If your perception of rockabilly is centered around wildmen such as Ronnie Dawson and Charlie Feathers, this disc is going to sound awfully tame. But the cold truth of the matter is that hard rockabilly seldom made the charts in the ’50s, and if you view Mona Lisa as an uptempo country record, you’ll get a better handle on it.
Carl Mann, part of the original roster of Sun Records, made it to #25 on the charts with an uptempo version of Nat “King” Cole’s “Mona Lisa” in 1959. Rockabilly, in its rawest, purest state, was a fixture on various local scenes, but it was the less-intense pop-abilly of Mann, Marty Robbins, Buddy Knox (“Party Doll”) and others that got the airplay; even Johnny Burnette had to tone down his harsh Memphis beat before getting a hit record. Most of Mann’s disc is true to his hit — lilting pop with just enough of the Big Beat to put it over the rock ‘n’ roll hump, although every now and then he’ll cut loose (as on his version of “Ubangi Stomp”). Strangely enough, this disc omits the low-charting follow-up “Pretend”, which also mined the Nat Cole songbook. However, this compilation does paint a fairly accurate portrait of Mann’s career.
His rockers, including “Mona Lisa” and “Look At That Moon”, aren’t entirely convincing; his take on “Ain’t Got No Home”, the laff-riot R&B classic by Clarence “Frogman” Henry, never should have been attempted. But when he did slow or midtempo numbers, he sounded more in his element. The country material (“If I Could Change You”, “It Really Doesn’t Matter Now”) has a certain bite the faster songs lack. And if you subscribe to the theory that country is the white man’s blues, cock an ear to “Walkin’ & Thinkin’”, “Kansas City”, and “Walkin’ The Dog”. When it works, which is often, it’s good for what it is. But the cheesy cover art, featuring Mona Lisa herself with guitar in hand, is no masterpiece.