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Monday, December 26, 2016

Carla Thomas: Gee Whiz


1) Gee Whiz; 2) Dance With Me; 3) A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening; 4) Your Love Indeed; 5) Fools Fall In Love; 6) To The Aisle; 7) The Masquerade Is Over; 8) A Love Of My Own; 9) Promises; 10) It Ain't Me; 11) For You; 12) The Love We Shared.

On one hand, this was straightforward nepotism in action: the main reason why we got to hear Carla Thomas' voice is that father Rufus wielded enough influence to promote her as a serious act, first as part of an attractive father/daughter duet, then as a solo performer in her own right. On the other hand, who cares as long as there actually was something serious to promote? Carla had the looks, the voice, the charisma, and even a certain amount of composing talent — at the very least, the song that made her a star was always credited to Carla herself and nobody else.

Not that ʽGee Whizʼ is some sort of outstanding masterpiece, but it helps to contrast it with the other ʽGee Whizʼ, a soft teen-pop number done by The Innocents that very same year — just to remember how passionately wild this Carla Thomas vocal would have sounded back then on the radio, next to the precious china of the vocal harmonies by a bunch of sweet, cuddly white boys. The right word would probably be juicy — she's got that slightly raspy, deep, thick coating on her vocal cords, neither like the blues mamas of the day nor like the jazz crooners, but much more in line with sweet-hot teenage romance, like a blueprint for the soon-to-be typical female voice of Motown or Phil Spector's girl groups (Ronnie Spector is probably the closest one in timbre). Back in 1961, she was probably a unique presence on the Atlantic label — their other performers were either too soft (Barbara Lewis) or too hard (Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker), so there was nobody like Carla to get that teenage blood boiled to the proper temperature.

Throw in some teenage slang (the title of the song), some passionate orchestration for the song's waltzy tempo, and an intentionally seductive tone in every detail, and there's little wonder why ʽGee Whizʼ became such a success. The problem, as always, was with following it up: Carla was immediately set up for a full LP of material that she simply did not have — and so the majority of the tunes here are covers, most of which just sound like ʽGee Whizʼ, but are less interesting, e.g. ʽYour Love Indeedʼ by father Rufus, a very similar waltz but without any prominent lyrical/vocal hooks. She performs everything with honor — the fast-paced cover of The Drifters' ʽFools Fall In Loveʼ is every bit as fun as the original — but the arrangements are generic and monotonous, and even Carla's vocals eventually become a bit grating.

Her own songwriting is further represented on the second side of the album, where it turns out that the girl is actually far more somber than ʽGee Whizʼ would suggest: ʽA Love Of My Ownʼ has her complaining about being unable to score, ʽIt Ain't Meʼ lets us know that even when she does score, she still ends up cheated, and only ʽFor Youʼ reinstates some hope that everything might eventually end up fine (but might also not). None of these songs stray too far away from the Fifties Progression or other clichés of the era, though, so Carla's vocal timbre is pretty much the only reason why they might still be worth a listen. And, as I said, the orchestrated arrange­ments are all typical of the era — the first side ends with an orchestral florish concluding ʽTo The Aisleʼ, and then the second side opens with precisely the same florish for ʽThe Masquerade Is Overʼ, which sounds fairly comical in the digital age when you no longer have the benefit of a slight table-turning pause.

Ultimately, this is skippable — and you can always have ʽGee Whizʼ by itself on the unexpen­dable Atlantic Rhythm'n'Blues compilation — but it does signal the arrival of a substantial talent, and it would be fairly easy for a fool to fall in love with the sound of that lovely voice even if it were made to sing twelve variations on the theme of ʽThe Itsy Bitsy Spiderʼ. Not that the record executives were too happy about nurturing and promoting that talent at first — she did not get her second chance at an LP until four years later, and in the meantime, was occupied by such odd cash-ins as 1963's ʽGee Whiz, It's Christmasʼ (which has nothing whatsoever to do with the original ʽGee Whizʼ, but merely reflects the record industry's treatment of record buyers as trai­nable Pavlov dogs).

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