29 July 2021

No Place Like Home now being repeated on Forces TV

 

If you have read Robert Webb's memoir How Not to Be a Boy, you may remember that the youthfull Webb is handed an unlikely source of comedic inspiration: the mainstream sitcom No Place Like Home, which ran for five series on BBC1 in the 1980s.

It's about a middle-aged man, chagrined to find his grown-up children have taken up residence in the family home once again - a bit like Eric Chappell's Home to Roost, on around the same time - only more so, as this put-upon dad is lumbered with four kids and a wife. Not the most obvious of shows to stir the blood of the future star of a gloriously dark sitcom, but it set the seal on his decision to become a performer.

Not that he offers an unqualified tribute to the ability of its writer, Jon Watkins. Watching an episode in the afterglow of his own comic triumph in a school play, the young Webb is far from uncritical:

25 July 2021

Bakeries I Have Loved ... and Lost

 [Barney Farmer]


I don't suppose it will be news to many of its former customers that the London bakery chain Percy Ingle's closed all its shops last year. But it certainly came as a shock to me when I made the discovery a few weeks ago. 

Even though the local branch had been shut ever since the first lockdown it didn't occur to me that this might be the end. Call it denial, arrant stupidity, or what you will, but I think I'd vaguely assumed that they were waiting for the final all-clear, reluctant to go head to head with the more widely known rival depicted above, or, I dunno, maybe one of the assistants had got covid or the family-run company was reluctant to put staff at risk, or ... 

27 June 2021

Cumbrae-Potter Karaoke or A Memory of Christmas Past

 


 

My one and only foray into karaoke (literally "empty glutton", unless I'm thinking of something else) occurred a few Christmases ago, on a Scottish island blessed with several pubs. My companion and I were visiting our friend, whom I'll call Ronaldo; he was working in one of those establishments, and on the first night of our stay we went there - not to sing but to do a recce. 

I have to admit that I had come to scoff - or at least, that's what I presumed would be the outcome of my visit. Blessed, or cursed, with a certain amount of knowledge about popular music, and being, furthermore, in possession of two elder brothers, the idea of what is and is not cool, musically speaking, is lodged firmly in the Pismotalitian brain, permitting of no deviation. 

Anyway, that first night we perched at the bar, stopping occasionally to listen to what was, in youthful parlance, "going down". Did I splutter into my beer at some of the punters' efforts assailing our ears? Did I then fall to the ground, clutching my stomach while crying out, again and again: "No more! Oh, in God's name, no more!"? Strange as it may seem, I did not.

12 June 2021

Just One Hissing Thing After Another


Three months on from the previous posting I hereby declare my "wee phrase" of buying up old cassettes from a well-known auction website exhausted. Not that this means I'm any nearer a conclusion about the wisdom of re-embracing this ancient medium. If I could be said to have embraced it: an air-peck-on-the-cheek, if anything. Even though I must have bought around a dozen I've only listened to a few.

Why the reluctance? Two reasons, one more fanciful than the other. 

21 March 2021

In Which Tape Hisstory Repeats Itself

 


It may be a passing fancy, and in time may go, but I wish to announce that I have re-embraced the humble cassette, that much-loved companion of This Great Nation's former days, and to boast - or confess - that even though I've already got a couple of large  plastic crates piled high with 'em I've been spending most of today buying even more via a well-known auction website. I'm aware that this frenzy could be spent out in a matter of days: I haven't listened to any of my old tapes yet, and as one of those crates was slumbering on a shelf very near my TV it may be that they have become magnetised and unlistenable.

 


Which reminds me that I bought a demagnetiser once, and a very odd device it was, like a - well, like what Donovan euphemistically termed an "electric-a banana". If memory serves, you're meant to wave it over the tape heads a number of times in a looping motion, all the while imploring some higher power to cast out such evil spirits as may be selfishly interfering with your favourite artist's upper range. I don't really fancy doing anything as complicated as that.

14 February 2021

Return to Cheapo or Is That All There Is, Sonically Speaking?


 

Whenever I start to recreate a visit to Cheapo Cheapo Records in my head I always find myself striding purposefully towards the very back of the shop, ignoring the lure of those goodies nearer the entrance. 

Which is odd, because this wasn't something I ever actually did. 

31 December 2020

Last Call for Elevenses

A final selection of eleven posts from the archive to mark eleven years of this blog. Click directly on the image beside each description, rather than the title, to read the piece.

1: Gnome Thoughts from a Foreign Country is the first in a series about David Bowie's musical inspirations. It was prompted by the purchase of the pictured songbook from Bowie's early years but one thought soon led to another, taking in Anthony Newley, Alan Klein, and much else. The thread leading back to Bowie was put under a bit of strain during these labyrinthine wanderings but I'd like to think it didn't actually snap.
  

