217: Amy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’

Posted by jeff on Jun 26, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

ae69a33960419cf9796bf37b692be13bAmy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’ (live, 2007)
Amy Winehouse, ‘Back to Black’ (original, official video)

It’s not enochlophobia (fear of crowds) that I suffer from (hey, I was at Woodstock, and I’ve performed the priestly blessing at the Western Wall), but rather an allergy to That Which The Masses Adulate. Call it acute snobbery.

Why ‘suffer’? Because I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I want to be cool, which means being hip, which means being au courant, which means listening to the music that in-the-know young folk are listening to. On the other, if everyone’s chasing it, I’m going in the other direction.

When the movie “Hard Day’s Night” was released, I wouldn’t go see it for the first month because the theater was full of screaming girls. I wanted to see and hear my Beatles. To hear all the overtones of the first chord. To chuckle knowingly to myself every time Paul said “Actually, we’re just good friends”, to nod sagaciously when George quips “You don’t see many of these nowadays, do you?” Those teenie twerpettes wouldn’t get the jokes, and I wasn’t going to strain to hear them over their grunts and squeaks and groans and moans. Quiet chuckle, that’s me. Still is. When McCartney or Simon comes to town to play the stadia, you’ll find me at home sipping tea and listening to their original recordings from 40 years ago. With headphones.

Foto-KOSBZJA4But there’s a catch here. “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong” was the title of his second collection of greatest hits (1959). If you think there’s no truth in that, check out Young Elvis. I think most people think of Elvis like this. I think of Elvis like this. It was a great piece of advertising, and the cover has become iconic, spawning imitations from Rod Stewart to Bon Jovi. We could discuss ad nauseum here the dialectic of popularity vs sincerity, as I did most nights in the dorm of my freshman year in college.

But more interesting is the fact that the RCA copywriters snatched the Elvis meme from Sophie Tucker. Who’s Sophie Tucker? Find that out yourself, Virginia, but in 1927 she had a hit as big as her bazooms with ‘Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong’. And what’s a ‘meme’ you may ask (as I did)? It’s an “idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. As opposed to a snowclone, which is a “neologism for a type of cliché and phrasal template, a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants (‘grey is the new black’)”.  I promise to report back to you on the difference between your meme and your snowclone. As soon as I figure it out.

Which brings us right to Amy Winehouse (1983-2011). She achieved stardom at the ripe young age of 20, recorded two albums, a slew of bonus tracks (gosh I long for the days of orderly discographies) and piles of live performance videos; and died at 27 from rampant indulgence in every addiction known to modern womankind. She was over-the-edge provocative from the git-go, but adulated. With/despite her filthy mouth, her retro beehive hairdo, her outlandish attire, she became a lifestyle model. The media coddled her. The half a billion grandchildren of the fifty million Elvis fans embraced her, even as they were booing her for being too drunk to finish her stage performance.

What made her so popular? Her mouth? Her hair? Her boobs? The screaming, teeming masses kept me away for ten years. But now that the noise has died down enough for me to give a listen, I can tell you why. It was her voice and her songs. Her very impressive and serious musicianship. Her very fine talent.

I won’t pretend to have mastered her extensive library of bootlegs and outtakes, and I’m sure I have absolutely nothing to add about Amy to those who followed her career in real-time. But not surprisingly, some of my old codger friends are latecomers and (now that the shouting has died down) impressed and interested. So these few observations are for them.

Her two albums are fine, polished, cheeky, fun. But for our Song of The Week we’re going with a live version of the title track of her second album, “Back to Black”, from the 2007 Glastonbury festival. And here’s the whole concert, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

ronnieWhat do we have here? Well, the opening riff is ripped from The Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’. (I had the privilege of seeing Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention perform this song in concert, but that’s something wholly other.)  The beehive hairdo is usually attributed to The Supremes’ darker colleagues The Ronettes. Here’s their ‘Be My Baby’. The influence on Amy is pretty obvious. What might be less so are the facts that a) Brian Wilson called this the greatest pop record ever made (Phil Spector, of course); b) young Cher sang backup on the original recording; c) lead singer Ronnie Bennett became Mrs Spector; The Rolling Stones opened for Les Ronettes on their the latter’s 1964 UK tour; and the girls opened for The Beatles on their 1966 US tour.

