2020-01-07 18:08:03 UTC
The first review of a 1950s release is finally up.
If you clink pon the above link you can read the review complete with the pictures.
And so after more than six hundred seventy reviews charting the course rock music took from the moment of its birth in 1947 we’ve finally reached the dawn of the Nineteen-Fifties, the decade in which rock ‘n’ roll would reach full fruition commercially while crossing over from being exclusively a black art form to one embraced by white audiences and artists alike, altering the musical DNA in the process.
It would take some time for all of this to play out, it didn’t just happen when the calendar turned from one decade to the next obviously, but as with any artistic and cultural pursuit evolution is inevitable if it wants to carry on. And rock ‘n’ roll definitely intended to carry on.
Rock’s growing role as the post-war voice of Black America meant a new generation of young artists coming of age were gravitating towards it as their music of choice and thanks to its resounding success in the late 1940’s more record companies were attempting to cash in on the movement, offering unprecedented opportunities to those with little or no professional experience. Each new artist entering the fray would bring with them their own unique twist on the music which in turn would give the expanded audiences ever more options to chose from.
As 1950 dawned Johnny Otis stood as the ideal figure to bridge the world of the 1940’s and all it entailed and the brave new frontier of the 1950’s. He was the last of the old school styled bandleaders whose basic concepts stemmed from the approach which had defined the jazz world of the past but he was prescient enough to embrace rock in its infancy and cultivate an impressive array of talent that would help it conquer the world, right down to launching the first of the multi-star package tours that would soon be a defining characteristic of rock, making him something of a pied piper in bringing the music to the masses. More than anyone else of the scene Johnny Otis seemed to make a career out of looking back at the same time he was moving forward.
That he began the decade with what would wind up being the biggest hit of his fifty year career is appropriately prophetic and makes for the perfect way to introduce the Nineteen-Fifties on Spontaneous Lunacy.
Been Looking For You
Though we’ve met all of the individuals involved with this record over the first two and a half years of rock maybe it’s best to do a little refresher course before we jump into this one with both feet.
Johnny Otis, the son of Greek immigrants in Northern California, grew up in a largely black neighborhood of Berkeley and over time, in his own words, “chose” to be black himself. Immersed in the vibrant culture around him – musical and otherwise – he took up drums, built up a reputation playing in territory bands throughout the West and soon landed in Los Angeles heading up the house band at the famed Club Alabam where he furthered his musical connections.
In 1948 he started his own Barrelhouse Club in Watts where the shows attracted a rabid following as he began assembling first rate musicians for his ever-growing band. The club’s weekly talent shows filled out the ranks including bringing in The Robins as his Ravens-inspired vocal group.
But it was at a rival club’s amateur contest in the fall of 1949 that he saw a 13 year old girl calling herself Esther Mae Jones whose high voice wasn’t any more pretty than her looks but who had a way with a song that was captivating. After he convinced her to join his retinue they cut I Gotta Guy in a one-off deal for Modern Records that met with little fanfare.
Now free of any contractual obligations Savoy Records’ Ralph Bass wasted no time in signing up Otis and as many of his affiliated acts as he could and so the whole lot of them, singers, groups and instrumentalists, all under Otis’s aegis, wound up on Savoy where they laid down a clutch of songs as the year wound down, each one seemingly featuring a different person in the spotlight. The Robins were the first beneficiary of this practice when their If It’s So Baby, released in December, took off immediately, becoming a Top Ten hit.
But it would be their work behind Little Esther that would do the most to firmly establish the whole lot of them – Otis’s vision for the the type of musical direction he wanted to pursue, his phenomenal band, the vocal talents of The Robins and the unique way with a song of Esther herself.
On paper Double Crossing Blues didn’t seem to be something that would be the game changer for any of them, but of course when you’re least expecting it in rock ‘n’ roll that’s when something is most apt to sneak up behind you and shake you down.
