2020-05-12 17:21:01 UTC
Though the regular – if not quite daily – posts on these pages give the impression that this is a website designed to be read “in the moment”, the truth is when recounting records from 70 years ago there’s not much modern connection to be made. In fact, you’ll see that rarely is there even an attempt to make reference to anything going on in the world today and that’s definitely by intent.
The history of music as filtered through a modern lens tends to distorts that history and so the goal here is to put these artists and records back in the context from which they came and treat most of what followed as if it were non-existent up to a point. Part of that is to avoid the urge to skip ahead to the “good parts”, or at least the more familiar stories still to come, but it’s also done because the posts need to be written so that they aren’t dependent on TODAY’S headlines to be understood when they’re read tomorrow… or a year or two down the line.
But occasionally things happen when that approach is turned on its head, such as now.
The name Billy Wright hasn’t been seen in print very often – certainly not in any concentrated rush of mentions – over the past seven decades. Even when he passed away in 1991 there wasn’t a lot of ink spilled on his life and career despite being one of the more talented and, for a time at least, one of the more successful early rock singers in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. But this week Wright’s name is popping up in the press again.
For the past half century or so when Wright HAS been mentioned in mainstream outlets it wasn’t directly the result of his own output as an artist, but rather the focus was on someone else who followed in his footsteps and rose to a level of fame that far outlasted that of Wright’s five year run as a star in a still-segregated musical style. Sadly that’s the case now as well, as his informal protégé Little Richard died at age 87 over the weekend prompting a lot of career overviews to be written about the self-proclaimed Architect Of Rock ‘n’ Roll, many of which have mentioned how much a young Richard Penniman openly emulated Wright at times.
This review on Wright’s third single on the Savoy label was already slotted to be posted here as the first entry for the second week of May 2020 and it was only sheer coincidence that Little Richard died over the weekend leading into that. Sort of a perverse form of serendipity I guess. But knowing that Wright will have at least a few people searching for him to learn about that connection it seemed almost intentionally obstinate to ignore within the review altogether.
Maybe, if you believe in such things as recently deceased rock legends caring about the efforts made to give proper respect to the history of the music as a whole, you might even say Richard timed it perfectly to pay back some of the debt he owed Billy Wright for everything he borrowed from his mentor.
If You’ve Got A Real Good Man
Good timing or not, the connection between the two artists stylistically on THIS record isn’t quite as evident as it was on past – and future – turns by Wright, but maybe that’s for the best too, because rather than adding to the perception that Billy Wright’s own musical legacy is destined to forever lay in the shadow of a more iconic artist down the road, this at least gives him a chance to be seen in his own light where the similarities between them are a little more tenuous… though not completely lacking.
Truth be told though Back Biting Woman showcases the uniqueness of Wright in a way that helps to highlight his gifts, both as a songwriter and a singer, that would make any strict imitation of him bound to fail creatively.
As evidenced by the title the song uses a very familiar theme – unfaithfulness in romance – so Wright can put himself in the role of the aggrieved party allowing him to make use of his greatest attributes as a singer, a dramatic highly emotional response to matters of the heart. Add those two elements together and you’d think that all you’d have to do to ensure at least a mild hit would be to have the band not drop their instruments while recording.
But Wright is proving to be a rather atypical songwriter when it comes to avoiding the normal structure these things tend to follow and replacing it with a more unusual narrative technique. In other words he’s not one for the standard verse/chorus/verse, AABA approach.
You’ll recall for instance that on his debut, You Satisfy, still his crowning achievement to date, he avoided using the title itself until the very last line, yet by doing so he was able to wrap up the song in a surprising and satisfying way that spoke to his natural creativity.
Here he takes a similarly roundabout route to get to the point of the story and while it’s modeled on that earlier song it’s by no means a mere re-tread of that one.
Take My Advice
Unlike first foray into this type of zig-zagging storytelling, here he lets us know the particulars right off the bat, setting up the rivalry between women in the first verse when it comes to trying to steal each other’s boyfriend before turning it on its head in the second stanza when he informs us that men are no-good either and are prone to jumping at the first sign of interest another woman shows them, no matter their current relationship status.
Right away he’s laid waste to the honor and integrity of both genders and we haven’t even heard a chorus yet!