But by Amy’s time, the sultry chick singer was backed not by two chicklettes, but by two very well-endowed, very suggestive male singer/dancers. One wonders what all was written into their contract. She’s backed as well by a very fine, versatile band, playing her whole amalgam of styles, drawing generously from Motown, blue-eyed soul, and of course Dinah Washington.

Amy’s debt to Dinah is great and openly acknowledged. Here’s Amy explaining just how great the influence is, not only in vocal styling, but in style, in attitude, in the way they both perceive and describe the world. But Amy is no cheap imitatress. Check out the lovely segue from the Motown Funk Brothers beat to the lovely jazz groove at 2:30. We’re talking giants on the shoulders of giants.

amy-winehouseAmy’s relatively small repertoire includes lots of ‘covers’. But they’re neither derivative nor fillers. They’re homages to fine, pre-worn materials that she makes her own. Check out her ‘Our Day Will Come’ and Ruby and the Romantics’ original; or her ragged, reggaed ‘Cupid’ version of Sam Cooke’s original; or her ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, cf The Shirelles’ original (written of course by Carole King, her first #1 hit, subject of SoTW 182); her version of the Teddy Bears’ ‘To Know Him is to Love Him’ (Phil Spector’s very first hit); or her lovely, respectful treatment of James Moody’s jazz classic ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ (here’s King Pleasure’s original version; it’s been covered by such luminaries as Van Morrison and Kurt Elling).

Amy’s great originals (‘Tears Dry on Their Own’, ‘You Know I’m No Good’, ‘Rehab’, ‘Stronger Than Me’) draw upon numerous rich traditions. But make no mistake. Covers, self-penned, Amy Winehouse was an original.

What lessons can we draw from Amy’s legacy? Yes, her membership in the 27 club (Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain) is indeed tragic. And her self-destructive exhibitionism is pornographically riveting. But the music is real, and solid, and lasting. The generation Xers and Yers would be enriched by listening to her forebears. And us baby boomers, albeit belatedly, should avail ourselves of this fine, very serious and very talented vocal artist.

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009: Barbra Streisand, ‘Lover Come Back to Me’

Posted by jeff on Jun 17, 2015 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

Barbra Streisand on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1962, ‘My Coloring Book’ and ‘Lover Come Back to Me’

Barbra Streisand on The Ed Sullivan Show, 1962, ‘My Coloring Book’ and ‘Lover Come Back to Me’

This week we’re going to look at the tragically short career of one of the finest vocal stylists in the history of popular music.

Barbra Streisand was born in 1942, and earned a reputation as a “crazy” in high school, where she was friends with Neil Diamond and Bobby Fischer. At 18 she was already singing in night clubs, at 19 she was appearing regularly as a curiosity on The Tonight Show, at 20 she landed a ‘small but star-making’ role in a Broadway musical. She had recorded two Top 10 albums for Columbia before her 21st birthday.

No one recognized it at the time, but she had contracted an artistically fatal disease.

She was born homely. Her mother told her she wasn’t pretty enough to be an entertainer, and urged her to learn typing. Her young persona confronted that image directly—joking about her very large nose, her Brooklyn demeanor, her awkward deportment, her horrifying empire-waist dresses.

At 22 she left her nightclub career for the starring role in a smash Broadway musical hit. She played the role of a talented loser, became a megastar, and turned herself into a loser of a talent. The Broadway show launched her to the peak of her profession, perhaps the most successful singer/actress in the past couple of generations. From that point on, it has been a long slide down the slippery slope of inflated ego and glitz posing as guts.

Yawn. If you loved Yentl, please close this immediately and go watch it. If you think ‘People’ is a moving song, press Escape real fast and go listen to it. In my very humble opinion, they’re mawkish, embarrassing pablum.

In Funny Girl, she this number, ‘I’m the Greatest Star’. A tour de force of kosher ham. It’s very funny–because it’s ironic. Because she presents herself as the ugly duckling ludicrously pretending to be A Star. But within a very short time, she started coming on with the décolletage and poils and filmed through a misty haze–it ain’t funny, girl.

If you’re still here, I guess you’re with me in that persecuted minority who wish The Queen would put on some clothes, cover her bodice, and stop trying to convince us that she’s glamorous. She can consort with all the Ryan O’Neals and Robert Redfords in the world, and she’s still going to be that liddle Yiddle from Flatbush. But I’ll betcha there are very few among us here, the non-BS fans, the heretics, who have really given her a fair break as a serious artist.