Folks Say That You’ve Been Cheating
The origins of this song – as with quite a few Johnny Otis compositions over the years – remains in some mild dispute even seven decades later. Just a friendly warning to those who don’t like seeing their avowed idols getting slaughtered, we’re usually pretty ruthless in cutting people down to size if there’s any question as to their actually being responsible for what they’ve been credited with over the years. But that said we’re also intent on being fair to everyone and with Otis, a legitimately talented songwriter with plenty of iconic compositions that have never been questioned, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that, with one or two notable exceptions, he at least had SOME hand in most songs that are still being argued over in the Twenty-First Century.
In other words his style is pretty identifiable and Double Crossing Blues has his fingerprints all over it.
The other songwriter who deserved credit for it, Jessie Mae Robinson, ALSO has legitimate credentials of her own, having penned a few huge hits for Amos Milburn (In The Middle Of The Night and Rooming House Boogie), as well as some of the most enduring classics of the pre-rock black market such as Dinah Washington’s Mellow Man Blues, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s Old Maid Boogie, which went to #1 in 1947, Rudy Render’s big hit from this past year Sneaking Around and the biggest vocal hit of 1949 in black America. She’d go on to write #1 hits for Louis Jordan, the most influential black artist in the years between Louis Armstrong and James Brown, as well as cocktail blues king Charles Brown, pop vocalist Patti Page (a cover of a song she wrote for Damita Jo) and later penned songs for the likes of Jo Stafford, Elvis Presley and Sarah Vaughn, a pretty wide scope of musical legends.
The story is that Robinson wrote Double Crossing Blues for Otis on request since he was headed into the studio to cut his first sessions on Savoy with a lot of different vocalists and – whether mistakenly or not – the record came out with only Otis listed as the writer. Of course he DID add the most iconic part of the record which Robinson herself admitted, but even that was taken from an existing comedy skit. In the end she got the court settlement entitling her to the royalties and in due time would become the first female African-American songwriter to be admitted to ASCAP.
The thing is though the song itself, at least as written, is only just fair. In fact, it’s actually pretty simplistic in both theme and its initial structure, but what they do with it is anything but ordinary.
I Can’t Quit You Baby
Opening with Otis’s vibes, something his records would become known for after mangling his fingers in a carpentry accident in the fall which had largely forced him to give up his drum seat in the band, the record takes on the quality of a peaceful dream that quickly gives way to a harsher reality when he drops out and Esther comes into the picture, her voice high and shrill as always but offset by the mellow harmonies of The Robins behind her and Lewis’s delicate guitar fills.
Right away all of these seemingly conflicting parts mesh together, a testament to Otis’s arranging skills, something he’d shown to dazzling effect back in late 1948 on our first meeting with him when he backed Joe Swift on the Top Ten hit That’s Your Last Boogie. But whereas that was mostly flash and nimble dexterity, this arrangement is much more refined and subtle in its construction. Though arranging doesn’t technically qualify as writing in the legal sense there’s no question that how this record sounds stems almost entirely from Johnny Otis.
But with a title like Double Crossing Blues the actual songwriting courtesy of Robinson promises some juicy intrigue in its story as Esther recounts her boyfriend’s infidelities and her despondent response to this revelation.
Putting aside the fact she’s clearly talking about an adult relationship and she’s barely reached puberty herself, Esther sounds fully mature, not in her vocal tone per say, but in her phrasing and underlying awareness of the heart-rending ramifications of the plot.
This was always Esther’s strong suit, the ability to not merely recite lyrics but to invest herself in them emotionally and this is no exception. She’s definitely portraying a younger girl, one who’s probably fairly inexperienced compared to her slightly older beau who’s been around the block a few times, but she makes it clear by her delivery that she’s past the point of returning home to her parents if this romance hits the skids, something she is trying to prevent by playing on his sympathies and whatever love he once had for her.
All of that is fine. Esther is in good form and already shaping up to be a vocalist to watch, while the lyrics, though fairly simple, are at least effective in laying out the plot. But the basic IDEA behind the song is one we’ve seen many times before and will see many times again down the road. There’s nothing particularly special about it, no sudden shift in the perspective used, no unexpected plot twist to turn the story around, not even a really captivating hook to re-focus our attention.
The melody is pleasant enough, the wordless “oohing” by The Robins is sublime, the band’s playing is perfectly understated and the pieces all fit together nicely, but Double Crossing Blues doesn’t do anything to really GRAB you and leave its imprint on your consciousness.
