BRENDA LEE: JOHNNY ONE TIME (1969)
1) Johnny One Time; 2) Traces; 3) If You Go Away; 4) Bring Me Sunshine; 5) Help Yourself; 6) Let It Be Me; 7) For Once In My Life; 8) This Girl's In Love With You; 9) Matelot; 10) The Letter; 11) Walk Away.
No Pete Fountain — no extra ray of light to illuminate the dullness. Brenda's last album of the decade is at least not nearly as lethargic as Reflections In Blue, and surprisingly diverse in comparison to most of her mid-Sixties stuff; but the diversity is not propped up by any interesting musicianship — everything is simply drenched in the usual strings, brass, and big orchestral pomp of her Vegas style arrangements. And (big surprise) she is not maturing much as a singer, either. Her take on Brel's ʽIf You Go Awayʼ is just plain terrible.
The title track was actually a small hit, her commercially strongest showing in about two years — as far as lush country ballads go, this one is far from the worst and features a strong vocal buildup: not highly likely an advanced musical listener will be ready to shed tears for the poor girl swindled by the protagonist, but he might want to tip that hat to the dynamic punch as we slowly ride the indignation wave all the way to the top. It is fairly well crafted, at least, and deserved a much more tasteful arrangement.
There are some upbeat pop covers here that are perfectly listenable (ʽHelp Yourselfʼ), some honest and respectable, but unnecessary R&B covers (ʽFor Once In My Lifeʼ is a very good early Stevie Wonder song, but if you substitute Stevie Wonder for Brenda Lee, you are not going to get a mind-opening perspective on the limitless potential of the melody), an obligatory take on ʽThe Letterʼ (everybody who ever did covers at the time just had to cover ʽThe Letterʼ — too bad the song was not actually written by Alex Chilton, or his financial troubles would be non-existent), and... well, all that other stuff. Diverse? Yes. Memorable? Well, if the title of the album is Johnny One Time, what would you expect?
And on this note, we are going to finally cut the umbilical cord. The following year, Brenda Lee would release Memphis Portrait, an album that would announce a full turn towards country — and stay there for most of the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond. These records are relatively hard to get (even as vinyl rips), even less rewarding to listen to, and besides, I have little interest in reviewing country music, particularly of that order. All I can say is that it was probably a wise decision — as a generic Nashville singer, Brenda could cut it quite convincingly, and it was probably simpler and humbler for her to go that way than go on hanging on the lower fringes of the charts with one faceless, embarrassing pop record after another.
She pretty much dropped out of the recording business after 1991, but last we heard, she did put out a record of gospel duets in 2007, with Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, and Emmylou Harris among the participants — and she still looked quite attractive on the cover (yes, even the hair stays pretty much in the same configuration as always). We can only hope that her life has been happy and healthy, that it will continue in the same way for years to come, and that, God help us, she won't ever get any ideas about staging a «rock'n'roll comeback» («Last Woman Standing» or something of that kind).