With then-husband Elliot Gould

Gasp. He called her an artist???

Yup. Her first two albums, “The Barbra Streisand Album” and “The Second Barbra Streisand Album,” are as unpretentious as their titles. They come from that 1962 loft down in the Village, when she was married to Elliot Gould. The singing is genuinely ballsy, overflowing with young and innocent love for the world, whether it’s newfound independence or the most purely broken heart a young girl could have. Her voice is the pure heady optimism of Kennedy-era optimism. The songs, many of them standards from the 1940s, are dead-on examples of the political and sexual awakening of the 1962 New Frontier – post-beatnik hip, cynical and funny, intense and emotionally committed. Her signature song was ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, the theme song of FDR’s 1932 campaign, eventually the buoyant and optimistic theme song of the Democratic Party. Except that Babs gives it a somber treatment, at a deliberate tempo, with harrowing, gut-wrenching commitment.

We’ve always known she had the greatest chops this side of La Scala before they were sacrificed on the altar of auto-adulation. She can still flit in one breath from a Gorgeous George Gorilla Press to the butterfly caress of a brain surgeon. But in these two albums she’s funny and clever and impassioned, and, for me, utterly convincing. She moves me.

Then she became a star.

She performed two songs on The Ed Sullivan Show in December, 1962. One is a pretty fine ballad, ‘My Coloring Book’.

With then-president Jack Kennedy

But the song we’ve chosen for our Song of The Week is Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II’s standard ‘Lover, Come Back to Me.’ This recording was made two months before the release of her first album, a year before the second. It’s over the top, it’s extravagantly demonstrative, and I love it.

The structure is standard, AABABA, with the verse culminating in some variant of the name of the song. Listen to just that, the imperative: “Lover, come back to me”. She sings it four times. Follow how it grows from a polite request to an ardent plea to an unveiled threat to a cavewoman’s club over the poor guy’s noggin. And that grounch at the end, when she’s dragging him back into the home cave by his hair. This ain’t glitz. This is fine, inventive, honest vocal artistry. No worrying about at what angle the camera is going to catch her schnozz. Just her and that absentee lover.

She’s 20 years old when she sings this.

It seems the ugly duckling is a whole lot more interesting than the swan.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

029: Eva Cassidy, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’


057: Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two

Posted by jeff on Jun 6, 2015 in Jazz, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two’ at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1958

One of the first songs you ever learned, the soundtrack to your skating lessons at the rink, one of the songs hardest wired into your brain, is the ubiquitous ‘Tea for Two’. This week we’re going to trip over a few yellow bricks on memory lane, but with an ulterior purpose at the end.
The song was written by Vincent Youmans with lyrics by Irving Caesar for the musical No, No, Nanette in 1925, when Vaudeville was still transmogrifying into musical theater. Here’s what the original version sounded like.

But ‘Tea for Two’ quickly became a fundament in our collective musical consciousness. Among the notable performances:

  • Dmitri Shostakovich and his friend the conductor Nickolai Malko listened to a recording of the song in 1927. The conductor bet the composer 100 rubles that he couldn’t completely reorchestrate the song from memory in under an hour. The maestro did it in 45 minutes, the result of which (Opus 16) was incorporated as the entr’acte “Tahiti Trot” in his opera “The Golden Age”.
  • Art Tatum set the standard for technical dexterity in jazz piano with the florid right hand improvisation in his classic 1933 recording
  • Doris Day (“Isn’t she cute?” Barf) even took the song as the name of her movie and recorded a duly virginal version in 1951.
  • Tommy Dorsey‘s iconic cha-cha version was a Number #1 hit in 1958 (people I grew up with and under actually thought this was cool)
  • Liberace recorded it sometime in the 1950s. I only got through 30 seconds of this, so if someone out there makes it to the end, you let me know how it turns out. And if that isn’t enough for you, there are also versions by Ray Conniff and Mitch Miller. I hope you do understand that these are references for the tasteless and the obsessive out there, not my recommendations.
  • Thelonious Monk incorporated it as ‘Skippy’ into his own quirky, inimitable vocabulary of cubist jazz in 1962 (that is a recommendation)
  • The Muppets (Rowlf and Lew Zealand) even get in their two cents’ worth, singing the song backwards (well, The Beatles did it first on ‘Rain’, but it’s still pretty cool)
  • But my favorite, by a longlonglong shot, is Anita O’Day‘s rendition of the song at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

