Stand By Me

Here’s a perennial favorite that has come around again and again, becoming a hit every few years thanks to new artists covering it for a new listener generation. Everyone knows this song, though everyone most likely has a different version that they think of as being the definitive one. I think that it’s a pretty easy choice to say that Ben E. King’s 1961 original is the foremost and the best. It’s pretty dang hard to improve on any Motown original; Motown had the very best songwriters and musicians on payroll, rolling out hits with the professional efficiency of the auto industry that gave the label its name. The miracle of Motown was that, with the sheer concentration of talent they employed, it was impossible to make a bad record. That’s why, though not many people may remember Ben E. King’s name, they can recognize his biggest hit from the first notes. That’s the staying power that everyone else who tried to put their signature on the song was hoping for, with varying degrees of success. For me, the only other version worth listening to was John Lennon’s, which couldn’t match the funkiness but made up for it in sincerity.

Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most

Ella Fitzgerald may well have been the most prolific jazz singer of all time. She released dozens of albums over forty years, and her recordings of the Great American Songbook cover hundreds of songs. Amid all that, it’s hard to keep track of which songs were recorded when or how they were released or which album contained what. I recently discovered the 1961 album Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! I’d never heard of this record before, nor most of the songs on it, though two or three were familiar. And it is one of the best records I’ve unearthed in a long time. I’m sure that Ella Fitzgerald was incapable of making a poor recording, but she sounds impeccable here. Maybe Verve upgraded their studio equipment that year, or someone did a bangup job on the remaster, or maybe it’s just the effect of hearing songs I’ve never heard before, but I couldn’t help being blown away. It’s hardly novel to be blown away by the sound of Ella’s voice, of course, she’s been blowing ’em away since she first stepped into a recording studio sometime in the 1930’s. But there’s no feeling that she’s singing from across the decades; these songs sound vibrant and it feels as though they were recorded yesterday.

Sophisticated Lady

Sarah Vaughan strikes a mood. Vaughan had a voice like silk and satin, and she made everything she touched sound refined. So, she could almost be singing about herself, for she was an icon of sophistication in her time. The refinement must always be tinged with melancholy, implying that it has been gained at great cost, for otherwise it wouldn’t be anything more than a pose.

Please Mr. Postman

 

The technology may have changed, but the sentiment remains the same. The Marvelettes shot to fame as one of the first Motown girl groups, in 1961; they helped form the template that became prevalent throughout the 60’s. Although so much material from that era is disturbingly problematic upon closer examination, this one’s innocence and simplicity is timeless. We may not depend on the actual postman for news of the outside world as much as we used to, but waiting for word is very much still a thing. It’s still a potent jumble of optimism and frustration. I don’t think there’s any technological advance that can change the experience of waiting, at the mercy of other people’s decisions, for our lives and relationships to somehow develop and move forward.

(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame

We haven’t heard any Elvis Presley in a while. What’s he been up to? Oh, yeah, still dead. But if he wasn’t, he would’ve been 80 years old last Thursday. Anyway, this is one of his hits from 1961. It was originally written for Del Shannon, but Del Shannon barely got a chance to get out of the gate; Presley’s version came out a mere two months later after his, and stole all the thunder, as usual. Which is fine, because Elvis runs circles around Del Shannon. Little did either one know that The King’s world domination was about to end, and that their pompadoured kind would soon be seen as campy relics. Elvis Presley was caught short by the changing tides of the British Invasion, and his failure to adjust himself to the times made him a laughingstock in some circles. But in ’61 he was still the pop world’s dream of an icon.

Love Hurts

What the man with the ridiculous hair said. Agreed.

Here we can see how stylistic approach to a simple song can make the difference between mawkish and profound. It’s a general rule of thumb that large-haired hard rock bands don’t usually wipe the floor with older, more respected artists, but Nazareth breaks that rule. The Everly Brothers’ original recording is pretty, yes, and their vocals are as angelic as usual. Which is exactly the problem. The high-school-slow-dance arrangement, their gently tremulous voices, the waltzy tempo; it’s syrupy and trite, washed clean of anything like human emotion, just another vaguely pleasant pop song to awkwardly sip punch to and instantly forget. Roy Orbison’s rendition is only slightly better. Orbison’s voice can turn any material into something memorable, but again, a soggy violin-heavy arrangement sends the song straight to schmaltz city. There’s a reason why Nazareth’s Love Hurts is the best and most famous. It’s the only one that has real feeling. Dan McCafferty makes The Everlys sound like goofs. He doesn’t sound pretty – and he definitely doesn’t look it – but imperfection is exactly what the song  needs to pass from merely alright to classic. It needs a balls-out emotional performance, it needs a voice that cracks and breaks, it needs to be delivered by someone who means every word of it. And of course, for those of us with rock’n’roll hearts, it needs a guitar solo, not a bunch of fucking limp-dick violins.

Little Sister

In most circumstances, it would be deeply creepy to hear a grown man with oily sideburns talk about pursuing a former flame’s younger sister. But this is Elvis. So it’s still a bit creepy, but it’s coming from one of those rare people who have the je ne sais quoi to turn ‘weird and creepy’ into ‘sexy and charming’. Elvis was one hell of a charismatic man, and he had the power to pull off things that anyone else would fall flat trying to do. Including all those jumpsuits, and sideburns, and bad behavior and  borderline-pedophile lyrics like these. Being slightly sleazy and yet charming was kind of The King’s thing; he was notorious for radiating dangerous levels of sexiness, but made up for it with his Southern-boy manners. The more cartoonish aspects of the Elvis image are easy to make fun of, especially since his estate has been keen to amp up the kitsch factor. But don’t let those things overshadow his prowess at being a rock star. He was a natural for that calling. You can see it in the video here. It was filmed in 1970, supposedly well into his artistic decline, and he doesn’t seem to be trying too hard. It’s a casual, tossed-off performance; the band looks like they’re having fun, Elvis looks like he’s having fun being the focal point and leading the jam. The impromptu segue into a chorus by none other than The Beatles is a surprise, and the mash-up totally works. It reminds you that underneath all the rhinestones and Brylcreem, Elvis was still a working musician and he wouldn’t be on any commemorative postage stamps if  natural musicianship wasn’t at the foundation of his fame.