2. Up the Swanee tells the story of the dispute between father and son puppeteers Harry and Matthew Corbett; a more faithful account may be found in Geoff Tibballs' biography of Sooty.

30 December 2020

Another eleven: comedy

A selection of eleven comedy-related posts, mostly reviews of books or TV programmes. Click on any image to be taken to the post described immediately below.


1: Eric and Ernie

Well, I say "reviews" ... in the case of this first piece it would be more accurately described as: "notes reflecting on the few aspects which interest me because that's how I roll." 

This first piece is about Peter Bowker's TV drama Eric and Ernie, recreating the early days of Morecambe and Wise, and because I'd read so much about the pair I became fixated on sins of omission, as you will see if you click on the picture above, which shows Victoria Wood as Eric's mother, Sadie Bartholomew, being waved off, her job done, as the pair embark on their career.

29 December 2020

Second XI

Another eleven posts from the archive. Click on the image to read the piece described below.

 

1 : Golden Teardrops - the Flamingos

 

Although a more extensive piece on the Flamingos' Golden Teardrops can be found elsewhere, I'm fond of this earlier attempt to describe it during my 2000 dialogue with Clarke Davis. The style - of my writing, I mean - may be a little overheated but it reflects the excitement I felt at the new experience of  sharing my passion for doo wop with like-minded people, and I'm eternally grateful to those who expressed their appreciation by sending gifts of CDs, tapes and videos which couldn't be found in the UK.

 

2 : You Have Two (I Have None) - the Orchids


Like the Flamingos, the Orchids recorded for Al Benson's Parrot Records in the early fifties. They are best known for the disjointed narrative of Newly Wed, beloved of Frank Zappa and others, but You Have Two (I Have None), aka Happiness, which only saw the light of day in the nineties, is equally good. It seems they weren't treated well by Benson, and as a result didn't remain in the business, but they left the world eight sides of the very highest quality. Some discussion of Newly Wed cropped up during my dialogue with Clarke Davis but this piece was the first examination of a doo wop record written especially for the blog. (The image above, taken from the Vocal Group Harmony website, is not of the Orchids but the Five Thrills, the previous group of the Orchids' Gilbert Warren.)


3 : Waterloo Sunset - the Kinks


At some point in 2010 I gave myself permission to stray from the exclusive consideration of doo wop in these pages. This piece about Ray Davies's Waterloo Sunset was part of Gnome Thoughts, an unplanned, ever-expanding, series about David Bowie's early musical influences.

26 December 2020

Blogs Eleven

To mark eleven (count 'em!) years of blogging, an introduction to a selection of posts from 2009-2020, one from each year. 

Click on any image to read the piece described immediately below.

2020


Billy Shelton taught Pookie Hudson how to sing in the glee club at Roosevelt High in Gary, Indiana and formed a trio with him and another schoolfriend, predating the Spaniels. In the 1990s, when the original Spaniels reformed, Billy took the place of Ernest Warren, then a minister, and he still leads a group of Spaniels today. This piece, distilled from several lengthy interviews with Billy in 2016 and 2020,  is around 25,000 words and covers his whole life and career. There aren't too many people still around from the very beginning of doo wop, so it was a privilege, as well as a pleasure, to help spread the story of one of the originators. (Photograph from 1950 school yearbook, shared by Todd Baptista on social media.)

 

2019

 

In 2019 I interviewed Pete West as part of ongoing research into the songwriter Alan Klein: Pete had been lead guitarist in the group which morphed into "the Al Kline Five" after Alan joined in the late fifties. For several years they played weekend gigs around North London but when the chance of a summer season at Butlins Skegness meant turning pro Pete had to decide whether he wanted to give up the security of his well-paid job ... (Thanks to Ken Aslet for the photographs of the band which illustrate this piece; that's Pete in the foreground above.)

8 December 2020

In which JL still is king


Every Thursday night, from the late 1960s until some date lost to memory, my brothers and I would gather around the television to watch Top of the Pops, praying that my father would not interrupt the programme (in those one-TV-set-per-household days) and that my mother would be able to arrange the making of his tea in a way that would overlap with our time attending this semi-religious broadcast. 

TOTP was something shared exclusively between myself and my brothers. There wasn't a great deal of music in our house. I do recall one rare single bought by one or other of my parents: Tears by Ken Dodd - though I don't recall its being played except by one of us. True, Dodd was a Liverpudlian, but we knew wasn't the same as the Fab Four.

 The Beatles, as the most newsworthy representatives of the new style of music to be heard on TOTP, were half-heartedly tolerated by my mother but actively disliked by my father, who considered their financial success as unfairly earned and saw their creed of pleasure as something dangerous. I recall listening to the White Album for the first time on a brand new Boots stereo bought by my immediate elder brother, and the paternal disapproval over the collage-type insert with bare flesh: "I'm not very happy about that." Mild words - but as Bertie Wooster would have put it, he meant them to sting.