That is until Bobby Nunn of The Robins enters with the first of two cameos which is where the song takes on a distinctiveness that wouldn’t be apparent just by looking at the sheet music.
But the question is: Just who’s idea was this?
Goodness Knows How I Tried
We’ll get to the more famous Nunn interjection in a minute, of which there’s no confusion over who inserted it, but let’s start with the prelude to that part wherein following Esther bemoaning her fella’s lack of interest in her which ends with her telling him – and by nature us, the de facto jury that will decide this case – that she’s really tried hard to keep him happy.
That’s when Nunn chimes in taking the next stanza, telling us she was the one who went out playing cards the night before, leaving him alone and after taking a shot at her “hard head” in a off-handed put-down, he too concludes by saying that HE’S really tried hard to be the ideal boyfriend.
It works really well, in large part because of Nunn’s deep, slow delivery which heightens the drama and balances her higher voiced parts. Yet upon closer inspection you wonder if it was intended to be sung by a guy at all.
The set-up to the story as told by Esther gives the impression that she’s the aggrieved party and the line about going out to play cards seems far more likely to be a woman’s complaint than a guy’s, particularly since no other aspect of the plot is deviating from the expected. It’s possible, even likely, that it was Otis who had Nunn sing it instead, thereby turning it into a duet, something that Robinson couldn’t have foreseen when writing it.
The reason he would’ve done this is because of what follows, the famous one-liner that sounds ad-libbed but which Otis had cribbed from a comedy routine, modified here to have Esther put her boyfriend down by saying he should be “Out in the forest fighting big ol’ grizzly bears”. Of course this a line that has absolutely no relation to what we’ve heard so far, but when Nunn shoots back that SHE should be out in the forest she replies, in a brilliantly acted spoken line that manages to be both proud and demure, “I’m a lady” to which he slyly responds, “They’ve got lady bears out there”.
THAT was the line that sold it.
Now on paper that hardly seems anything worth getting excited about, though it’s helped greatly by the fact both deliver their parts with a panache that’s worth a chuckle, but when you realize that “lady bear” was common slang for ugly women in the black community at the time, and then see poor Esther, with her protruding smile and slightly out of proportion features you “get” the joke even more.
It may have just been a spur of the moment decision for Otis to insert that, knowing it would get laughs as he was fully aware it was going to be the same type of audience buying the record who were coming to The Barrelhouse Club where comedy routines were a regular feature of the entertainment, so it made sense to throw it in. But a casual decision or not its effect wasn’t only to make it a “must hear” record with people playing it repeatedly just to crack up at that line but in a more far-reaching way it showed how the overall cinematic presentation of rock was truly blossoming. You now were getting insight into the performers on record and in turn thanks to rock’s growing popularity it meant record buyers were going to be seeing more and more of them in person as they toured the country behind these hits.
The connection between artist and audience in other words was becoming even stronger.
You Swore That You Were Mine
Ironically – or maybe not considering he wasn’t a member of the intended community for this type of thing – Savoy’s owner Herman Lubinsky didn’t particularly like the song when he was going through the material sent back from the West Coast to press up, but when Newark DJ Bill Cook heard it in Savoy’s offices he immediately predicted its appeal, particularly the joke in the spoken bridge, and hyped it on his show. The reaction to it was overwhelming with more than a quarter million copies sold around the New York metro area in just a few days.
Decades later, and with so much lore to wade through, some might say that it doesn’t quite live up to its reputation and it’s true that the closer you study it the more you see the cut and paste approach they took on it, but it’s still really damn good and while it’s not a seamless record or even a really original idea the record’s historical importance can’t be understated. Double Crossing Blues vaulted all of them into the stratosphere as well as confirmed rock’s overall popularity as the calendars were changed.
Those insufferable critics hoping that with a new decade this noise pollution which had filled the air the last few years might soon disappear were sadly mistaken. Rock ‘n’ roll was bigger than ever and in 1950 no one IN rock was bigger than Johnny Otis and his subversive group of accomplices and fittingly it’s they who get the honor of starting the Nineteen Fifties off with a bang.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 8/10