators they spawn. These are typically shortsighted attempts by labels to score a cheap hit, not always trying to fool you into thinking it was someone else necessarily (though surely not turning down the added sales if you thought otherwise), but rather giving listeners more of what they craved when the demand for the original artist was riding high.

Not surprisingly there were a number of Elvis Presley mimics over the years to score a big hit with his breathy style (Ral Donner and Terry Stafford among others) and at the height of Beatlemania there were plenty of groups that strove mightily to replicate their sound, with The Knickerbockers probably coming closest with the aptly titled Lies.

While it could be a successful ploy on occasion it rarely paid off more than once however for it was simply hard to make a long term career out of being a mere copycat when the star was still at the peak of their own fame releasing far better records that came more naturally to them than to some charlatan who needed to take his cues from others. Yet this didn’t stop it from being done from the very start and in the late 1940’s and early 50’s it was Amos Milburn who spawned a veritable cottage industry of shameless imitators.

Among the offenders only Little Willie Littlefield was good enough in his own right to soon rival Milburn in terms of artistry and commercial impact, though it could be argued that their similarities were due as much to the fact they both came of age in Houston which accounted for shared dialect and playing style. Maybe that was the case here as well with another Houston native trying his hand at tapping into Milburn’s mojo, as Willie Holiday dons the now familiar disguise for My Woman Put Me Down.

But it’s not just Holiday himself trying to sound like Milburn vocally that makes this more than your run of the mill B-side, it’s a top notch band, Erik Van Schlitz and His Big Six which featured the legendary Jay McShann on piano, who go the extra mile in replicating much of what Aladdin Records’ super-producer Maxwell Davis was doing behind Milburn on all of his hits which at times makes this one of the more uncanny reproductions of sound and style in rock history.

Lay That Lovin’ Down
Now before anyone gets their hopes TOO high, thinking perhaps this is going to turn out to be some fantastic lost quasi-Amos Milburn record, the reality is that what Milburn and Davis brought to the table went far beyond just notes, lyrics, arrangements and vocal inflections – their overall personas were intrinsic to their records just as every other artist, good and bad, had their personal DNA embedded in the tracks.

So Willie Holiday was naturally going to be lacking Amos’s charms, not to mention probably falling short in the song’s content itself. But that said there’s still plenty to appreciate with My Woman Put Me Down even as you’re still paying more attention to how closely he can sound like someone else rather than what unique attributes Holiday himself may be offering up.

Surprisingly the piano introduction is a little choppier than Milburn’s usual approach and it also doesn’t manage to significantly add enough rhythmic qualities to bolster that side of the equation, leaving it sounding almost like a run-through rather than the final product.

Once that fades however the rest of the playing tightens up and with it the similarities to a typical Milburn track become far more apparent. The most vital addition in that regard is the presence of a drawn out moaning tenor sax, warm and rich in its tones, hinting at suggestiveness and yet wrapping you comfortably in its notes like a blanket on a cold night.

McShann is now in the pocket as well, deftly filling in the cracks behind Holiday’s languid vocals, emphasizing the notes between lines with more force to let the urgency swell and then settling back as Willie picks up the vocals again, deferring to him with the confidence that he’ll be able to keep your focus.

For the most part Holiday does just that too, his nasal tone not quite a detriment with this sleepier singing style, a Milburn trademark wherein Amos would seem almost distracted in his reading but which would compel listeners to inch ever closer to be sure not to miss the vocal shadings he’d throw in to subtly reveal his true feelings.

Unfortunately the song itself isn’t quite up to Milburn’s standards, getting the overall mood right but skimping on the deeper insight to the human condition by using rather generic platitudes and lacking any clever turn of phrase to catch your ear and pique your interest.

It’s a good approximation of someone else’s sound, but that’s all it is. Holiday isn’t quite able to bring enough character TO this character sketch he’s given himself, making it more of a well meaning tribute than doing anything to expand upon the ground on which it was constructed.


Leaving Town
Most artists when stepping into a studio for the first time – especially someone as young as Holiday – couldn’t very well be expected to be hitting on all cylinders right away and come off sounding like a finished product.

Looking back on Littlefield’s earliest efforts you saw the talent in his piano playing, then later heard a good deal of promise in his vocals, but he too was something a ragged facsimile of Milburn’s more fully polished original model at first before he got his feet under him and acquired a swagger of his own.

My Woman Put Me Down gives much the same impression of a novice Willie Holiday, but unlike Littlefield who got multiple chances with multiple labels before coming into his own at Modern Records, Holiday was never afforded that opportunity and so whatever advances he might’ve been able to make went undocumented.

While the two sides of his lone single might not make it seem like his absence hereafter was too great a loss, both showed more than enough potential to want to hear more. But as we know there are no guarantees in music any more than in life itself and as such this release provides yet another reminder to enjoy each moment while it lasts because the next moment you’re hoping for may never come.


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