10 October 2020

Lennon: The New York Years (aka LENNONYC) now available on BBC iplayer

 


For UK readers, Michael Epstein's 2010 documentary LENNONYC, known over here as Lennon: The New York Years, has just been repeated on BBC 4 and will be available to watch on BBC iplayer until November 8th. It's well worth watching if you didn't happen to catch it last night.

Even if you did see it you may not be aware of the documentary equivalent of bonus tracks available on the PBS website: the raw audio for ten interviews in which director Michael Epstein can be heard gently prompting - and occasionally prodding - interviewees to talk about matters which, in some cases, they haven't discussed publicly before.

22 September 2020

It is required you do awake your Dono-faith one more once


Dono-fans will be pleased to learn that the concert at London's Cadogan Hall which had to be cancelled in April has now been rescheduled for Monday, 12th October. He will be playing two shows that day, to allow for social distancing, and both will be livestreamed.


All being well, I hope to attend the earlier show, but I suspect I won't be the only person wending his way to Sloane Square with mixed feelings on that Monday. Restrictions mean Donovan will no longer be playing with a band, and because of this it seems there will be fewer numbers from his new/old album Eco-Song, which features some lesser-known recordings from his extensive back catalogue with an ecological link.

In other words, probably not much different from a typical Donovan concert - and I'd stopped going to those, for reasons outlined in earlier posts.

But maybe, in these times, a typical Donovan concert is what we need. And I'm aware, as with going to see Ben E King, that there's a ceremonial aspect: we come to give thanks, to acknowledge what our hero has been to us, not to complain that time hasn't stood still.

6 August 2020

Tony Randall


I was sorry to learn yesterday of the death of Tony Randall. I had emailed him a couple of days ago to let him know about the Billy Shelton piece (previous post), which I thought might be of interest; the email bounced back then I saw today on the Louie Report website that he had died in June of last year.

Tony had written an account of his search for his father, the singer Johnny Flamingo, which was published in the Guardian, and it struck me that it had potential as a drama; we chatted about it and he suggested I try and work something up and send it to him. 

3 August 2020

Billy Shelton: Spaniel Forever





Billy Shelton has described himself in interviews as "a prehistoric Spaniel". He wasn't with the celebrated doo wop group during their hitmaking days on Vee-Jay Records in the 1950s but he taught their leader, James "Pookie" Hudson, how to sing during their time together at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana, forming a vocal trio called the Three Bees with Pookie and another schoolfriend, Calvin Fossett.

Billy left school before Pookie, who was eventually prevailed upon by other schoolmates to join the group which became the Spaniels. A few years into their professional career Billy received several invitations to join them but resisted; he didn't become a member until the late 1980s. 

This was the second lineup of Spaniels, to be heard on later Vee-Jay sides such as Everyone's Laughing. Around 1990, however, Pookie decided to reform the original group, who had sung on Vee-Jay's debut release Baby It's You and the classic Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite. All the originals, who had long been out of the business, were keen to get back together with the exception of Ernest Warren, who had become a minister, and Billy took his place.

Now Billy Shelton is the last man standing from those Roosevelt High days – and still leading a group of Spaniels. They can be seen in Episode One of the BBC documentary series Rock'n'Roll America, with Billy intoning those immortal bass notes of Gerald Gregory's which usher in Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.

About a year after the first broadcast of that programme I was contacted by Billy, who had read a piece in this blog about the Spaniels' personnel. He felt that he had never received the credit for his part in the group's history and was keen to talk “before I'm gone”.

The story which follows is not restricted to the Spaniels. Some key events in the decades between schooldays with Pookie and Billy's finally becoming a member of the group have also been sketched in. That's because there is no real dividing line: one way or another, music has always been central to the life of Billy Shelton, right from the start.

23 June 2020

Episode One of Rock'n'Roll America back on iplayer ... but hurry!



For readers in the UK the first episode of the 2015 BBC documentary series is temporarily available once more on BBC iplayer - but only until Monday 3 July, so hurry.

I couldn't say whether it's particularly innovative but it tells the story well and clearly, and has a poignancy not present in some earlier series by virtue of the fact that those involved are considerably older than in Tony Palmer's groundbreaking seventies series All You Need Is Love or even series of more recent vintage like Dancing in the Street.

Before providing a link to my original review of the episode allow me to draw your attention to a section around thirteen minutes in, featuring the Spaniels singing an acapella version of Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight and a rather too brief interview with their bass singer and current leader Billy Shelton.

16 June 2020

Coming soon ...

I don't normally give any advance indication of when I'll be posting next but I've decided to make an exception in this rare case.

This is to say that in the space of a few weeks at most I hope to post an extended piece based upon a series of interviews with a veteran doo wop singer.

