No tags :(

Share it

KING 4468; AUGUST 1951



They say that animals often know when they’re going to die. It’s a haunting thought for any creature to be aware of their own impending mortality, to realize they don’t have much time left and be resigned to look for a comfortable spot to pass away.

Maybe singers are like that too.

Not that Wynonie Harris would ever consciously admit to being less than the invincible symbol of virility he built his entire persona around, but you have to admit that some of the songs being released on him this year give the impression that the clock is ticking on him whether he likes it or not.


Turned Their Back On Poor Me
Of course we’re surely reading too much into this because that’s what happens when you’re looking for different angles to break down a series of largely irrelevant B-sides in the midst of a long career. But then again maybe it’s not so far fetched that someone like Wynonie Harris, who’d already been a professional singer for a decade and a recording artist since the mid-1940’s, was due to start winding down his relevancy.

Now don’t get carried away, that doesn’t mean he’s washed up by any means, but there’s a notable difference between an artist at their peak where every song seems to embody their best attributes and the music they make after they’ve crested where it’s more hit or miss and they revert back to sounds that never quite caught on.

I’ll Never Give Up fits that latter category a song with a slow pace featuring tired horns leftover from the 1940’s and lyrics that are designed to accentuate this.

I’m sure King Records would say that this was simply a requirement for the song, nothing more. Harris wasn’t showing signs of age, they’d insist, just embodying a character who was a little worn down. They may even try and make the claim that it’s a testament to his acting abilities that he was able to convince you that he was someone whose best days were behind him when in fact he was enjoying a current hit at the time.

All of which may be true… but, maybe they should’ve asked themselves this question first: In a genre like rock ‘n’ roll that was increasingly focused on youthful perspectives, at a time when new potential superstars seem to be popping up every time you look up, all of whom are bringing new ideas to the table with every new release, is this really the image you want someone who was turning thirty six years old this very month to be projecting?


Life Is So Hard
The intro with its deliberate piano drawing out a melody as those stale horn parts gradually make their presence known is hardly the expected start to any Wynonie Harris record… at least not by this point in time.

His voice is weary but determined as he’s facing a lifetime of defeat that clearly has taken its toll on him with the hope – if not quite resolute belief – that it’ll turn around someday.

As such the song has some poignancy to it that Harris sells with reasonable conviction. The lyrical examples of his plight offered by songwriter Sam Theard are fairly solid, if relatively broad, yet the primary hook throws me every time even though it makes sense – “I may give out but…I’ll Never Give Up.

It just sounds like it should be “give in”, though that wouldn’t have quite the same meaning coming from someone who was down on his luck like this.

The “problem” though is that while this IS a pretty good acting job by Harris for the mood the record is trying to achieve, the sound itself is sort of… blah. Maybe that’s fitting too considering the subject, but as a result it comes across as a performance to be admired more than a record to be enjoyed.

The bleak musical arrangement, the past their prime horn charts and Harris’s tired resignation are intentionally despondent and if you’re not in that same frame of mind it can be a chore to listen to, or at least a potential downer for your good mood going in.

That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, it just means you have to know going in that it’s not going to make quite the same connection as something with a more vibrant uplifting sound. Even ballads tend to be about something less gloomy than looking back on a wasted life… which brings us to maybe the most interesting wild supposition about the track.

Not A One Could Be Found
In 1947 Wynonie Harris was a fading star with one big hit a few years in the rearview mirror cut with a bandleader who it could be reasonably said (at the time) deserved the lion’s share of the credit, despite Harris’s volcanic vocals and irascible attitude displayed in the song. He was difficult to deal with, increasingly unreliable in the studio and with sales declining at each stop along the way his chances to regain his brief popularity may have been drying up.

He’d still have opportunities to record for sure, there were always going to be enough tiny independent labels willing to take a chance on someone with a few hits to their name, but what sign was there that he’d have been able to turn his dwindling prospects around and become a star again if rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t appeared at that exact moment?

It’s hardly an irrelevant question to ask. I mean, what kind of songs would he have recorded from then on without the big beat of rock kicking him in the ass? What kind of image would he have projected without rock’s take no prisoners mindset that allowed him to be as gleefully racy as he wanted? What kind of audience would he have hoped to capture without a younger generation who were more naturally drawn to his bawdy charm and the risqué persona that naturally appeals to that demographic?

Maybe the best question is… how long would it have taken if rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t broken through before a thoroughly dejected Wynonie Harris DID give up?

We never had to get a definitive answer to any of those questions because of course rock music did come along and offer him eternal salvation at the very moment he most needed it. But it’s not hard to envision Harris actually living out the story of I’ll Never Give Up had things not gone down as they did.

In that alternate reality Wynonie Harris would have been forever straining at the stylistic confines of tormented songs like this, or trying to adapt to the guitar-based blues that were now in vogue, or maybe hoping to conform to the big band jazz settings that were still in play.

But we know that none of those provided the perfect fit for him and without being a musical innovator himself he’d have been recycling the same old shtick in 1951 that had already started to lose sway back in ’47.

In many ways no rock star ever needed rock to exist as much as Wynonie Harris did and while this song offers something of an alternative musical path he may have had to stick with full time, the truly frightening thing for Harris is the alternative life he describes in it… a man in search of a future that even he knows doesn’t exist.


(Visit the Artist page of Wynonie Harris for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)