Sunday, 10 August 2014
ELDER MUSIC: Transforming a Song
This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
Musical history is replete with instances of someone taking a song and changing it completely. You don't need me to tell you that. However, it seemed like an interesting idea for a column and it was fun choosing which two versions of songs I should include.
It's really subjective which of the two of each you might prefer. My idea of better and worse is no doubt different from yours. That's okay. It's entertaining to me to hear both versions. I hope it will be for you as well.
I'm afraid that if I start with PAUL ROBESON, it'll be all downhill from here on. Well, so be it.
Paul performs the song he's best known for, from the musical "Show Boat,” Ol' Man River. He recorded it a number of times over the years. I've gone with the one from the film sound track.
It would take a brave man to mess with anything of Paul's, perhaps that's why it took five of them, THE TEMPTATIONS.
They put an interesting twist on the song. Their bass singer would do Paul proud. Let's hear what they do to Ol' Man River.
I was sorely tempted to go with Stan Freberg's version of the song but decided against it. Another time maybe.
Speaking of transformation, Steven Georgiou transformed himself into CAT STEVENS and became a successful recording artist and performer. He later transformed himself into Yusuf Islam and became a nutcase.
It's the middle incarnation of himself we're concerned with today. Cat was quite a decent writer of songs and he usually interpreted them pretty well too. On the song The First Cut is the Deepest he did an adequate job, but that's about it.
ROD STEWART took Cat's song and turned it into a rock & roll masterpiece.
Rod did that with many songs. He also wrote several of the finest songs from the seventies, but he's not usually credited with that. Anyway, here's what he does with The First Cut is the Deepest.
Many of the songs that BING CROSBY first performed have been transformed by other performers, sometimes for the better but usually not.
The song I'm including today is Try a Little Tenderness. It was written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry Woods and was first recorded by Val Rosing fronting the Ray Noble orchestra.
Bing followed quickly on the heels of that one (as did Ruth Etting but she's not the one we're interested in today).
Now for OTIS REDDING.
It was one of his biggest hits and the version of his I've chosen is one taken from the Monterey Pop Festival. This was one of the very last concerts Otis performed before he was killed in the plane crash.
It's an interesting version of Try a Little Tenderness with Booker T and the MGs and the Memphis Horns supplying the backing. Interesting? Lordy, this is magnificent.
MICHAEL NESMITH wrote the song Different Drum before he was in The Monkees.
Okay, he didn't look like that at the time. Michael was (no doubt still is) an accomplished song writer and he eventually got some of his creations recorded by the group. Later he had a solo career as a really good country rock performer.
Here's Different Drum, the way he first thought of it.
Mike's song was the first hit by a trio called THE STONE PONEYS.
The group, and that song, was the first time most of us got to see and hear Linda Ronstadt. It was far from the last time that happened.
Their version was a huge success and I think one of the finest musical moments of the sixties. For those who don't remember that decade, here they are with Different Drum.
Some might say that everyone who performs one of BOB DYLAN's songs transforms it for the better - someone who occasionally graces this column could be included in that category. I refute this. I will, however, admit that now and again someone does improve on his version. Even the man himself has recognized this.
He has said that after hearing Jimi Hendrix perform All Along the Watchtower, from then on that's the version he (Bob) would play in concert. Even earlier than that, one of his songs was transformed and the group who did it created a new genre of music.
Before we get to their version, let's hear Bob perform Mr Tambourine Man, a song apparently written about the great unsung guitar hero, Bruce Langhorne (who plays lead guitar on this version).
Most of you would know who I'm talking about by now. It is, of course, THE BYRDS with their most famous song and possibly the best cover of one of Bob's songs ever.
The Byrds made a career of taking Bob's songs and putting their stamp on them, usually improving them no end. Another great musical moment from the sixties, Mr Tambourine Man.
ELVIS is usually the one who transforms songs but in this case it's the opposite way round.
His song for a makeover is Burning Love, a song from the seventies when he was trying to make good music again.
A group with the rather esoteric name of THE MEAT PURVEYORS took Elvis's song and ran with it. Or, more to the point, rather dawdled with it.
The Meats are an alternative country/bluegrass/whatnot group from Austin who started out as The Texas Meat Purveyors. However, there was an actual company called that so they changed their name. Here is their version of the Elvis classic.
In 1938 Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson wrote September Song for WALTER HUSTON (father of John, grandfather of Anjelica).
This was for the Broadway musical "Knickerbocker Holiday.” Walter was playing that aged despot Peter Stuyvesant and it was thought he required a song, one that would suit his rather limited singing range.
That might be the reason that so many others have successfully recorded this song. Here's Walter's version.
Another singer that some say had a limited vocal range who tackled the song is LOU REED.
Lou was once quoted saying that he'd like to be known as the Kurt Weill of rock & roll. I think he came close. He gave the song the full Lou treatment.