Melvin Smith

At His Best

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Only Bear Family Records would think of bringing out a two-CD set of the complete early-'50s sides of an artist who never had a single record on the charts. The 32 RCA-Victor sides here are all good, and a few, like "School Boy Blues," "Reliefin' Blues," "Rampaging Mama," and "Looped" (all from just the first disc) are as fine examples of R&B as you can find during that era. The first eight songs comprise Melvin Smith's recording history fronting Blow Top Lynn & His House Rockers, who play a hard, sax-driven brand of R&B (with some romping piano by Tom Patton and a hot trumpet solo by W.M. Bostic on "Reliefin' Blues"), with at least one song ("They Ain't Gonna Tell It Right") that sounds like a lost Louis Jordan classic -- not bad for a 15-year-old vocalist. The second four sides are smoother than the first, and the best of them, "Rampaging Mama," is a masterpiece. He was nearly as strong on slow songs like Lynn's "Homesick Blues" as he was on the jump numbers like "Rampaging Mama," calling up images of Roy Brown at his best. His own "Everybody's Got the Blues" is a pretty impressive piece of songwriting for a 16-year-old, as well as a great number. "Looped" and the other New York-recorded numbers show greater sophistication than the earlier Atlanta songs -- they're smooth and their sound is nice and spread out, with lots of room for electric guitar, a solid jazz-type backup on trumpets and trombones, and a really "produced" sound that brings out the most powerful and expressive sides of Smith's singing. He was about the same age as Little Richard -- who also recorded for RCA around this time -- but a more developed artist. "Baby I'll Be There" is a beautiful R&B ballad, and gives Smith a chance to stretch out vocally, which he exploits to the fullest, while "I'm Out of My Mind" is the kind of jumping, honking blues number that probably brought many a house down at his shows during this era. "Business Man's Blues," which closes Disc One, is one of eight 1994 discoveries unearthed here for the first time. Even the weakest track here, "Sarah Kelly," has a great beat and a lusty, raunchy performance by Smith, marred only by the pop singers handling the choruses. "Six Times Six," by contrast, from the very same session, is the kind of lusty number that lots of white kids started tuning in to black radio stations to hear around this time. The later tracks, from 1953-1954, are good as recordings, with Smith's voice finally sounding almost larger-than-life on numbers of "I Don't Have to Hunt No More" and "Every Pound," although the songs themselves lack the quality of the 1951-1952 sessions.

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