2020-03-18 14:34:18 UTC
For the majority of his career Rufus Thomas would be known as a purveyor of funky upbeat dance songs, frequently copping titles from the animal kingdom to the point where if you found out his sideline was owning a pet shop or being a zookeeper you wouldn’t be at all surprised.
In a career that lasted more than half a century Thomas was the life of the musical party, too smart and savvy to be merely seen as some kind of court jester, yet too much of an entertainer to ever take himself or his music too seriously.
So to look back to the start of his career and find that he cut a stark mournful ballad right out of the gate is something of a shock, but a welcome one.
All On Account Of You
Going on the premise that artists over the course of their careers tended to stick to what they did best, what they felt most comfortable with and which sold better, it’d be natural to assume that Thomas just wasn’t suited for the kind of hang-dog sentiments found on I’m So Worried. Perhaps even you’d think it was forced upon him by someone at the record company and he merely went through with it because he was an untested newcomer just happy to have the opportunity to cut a record.
But no, Rufus Thomas came to the studio equipped with these songs that he himself wrote. This was his intent, to offer up two distinct sides to him and let the public choose which they preferred. You might think that he was particularly savvy to the need for this kind of stylistic diversity based on his work as a radio dee-jay but the fact is he hadn’t yet started his career at WDIA in Memphis. He’d get that job later in 1950, one which he’d hold until the 1970’s while concurrently recording some huge hits of his own.
Maybe the reason he was so good once he got on the air was because he instinctively grasped the importance of mixing it up even if down the road he’d stay in one lane most of the time.
But whatever the reason for his choice in this instance, it turns out to be a good one because this is another well-written, solidly performed song by the thirty-two year old novice and while not a hit of any kind it showed that he had what it took to become a credible star down the road.
My Head Is Going ‘Round
Once again the lyrics he offers up on both sides of this record stand out.
As with I’ll Be A Good Boy it’s not that they’re particularly erudite sentiments he’s spewing here, the stories themselves in both cases are pretty standard material for rock and are told in a fairly straightforward manner. But within that basic framework he fully understands how to craft a story to maximum effect, to take you from point A to point B in a way that makes you appreciate not just the destination when you arrive, but the journey you take to get there.
Unlike his string of later rave-ups where he’s often just extorting you to shake and shimmy in various ways, entertaining though they may be, on I’m So Worried he’s busy crafting a very definite persona for the audience to relate to, or at least to see as a three dimensional portrait for a man in this position.
He’s depressed over a woman, which is no surprise considering most singers have been dealing with this malady on ballads in rock for awhile now, but he seems to want to actually explain his predicament rather than just wallow in the misery. And it’s not just that he wants to inform us about the particulars of the situation for our collective enlightenment, but he also seems to want to really explore the nature of his sadness because he needs to understand it for himself.
But far from being a psychiatrist’s session put to wax, he’s really moving in his confession, taking us from the overall feelings he’s dealing with and then slowly unwinding the consequences of those feelings until he finally lands on the reason why he’s feeling them in the climax of the song.
None of the details are necessarily going to surprise us but the way he unveils it still packs something of a wallop when we get to the end. Had he told us the reason at the start I doubt we’d feel much sympathy for him, yet by reversing the trajectory he gets us to relate to those awful feelings ourselves, forging a connection based on shared experiences of generalized sorrow, then when we’re on his side and consoling him he admits the reason which casts him in a different light.
It’s a clever approach as he’s banking on the fact we’ve gone this far with him we aren’t going to turn our backs on him, or criticize him for anything he might’ve done, but rather we simply agree that it’s a tough situation to deal with, maybe tell him to keep his chin up and move on and soon he’ll get over it.
Really, considering so many rock songs, even some of the best to date, look as though they were thrown together on the spot, I’m So Worried shows real craft in how it was written and arranged, especially for a novice in songwriting. Furthermore his singing amplifies his pain without eliciting any scorn or derision from opening up about it, and by appearing to want to hold back his tears and not break up in front of us it gives him permission to do so if he wants ( he doesn’t, for what it’s worth) without looking like he’s going for an emotional response.
It’s really well planned and executed by Thomas… but unfortunately he’s the only one we can commend, as he’s let down by those around him.
Don’t Know What To Do
The arrangement of this record itself is pretty well judged. It’s got a somber tone throughout the song, there are no ill-advised breaks which shift the feeling by changing the tempo out of the low-gear its housed in, and all of the instrumentation seems chosen for creating a tone to match the mood.
It’s got a sax led arrangement which remains the most prominent instrument during the entire track, though the piano sets the stark rhythm with judicious use of its left hand. There’s a guitar in there as well which gets a halting solo of its own a little more than midway through, a simple single string run that’s passable and is in keeping with the downbeat reflective nature of the song.
All good in theory… but ONLY in theory, for unfortunately the playing of all three of these is in desperate need of either another run-through to get a firmer grip on the slow, almost ponderous, tempo it requires, or they simply needed to bring in better musicians who can slow things down without seeming as if they completely lost their way in the process.
The sax is the biggest contributor to the needed atmosphere and the biggest offender in wandering off-key and out of step. It sounds like an alto, or a tenor in need of a some testosterone, and while the lighter tone is definitely a positive in setting the dreary scene it’s almost as if he is reading ahead on the lead sheet and has to keep reminding himself to take it slow. He constantly is pumping the brakes so as not to get ahead of himself which upsets the balance between him and the piano, which is using the right hand to play rapid fire fills. These two elements have to off-set each other but instead the piano is pulling the sax toward it, then the sax realizes it and tries downshifting to get back in place, usually dropping behind in the process which requires him to lurch forward again to try and maintain his equilibrium.
As a result the sax doesn’t just seem woozy in its pacing but actually drunk in hitting its notes. The litany of flubs, large and small, real or perceived, are endlessly frustrating because he’s being asked to carry so much of the emotional load and constantly is dropping the ball.
The piano isn’t much better, as he seems thrown off by the sax’s missteps and gets tangled up a few times himself while the guitarist is just thankful he’s got the one part that is taken without Thomas singing so he doesn’t get distracted as well. Rufus winds up following that solo with a beautiful moan into the next line which shows how much he’s compensating for their failings, but the delicate ambiance this is begging for seems out of their collective reach.
All of which is a real shame, not just because it throws I’m So Worried into disarray, but because the ideas themselves were the right ones right down the line. I wouldn’t change any of the instrumental choices, just the people playing those instruments, because if carried off properly this would be of really high quality through and through.
My Condition Remains The Same
In the end Rufus Thomas would get no more releases on the Star Talent label, though he did cut more sides that day, but clearly the hook was in him because now he began to work on crafting more material and seeking out other record labels willing to give him a shot. He’d land at some of the most storied companies in rock history, but usually before they quite knew what they were doing.
It turns out Thomas might’ve known what HE was doing before any of them, certainly he knows what he’s doing here even if he were the only one in the studio that day who truly had a handle on it.
But that’s always the case, isn’t it? The truly talented see the big picture when others are still trying to focus on the immediate foreground.
Thomas’s ensuing career over the next fifty years in a variety of roles – singer, emcee, radio DJ, occasional actor and patriarch to a mini-musical dynasty – speaks for itself, but even had none of those avenues produced the bounties they did, if we were to look back to this minor single by an otherwise unknown artist we’d have to say that based on his work on these sides Rufus Thomas was indeed going places, he just needed to find better running mates next time around.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 4/10