That is… if the song HAD a chorus to segue into… which it doesn’t. In that way it DOES resemble his first hit, which also was without a chorus, but whereas that told a story that led to a definite conclusion, Back Biting Woman is more like a parable from someone who is presenting himself as a detached third party.
It’s important to note that it’s not Wright’s partner who has flirted or cheated with someone else’s main squeeze, nor is it he who’s the fox in the proverbial hen-house either. He’s merely laying out the facts of life when it comes to philandering and letting the listener take or leave his warnings at their own discretion.
But though Wright himself has no stake in the outcome that doesn’t mean it’s any less juicy as he hits on all of the ills of wayward partners without pulling any punches, managing not to miss a single target while still keeping it rolling along lyrically.
Yet here’s where we meet up with the idea that sometimes you can be too clever for your own good, for as strong as the individual lines are – and as solid a narrative they wind up laying out for us – the absence of the more familiar ebb and flow is undoubtedly what caused rock fans to overlook this when it came out.
Leave All These Married Men Alone
Music’s structural simplicity is a big part of its appeal. A predictable pattern with an intro, verses and catchy refrain, a change of pace in the bridge, instrumental break and lyrical reprise all building towards a big conclusion, is what we’ve become accustomed to and what we relate strongest to when it’s done with some degree of skill. When we’re not given those elements in the order we’ve come to expect it throws off our compass and we tend to lose focus or at the very least it makes for a song which we have trouble recalling even if we do appreciate the results.
That’s Wright’s challenge here, to make the different tactics work in spite of the absence of familiar signposts, and our challenge as listeners is to be able to put out of our mind where we THINK a song should take us and instead allow it to lead us where it wants to go.
He’s not entirely successful in that regard, though the fault can probably be placed more on the backing music than his own role in carrying this off. When you’re working with an uncommon design it helps to be able to at least use more recognizable materials to give the illusion of familiarity and that’s where a strong sax solo would do wonders in grounding this to our existing sensibilities.
As it is Back Biting Woman has a very rickety framework, something made necessary by its stop/start vocal delivery. There’s a piano taking the main accompaniment but it can’t do more than provide a flurry of notes in background rather than a strong rhythm to keep it anchored. The drums and bass are doing the best they can but they too can’t be too prominent without distracting us from Wright’s message. But it’s the horns that let us down the most, less because of what they’re asked to play and more because of which of them is asked to play it.
They’re led by an alto and backed by trumpets, the typical offenders it seems any time there’s a failure to provide enough heft in a rock song’s arrangement. Here they veer into jazzier motifs because they have no firmly established role to fulfill otherwise and as such it gives the impression that Wright’s exposé is less compelling because of it. When the solo comes along it’s the alto that handles it and so just at the point when it needs to rivet your attention, as a good tenor break would undoubtedly do, it loosens its grip instead and you get distracted if not lose interest altogether.
But if your mind does wander, while understandable, it’s also a shame because Wright’s performance once again contains all of the attributes we’ve come to admire in him. He’s using all of the melodramatic characteristics that will define him, bordering on the gossipy and campy traits so often associated with gay men, yet not done in a way that should have any avowed straight men questioning their own sexuality if they find his delivery of this tale to their liking.
It’s performance art – and a good performance at that – but one that requires you to readjust your thinking to appreciate and in the frantic release schedule of the singles era that was probably a little too much to ask of listeners who always had another record waiting on the turntable that was not as challenging to fully grasp right away.
Advertise What Your Man Can Do
A lot of songs have their appeal evident on the very first listen – most of Little Richard’s records barely wasted even five seconds before fully captivating you – but all artists deserve more than one or two quick spins of their work to fully absorb whatever it is they’re trying to offer. The fact that Wright was intentionally being circumvent in his approach itself with this one is something to be admired, not shied away from.
Back Biting Woman isn’t his best record by a long shot – nor does it quite reveal the massive influence he had on Richard’s vocals (in the second half when he starts getting more carried away it’s easier to see) – but in 1950 Wright obviously wasn’t concerned with what those of us in the next century would find interesting about his career in relation to a singer who still hadn’t come into the picture or made his own debut on wax yet.
So I suppose for those perusing this review for some deeper insight into Little Richard will be let down, but as a Billy Wright record this still gives us plenty that SHOULD hold our interest on its own, if for no other reason that it’s an intriguing record by a really good artist which should be more than enough for anyone to get something of value from.
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT: 6/10