Anita O’Day died in 2006 after a long and turbulent life–lots of marriages, affairs, alcohol, drug addiction, prison, as documented in her harrowing autobiography “High Times Hard Times”. But my, that girl could sing. She’s a distinguished member – my favorite, actually – of the very elite club of 1950s white female ‘cool’ jazz vocalists (June Christy, Rosemary Clooney, Sheila Jordan, Helen Merrill, Peggy Lee, Julie London). They started as soloists for big bands of the mid-1940s (Anita sang with Gene Krupa, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton), then as soloists, working in the wake of the bebop idiom. This meant singing mostly standards from the Great American Songbook in a swinging style but with great emotional reserve, and lots of scat improvisation, random vocables and nonsense syllables or without words at all, improvising on melodies and rhythms, the equivalent of an instrumental solo but here using the voice.

The Newport Jazz Festival was held every summer in Newport, Rhode Island from 1954 to 1972. It served as a conclave for all the jazz greats of the time and inspired a very large number of live albums and quite a few legendary performances, notably Duke Ellington’s in 1956. The 1958 festival was captured in a very fine film, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day“, well worth looking up, with great 1950s jazz and an astoundingly evocative gallery of toddlers, lovers and hipsters. This is what a film of a music festival should be, and it’s as precise a portrayal of a place and time as you’re likely to run into. It features Jimmy Giuffre, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Stitt, Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton and Louis Armstrong, but Anita’s performance of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ (another old workhorse, from 1925) and ‘Tea for Two’ stole the show. This is the clip you should watch, the two songs in a high quality version, one after the other. ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ takes no back seat; but listen especially to ‘Tea for Two’, to her ‘trading fours with her long-time drummer, friend and fellow-junkie John Poole in the middle of the song. But where the magic of jazz really happens is in the last minute, ‘the sound of surprise’. “We’d just begun doing it as a fast tune,” she writes, “And it was as fresh to us as to the audience.”

Her sleeveless 1950s version of a LBD (little black dress), the over-the-top cartwheel hat, the white gloves—she’s the epitome of class. And she was “high as a kite” (in her words) when she went on stage. She says that she really enjoyed doing an afternoon show because for a change she could see the audience, including fellow songstress Chris Conner, and watching her enjoying the show gave her a big kick. But as striking as her apparel is, it’s Anita O’Day’s great singing that makes the appearance so memorable.

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216: Billie Holiday, ‘God Bless the Child’

Posted by jeff on Apr 9, 2015 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

God Bless the Child — 1941 (Original)

God Bless the Child — 1952 (live video with Count Basie)

God Bless the Child — 1955

billie-holiday-aries-jpg I was a latecomer to Amy Winehouse. ‘Anyone that popular can’t be all that good’ is my knee-jerk snobbish standoffish position.

I was wrong. She really is that good. About a year ago I went through a binge, and there’s no disputing it – she’s got chops, she writes riveting material, and she’s a persona of undeniably epic proportions. I begrudge her none of her fame.

And then a couple of days ago CBL posted a clip of Acoustic Amy (‘Back to Black‘). I listen to CBL’s musical recommendations, because they’re tasteful and often from worlds wholly different from my own. But we agree on Acoustic Amy (‘You Know I’m No Good’). This is not music by which to polish the crystal. It’s music by which to snort the crystal. Or to jump off a nearby roof. Any convenient form of self-destruct.

amy_winehouse_lialgthumb473x355I mentioned to CBL how much Amy was influenced by Dinah Washington, referring to the very obvious technical and stylistic affinity between the two. To which CBL responded “Amy was straight Lady Day all the way, bleeding from the pores”, referring of course to the broken heart of the matter.

It’s true, of course, that Amy and Billie Holiday are sorority sisters in auto-ruin. But there’s one other obvious member in that pantheon of pain, Janis Joplin. And I’ve been ruminating about that tragic triptych.

What do they have in common? It’s so obvious that it could stand some explication. They sang their suffering and personified pain. They were all immensely popular but always more focused on grappling with their personal devils than on showbiz. They were all real, even under the spotlight with an audience gasping and leering and applauding.

Janis Joplin With Eyes Closed During PerformanceI know it’s true, at least for Janis, because I spent a memorable hour talking to her and then an even more indelible hour and a half electrified by her performance on stage. What was her demon? What was all the dope and dissolution and screaming trying to exorcise? We’ve all read about how much of an outcast she was in high school in Texas. Well, fine, but a lot of us had popularity acne.