Because it's longer than normal, and aims to give a broad picture of his whole life, ordering the information has been trickier than usual. As when I was working with the comedian Freddie Davies on his autobiography, I'm discovering there's a limit to how effectively a longer narrative can be structured onscreen, so it's back to what I used to think of as The Pritt Stick Chronicles: printed sheets of the rough draft cut up into pieces and reassembled.

The process of writing has changed somewhat in recent months. In an earlier post, readable here,  I described a pleasing morning routine which is now impossible. But I shall push on and hope that you, and my subject, will see the results soon.

25 May 2020

Raw footage of Ben E King interview



As mentioned in the previous post, Brent Wilson contacted Ben E King for the doo wop documentary Streetlight Harmonies but the singer died before an interview could be set up.

It's a great pity, in more than one sense. Wilson seems to have taken considerable pains to gain the trust of the artists who took part, and even though contributions were heavily edited in the final version the raw footage must have been quite extensive if the case of Vito Picone of the Elegants is anything to go by. According to a virtual Q&A Picone was "in the chair" for a straight six hours before someone realised it might be time to break for a meal.

22 May 2020

New doo wop documentary (Streetlight Harmonies)

 


I have just watched Streetlight Harmonies, Brent Wilson's new documentary about doo wop, and it's well worth your attention whether you are an aficionado or merely, as it were, doo wop-curious. A little over eighty minutes, it provides a very clear overview of the era as well as some discussion about the genre's lasting influence. It may not be the first film dedicated to the subject but where it excels is in the deft editing of the testimony of a large number of interviewees, allowing the story of this music to be told almost entirely through the artists' own words. Charlie Horner, credited as historical consultant, makes an occasional appearance when context is needed and DJ Jerry Blavat ("The Geator with the Heater"), songwriter Jeff Barry and some others appear, although the vast majority of interviewees are group members (including some representatives of girl groups). 

 
Interviews have been cut up and are spread throughout the film according to theme. The focus is on doo wop as a phenomenon and the experiences common to all those involved rather than having large sections dedicated to individual artists or groups. That might sound bitty but it isn't; the narrative flows very well. At the beginning we get an introductory segment about the form's gospel origins then we move to the Orioles and then - no, not to the Dominos, as a more detailed chronological approach might have taken us, but Frankie Lymon ... which is a bit of a jump, though it can certainly be justified as another major breakthrough.



The narrative then goes back and forward a little, according to theme, helped by a radio dial-type indication of the year, as you can see, though the shape is broadly chronological. A great deal is covered along the way but with little sense of its being a history lesson: there are chapter headings but we're not overloaded with facts. Incidentally, the single gospel recording chosen for illustration is Peace in the Valley, from Sam Cooke's first session with the Soul Stirrers - if that's not a badge of good taste I don't know what is.

A decision was clearly made not to rely on old interview footage from other sources, unlike an earlier documentary, Life Could Be a Dream. The latter was fairly well done but did draw rather heavily on an existing half hour programme about Frankie Lymon. Here, however, all the interviews seem to have been conducted for this specific purpose, so existing doo wop fans don't need to worry about buying a lot of rehashed material. This helps make for a greater sense of immediacy. Jimmy Merchant of the Teenagers is one of those interviewed, though the most touching moment for me is hearing Little Anthony say of Frankie Lymon:
I didn't know how to help him but he was still my friend.
And a few details provided by Charlie Thomas, who was in the Five Crowns with Ben E King, add to the picture King painted in Gerri Hershey's Nowhere to Run when rhapsodising about his streetcorner days. Thomas says:  
We used to sing on the streetcorner of 8th Avenue. It used to be the Cadillacs on one corner, it used to be the Five Crowns on one corner, the Harptones on another corner ... you know, you'd light the fire in the garbage can and you'd take a little nip of somethin' and then you'd hit a little doo wop song ...
The Brill Building, the importance of Alan Freed, the rise of Italian American groups, racism and the oddness of groups being forced to sing to the wall rather than being seen to favour the black or white half of the audience are all covered - as snapshots rather than in exhaustive detail, but then that doesn't seem the point of this piece. An overall impression is conveyed of those times, made vital because it's been achieved through the memories of those who were directly involved. Motown is mentioned, as is the way the Beatles' invasion of America helped kill off doo wop, for all their love of it - a point also made in Life Could Be a Dream. Sha Na Na's resurrection of doo wop in the late sixties also comes in, and there are a few newer artists on hand to testify to their love of the form.





But there's not too much of the newer artists because in the end it's not their story, and I'm glad that Mr Wilson resisted the temptation to use too many of their contributions, even if it might conceivably have meant the documentary becoming a more commercial prospect. The emphasis remains firmly on the older artists telling their stories - though there is a pleasing moment near the end when Charlie Thomas is speaking to some younger singers who seem to understand why he is a big deal. It's a small but vital scene which you might even say is key to the film: the names and faces of the original singers in so many doo wop groups are not known to the general public but they were the ones who shaped this music, and they matter, both individually and collectively. For that alone, for providing them with a platform, Brent Wilson must be commended.



But we are long past Doo Wop 50, that PBS anniversary show, and - as with the BBC series Rock'n'Roll America - this makes for a great deal of unforced poignancy about this film. "I am just suddenly very cognisant of time," says one participant - a slightly odd form of words which nevertheless seems appropriately sober rather than pompous. And the sight of two singers walking through an exhibition of old photographs of groups is particularly effective. It's a well chosen moment because it could so easily have been discarded during editing but Brent Wilson or editor George Bellias obviously understood the power of seeing two men, in effect, witnessing their own memorial. As with that BBC programme, you are aware that many of the participants are advanced in years and there may not be other opportunities to share these memories; indeed, I have read that several artists have died since this was completed. 

I have reviewed that comparable documentary, Life Could Be a Dream, earlier in this blog. I'm not quite sure how to compare the two pieces, nor whether it matters much. The interviewees are mostly different, anyway. What I will say, however, is that the patchwork quilt approach of Streetlight Harmonies works very well indeed and that, stylistically,  it feels more of a piece than the earlier film. Different approaches are possible. I am also very fond of Owen McFadden's four part radio series Street Corner Soul, which was more strictly chronological, but Streetlight Harmonies, in giving us the close-up faces of these performers in addition to their voices, carries an extra emotional punch.

The strapline for this documentary is: "Millions know the music. Few know the artists." That neatly sums up what it does. It's the story of doo wop but also the story of those men and women. And Brent Wilson's film presents them with the dignity they deserve. I said earlier that there is little sense of its being a history lesson; it is, of course, but it's not dry and never seems to labour its points. It's very well pitched and deserves a wide audience. It's not misted over with nostalgia and  it pays its participants the tribute of taking them seriously. There are all sorts of pleasing details: the camera pans from a picture of the Elegants (Little Star) back in the day to the proud smile of the man holding it, their singer and songwriter Vito Picone. And as I've gone back through the film for videocaps there have been many other felicitous moments which can only have come out of the taking of immense pains to locate the telling moment or remark during the film's assembly.

On the picky side the DVD doesn't come with any extras, which in a way is a pity. I can't begin to imagine how many hours of raw footage must have been distilled to make this 83 minute feature. A PBS documentary about John Lennon made the raw audio of ten interviewees available to download, and it might be nice to have something of the same for this. Against that, however, I can understand if there's a feeling that releasing such material might dilute the effect of the film, though let's hope that it might be preserved and made accessible to future scholars and biographers.

But the main point is that Streetlight Harmonies is very well made and a credit to those involved. You can buy it in various forms. There may be a lot more to explore - personally, I'd love to see a Ken Burns-style twenty episode series - but a summary of the essence of this music in a  form which is accessible to the widest range of people I reckon this will be hard to beat. Some of the names not already mentioned include Terry Johnson, Little Anthony, Willie Winfield - plus many,  many others. Maybe not quite eight million stories, though not far off, coalescing into a single shared experience.


Postscript:

Since writing the above I have come across an interview with Brent Wilson which can be found here. It's worth a listen, although be warned it has the limitations and annoyances of interviews conducted at the present time (what a good job the documentary was already done and dusted before the current crisis put limits on two being in the same space). It makes clear that Wilson was keenly aware of the time factor in capturing these firsthand accounts, which gave an added urgency to the project, despite obstacles: he talks about the difficulty of tracking down artists in the first place and then gaining their trust - so many have been exploited in the past, after all - often having to go through their more IT-savvy children or grandchildren in the first instance. (A virtual Q&A, here, is also worth investigating; it features Brent Wilson and several singers from the film.)

It's both sad and gratifying to learn that he was especially eager to include Ben E King, eventually finding a fax number for him; they made contact but he died before an interview could be set up - which makes the testimony of Charlie Thomas, quoted earlier, all the more affecting. Some readers may know that although Ben E King wrote There Goes My Baby he wasn't originally slated to sing it: it was Thomas's job until he got the studio equivalent of stage fright and King took over; now only Thomas's voice is left. 

Another person who died before an interview could be recorded was Dave Somerville of the Diamonds, the white Canadian group who covered the Gladiolas' Little Darlin' and had the big hit with it, though he is quite prominent in Life Could Be a Dream. If you follow the link below to my review of that earlier documentary please be aware that I would now be more generous in my assessment of his contribution; at the time of writing it I couldn't see beyond the fact that a member of a white covers group was being given so much screentime but he is very articulate and would undoubtedly have enhanced Streetlight Harmonies too.

This reminds me that Ben E King has been interviewed elsewhere too: an episode of Rock'n'Roll America is dedicated to King at the end; he is featured but died before the broadcast. Here is how that was acknowledged at the end of the programme, and it seems fitting to include this in a piece about Streetlight Harmonies as one recurring theme is the gratitude so many artists feel towards others: "I'm standing on the shoulders of giants!" Little Anthony says at one point.