Janis was desperate for love, for approval, crazed to give and to please. When she sang “Take another little piece of my heart”, there was almost no hyperbole. She was ripping out her heart piece by piece, right there on center stage, reliving the pain for us, redying for us, night after night. For our entertainment, as we watched, horrified and aghast and awed.

Why do we remember “Hamlet” and not the public hangings against which it competed for attendance? Because “Hamlet” has both the gore and catharsis to boot, an unbeatable meal of sacrificial lamb at an early-bird price. Road kill with a moral. You can’t beat that.

Billie-Holliday-Public-DomainThey traveled different roads of ruin, Janis/Billie/Amy.

Amy was born in the bourgeois Jewish suburb of Southgate. Her father installed windows, her mother was a pharmacist.

Janis was born in Port Arthur, Texas to a Texaco engineer father and business college registrar mother.

Billie was in truant court at 9 and apprenticing in the whorehouse where her mother worked at thirteen.

Amy was all about the provocation of “Fuck you!”

Janis was all about “I need a man to love”. A tsunami of need.

Billie was a victim at the core, subjecting herself to any and every available abuse.

But these three women continue to arouse unrivaled adulation. They sing, and you stop what you’re doing to listen.

Dylan, speaking of the appeal of “Blood on the Tracks”, famously said “It’s hard for me to relate to that — I mean, people enjoying that type of pain . . .”

That’s nothing new, Bob.

amy-winehouse-singing-gettyRemember Oedipus (killing his father, marrying his mother, putting out his eyes)? That’s how the Greeks celebrated their Dionysian festival, watching the most elevated of mortals lose his wrestling match with the gods.

The Israelites invented scapegoat – the poor little billy who lost the toss of the dice. After the destruction of the Temples and the demise of the sacrificial cult, guilt became the domain of the Jewish mother, to be purged by passing it on dutifully to the scapechildren.

The Christians perfected the scheme, putting all the sins of humanity right on the thorned head of Jesus himself.

Shakespeare took the most admirable of men, screwed them up royally, and has kept us rapt for 400 years now at how the great fall.

What is the impulse behind our morbid fascination with that magnificent person suffering so greatly? We’ll leave it to the scholars of sacrifice to explain to us the mechanics (and meaning???) of this need for transference of guilt/sin/suffering.

Our job is to promulgate music. Thankfully, none of these ladies need our PR. But there are a few words I’d like to say about Billie Holiday’s anthem of the need for self-reliance, ‘God Bless the Child” (1941).

k7XulrYu_400x400Billie had given her mother money to open and then to maintain a restaurant (“Mom Holiday’s”). “It kept mom busy and happy and stopped her from worrying and watching over me… [But] I needed some money one night and I knew Mom was sure to have some. So I walked in the restaurant like a stockholder and asked. Mom turned me down flat. She wouldn’t give me a cent.” An argument ensued, in which Billie shouted “God bless the child that’s got his own,” and stormed out. She went to her sometime collaborator (‘Don’t Explain’), Arthur Herzog, Jr (father of novelist Arthur Herzog and grandfather of playwright Amy Herzog), who helped her flesh it out into the song which became her most popular and most frequently covered (Aretha, Stevie, and everyone else). It’s in the Grammy Hall of Fame and “Songs of the Century”.

Them who’s got shall get, them who’s not shall lose. So the Bible says, but it still is news.

The reference for the maxim seems to be Matthew 25:29: “For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”

Whom of us hasn’t felt the humiliation of being refused that which is by all natural rights ours, the ignominy of asking, even our parent, and being denied? What is truer than the grace of independence? He who has his own is indeed the blessed one.

Billie felt it, and sang it for us purely and eloquently. So much so that we’re still using her as our essential expression of that particular pain. Just as we so often go back to those women, to Amy and to Janis and to Billie, each in her own voice, to bear witness in awe at the very distillation of our common, oh-so-human sufferings. They lived in pain, but not in vain.


Them that’s got shall have
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible says and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own

Yes the strong get smart
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own

Money, you’ve got lots of friends
They’re crowding around your door
But when you’re gone and spending ends
They don’t come no more

Rich relations give crusts of bread and such
You can help yourself, but don’t take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own


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