Related posts and links:

My review of Life Could Be a Dream here
A series about the Flamingos' early recordings here.     
Posts about the radio series Street Corner Soul here.  
Ben E King and everything you ever wanted to know about Stand By Me here.

Charlie and Pam Horner's Classic Urban Harmony website has many riches to explore. This page contains a guide to their articles including a seven part series about Richard Barrett.            



                

5 May 2020

DO press that button: The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp



Another story-in-song which made an impression on me as a child was The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp, written by Dallas Frazier. Like Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town, the song had been a hit for Johnny Darrell on the US country charts in 1967, but I became aware of it via O.C. Smith's soulful interpretation, a greater success in Britain than America, the following year.

Listening to the opening chorus now, I'm aware of how quickly and efficiently the story is set up with a few telling details, preparing us for the fuller account to follow in the verses:
Oh, the path was deep and wide
From footsteps leading to our cabin,
Above the door there burned a scarlet lamp,
And late at night a hand would knock
And there would stand a stranger -
Yes, I'm the son of Hickory Holler's tramp.
When I first heard the song on Top of the Pops, however, I imagined that it was about some ne'er-do-well father who had belatedly decided to reveal his identity to his son, heedless of the public humiliation the child would suffer when it became known his dad was a vagrant.

Yes, yes, a cursory reading of the lyrics suggests an alternative scenario. But I had just turned ten and hadn't yet acquired the habit of analysing songs. Though O.C. Smith's record was certainly more than just an upbeat sound for me. As with Ruby and Honey, certain lines stuck in my ten-year-old mind - including, appropriately enough, the narrator's lack of awareness, when young, of local disapproval:
All we really cared about
Was Momma's chicken dumplings
And a goodnight kiss
Before we went to bed
Not to mention a rather curious and not wholly logical mondegreen which might well say something about my own childhood. I heard the final verse as:
Last summer Momma passed away
And left no one to love her
Each and every one was
More than grateful for their burden
I can't think now how I squared that mishearing of the second line (suggesting the entire brood predeceased her) with lines 3 and 4, although "burden" is consistent with my religious upbringing, which carried with it the implication that to be alive is to  suffer and endure.

Despite that, I didn't miss the essentially joyous, celebratory nature of the song. It may have contradicted what I thought I'd just heard, yet I accepted that the family were still a unit and all very much alive, honouring the memory of the mother who had kept them together, in this (corrected) version of the full verse:
Last summer Momma passed away
And left the ones who loved her
Each and every one is
More than grateful for their birth
And each Sunday she receives
A big bouquet of fourteen roses
With a card that reads
"The Greatest Mom on Earth."
So, listening as child, I picked out the bits I could understand and tried to make some kind of sense out of what I couldn't, beguiled as I was by O.C. Smith's singing and the irresistible rasp of those horns.

But before we listen to them blare here's a more pared-down arrangement: Johnny Darrell's take, which seems to have been the first version of the song to be recorded, in September 1967 (he was also the first to record The Green, Green Grass of Home). "Decent" seems the way to describe it: straight ahead, delivering the lyrics, trusting them to do the job; another, not dissimilar rendering by Merle Haggard can be found here.





In his own way, O.C. Smith does the same, but that sense of gospel-style celebration I mentioned permeates the whole record, the (all-female?) chorus, as though representing the rest of the family, joyously affirming the truth of his testimony:





At the age of ten I didn't know anything about gospel singing or its relation to soul music - probably wasn't too clear what soul music was, other than the Tamla Motown hits I might have heard on Top of the Pops, which I had only begun watching the previous year. I'd like to say that hearing Smith was a revelation which set me off on a lifelong quest to snap up unconsidered soul gems, but it wasn't so. (Didn't get enough pocket money, for a kickoff.)

Besides, encouraged by his appearance on Top of the Pops, I was more taken at the time with the unhinged passion of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown - a  hothead if ever there was one. Here is the performance which so captivated me then:





I have no clear memory of whether my brothers liked or disliked The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp, though it stayed in the charts for months and would almost have been on Top of the Pops more than once.

Judgement was passed on my musical taste outside the family home that summer. When we were on holiday in a small town in Ireland I tried to play Fire three times in succession on a jukebox in the local cafe - to the annoyance and incredulity of at least one other patron as Arthur first effected his diabolical introduction. I must have pressed a wrong button, however, because The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp played as the second selection.

(adopting sonorous voice:) Now, I don't know who guided my hand that day - possibly that same Person whose representatives on Earth encouraged me to think of life as burdensome - but that slip helped to fix the song in my mind forevermore, long after my passion for Fire had burnt itself out.

And with the knowledge I have acquired since then, I can see that although The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp was originally a country song, it's not unrelated to the gospel tradition of celebrating the role of the mother. An earlier post about the Soul Stirrers, here, includes a clip of Sam Cooke's group performing live, straining to drive the crowd into a frenzy, and it's the maternal references, cannily held in reserve, which finally do the trick.

Not that O.C. Smith's performance is similarly frenetic. "Jubilant" - not, of course, without its own gospel connotations - would be more appropriate. Which is understandable on two counts.


 Smith came from a jazz, rather than a gospel, background, singing with Count Basie in  the early sixties  (there is a detailed biography on the soulwalking website here). And where actual gospel songs on the subject tend towards the self-lacerating ("Did I treat my mother right?"), the message of Hickory Holler's Tramp, even if delivered in soul/gospel mode, is essentially upbeat: the children weren't fully aware of what was happening, and as adults they can only feel gratitude, not guilt, about their mother's sacrifice.

There are quite a few other covers of the song. Johnny Darrell was quickly followed by Sanford Clark, at the end of 1967, and there were at least eight more in 1968 alone, including the UK's Joe Brown. (You can find it here, though Mike Leander's arrangement sticks pretty close to Smith's record; the best bit is the guitar intro.) The composer, Dallas Frazier, recorded it himself in 1970, and it's also to be found on Kenny Rogers' second solo album.

Which makes me think just how much these three songs are interconnected by a kind of mutual admiration society. Goldsboro recorded Ruby and O.C. Smith recorded Honey, and had a hit with another song by its composer, Little Green Apples. The latter had been written by Russell for Roger Miller who, as I said in an earlier post, recorded the first version of Ruby which Kenny Rogers heard, and which seems to have inspired the First Edition's rockified smash. And whether out of simple gratitude for the pointer or some reason beyond my dull computing Mary Arnold, that member of the First Edition who joshingly dubbed their blend of country and rock as "crock", later married Miller ...

Enough. Here's Kenny Rogers' version. To my ears this doesn't have the whoomph of Ruby, though it's certainly cleverly done: the arrangement builds and builds, unlike some other country versions.

And country it is, or at least a crossover version of it, not "crock". Despite an opening which momentarily suggests it could be going in a more adventurous, rock-oriented direction, each new layering of instruments establishes it ever more firmly and reassuringly as a listener-friendly form of country. Rogers' first album was, William DeYoung says, an uneven mix of styles but the second, in which Hickory Holler's Tramp features, was
a cleanly-produced ... pop/country record that would ... light the way for a generation of crossover artists to come.




You can find out more about the song's composer, Dallas Frazier, on his page on the Nashville Songwriters Foundation website, here. I was surprised to learn he was also the composer of the Hollywood Argyles' Alley Oop, a song referenced by both Marc Bolan ("dinosawer") and ... David Bowie ("Look at those cavemen go"). Here's his own version of Hickory Holler's Tramp:





He also wrote Mohair Sam, the tune recorded by Charlie Rich which Elvis kept playing on the jukebox when the Beatles came to call. Here's Frazier's own version:





Which rendition helps make sense of a comment he once made about his songwriting:
I'm basically country because of being raised in the heart of country music -- but I have a lot of blues in my soul.


This is a considerably revised and expanded version of a 2010 post.



Links: 

My post about Honey is here.
Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town or The Angel Went can be found here
A biography of O.C. Smith can be found on the Soulwalking website here.
Kenny Rogers: Built to Last by Bill DeYoung is here. It's a detailed account of his career (to 1998, when it was written); DeYoung interviewed Rogers and other members of the First Edition for the piece.
Dallas Frazier's page on The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame website is here.

3 May 2020

Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town or The Angel Went



Having written about Honey in the previous post I'm now going to look at Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition (above). 

There are some connections between the two numbers. Both are stories-in-song, much possessed by death, and whatever the pop/rock elements in their respective arrangements they are essentially country ballads, tales of woe.

But with one important difference - important, at least, to my childhood self. My elder brothers, ultimate arbiters in such matters, adjudged Ruby to be "cool" - or at least not "uncool", which amounted to the same thing. They didn't say so directly but I could tell because they withheld their mockery when Kenny Rogers appeared on our little TV screen, thereby granting permission for the song to be enjoyed, its sensational details savoured without embarrassment, by lowly younger siblings. Memory is cloudy but I don't think they extended the same privilege to Bobby Goldsboro's lament.

It's pretty clear why Ruby would have made the more favourable impact when my brothers and I first encountered the two songs on Top of the Pops. No string-laden backing, no cute Yuletide puppy, no fusty parlour song-type angels, only one of the putative Honky Tonky variety. Instead we found ourselves dropped straight into a film noir-type situation to freeze the blood, with talk of war, death, guns, maybe even murder: tailor-made for boys weaned on the Victor and those little Commando comics, as certain members of my household were.
 

We probably didn't catch all the story's nuances on that first hearing but the arrangement seized our attention - certainly mine, anyway. It was infernally catchy, racing along at quite a lick, yet somehow the tempo didn't undermine the terrible sadness of the man's plight. It's not a phrase I would have used at the time but I was aware that the guitar playing suggested a kind of brusque sympathy for this embittered and frustrated ex-soldier, and I'm sure we all got that the drums stood for the thud-thud-thudding of his heart as he made one final plea to that no-good, faithless woman.

If I only came to a full appreciation of Honey with maturity the reverse has been the case with Ruby. Well, -ish. I had certainly become a little snooty about one aspect of it in recent years until I was set straight. 

To begin at the beginning, here's what I wrote in a 2010 post:

Lines in the song such as

    The shadow on the wall tells me the sun is going down

seem on the money: the invalid forced to rely on such signs as that and

    the slamming of the door

rather than being able to walk over to the window to check the time of day or go and physically stop her leaving, but I'm never quite sure about the song's opening couplet. A masterpiece of concision, as I sometimes think, or overfussy?

    You've painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair
    Oh Ruby, are you contemplating going out somewhere?

If it's meant to be a question addressed to her, doesn't it contain a certain amount of  detail more appropriate for third person narrative? The couplet calls to mind a line in a spoof radio play by actor Timothy West highlighting the pitfalls of exposition for inexperienced writers:

    Whisky, eh? That's a strange drink for an attractive auburn-haired girl of twenty nine.

In short, why did Ruby's husband need to point out to her that her hair was tinted?


And there that annoying smirk on my face might have stayed had it not been for a chance exchange online. After Kenny Rogers' death his songs, especially Ruby, attracted attention on social media, and the author Ray Connolly wrote on twitter that there was "a whole movie in that terrific 3 minute song that rhymed 'crazy Asian war' with 'patriotic chore'." 

I tweeted my agreement but repeated the above question: why would he mention something self-evident? Rather than my attempting to paraphrase him I hope Mr Connolly won't mind if I reproduce the conversation which followed:


RC:
Probably because since he's come back from Vietnam, paralysed from the waist down, he's noticed that her hair isn't the same colour as when he went way. She's making herself look prettier. But not for him. He can't help noticing and being bitter & letting her know. It's his POV.

P:
Maybe. Though that reading would make the second line ( "... are you contemplating going out somewhere?") sarcastic rather than pathetic. Then again the tone does veer between self-pity and anger during the song so that could work ... I'm confused now.

RC:

Surely it's a string of consciousness story of a young Vietnam veteran who is terribly injured and in despair to see his wife about to go out on the town? He puts some of his thoughts into some dialogue for dramatic effect. He feels betrayed by country & wife.

P:

Ah. If these are all unvoiced thoughts that would remove the problem. Interesting shift in final verse as well: with the door slam, and all hope removed, the real rage and desperation comes out.

RC:

I think so. Good to discuss.

This view does make a lot of sense: the war vet watching helplessly, desperate thoughts churning away inside him, yet knowing they are not worth uttering because of his helplessness, and that whether she stays or goes will be entirely decided by her. That would certainly remove any niggles about the exposition having been insufficiently camouflaged by the songwriter. Or - and perhaps this is what Mr Connolly meant - the lyrics could be understood as the concentrated essence of the husband's side of conversations the couple have had in the lead-up to this climactic moment of rebellion.

Then again, I suppose it doesn't matter too much. No one worries who Alan Bennett's Talking Heads are talking to: having a gateway into the character's mind is enough to compel our attention and make any thoughts about the artificiality of the situation recede into the background.

Since this piece was first posted Alwyn Turner has pointed out that


the six-bar lines are really striking - there's only really enough material for a standard four bars, but by inserting the additional two bars of vamping, it makes it much more unsettling.
This could be an argument for the words actually being spoken by her husband as the dolled-up Ruby prepares to go out: the extra bars have the effect of isolating each line of the lyric, as though the husband is flinging out a remark, waiting for a response, not getting it, then trying again. Or maybe it's just so hard for him to say these things - to acknowledge to himself that the cosy home patiently awaiting his return doesn't exist - that they have to come out piecemeal rather than as a solid slab.

As with Honey, several versions of Ruby were recorded before the song really hit big. Kenny Rogers and the First Edition made the charts in 1969, the year after Bobby Goldsboro's first success with Honey, although Waylon Jennings and Johnny Darrell had recorded Ruby a few years earlier and Darrell had a sizeable hit with it on the country charts. Bobby Goldsboro recorded it too, as did its composer, Mel Tillis.


First, let's hear Waylon Jennings, possibly the first released recording, followed by Johnny Darrell's country hit. Both have much to commend them. The idea of the guitars offering a kind of supportive commentary seems already present on both sides, although the backing on Jennings' record is generally jauntier, difficult to adjust to after Kenny Rogers. You could say the ache in Jennings' voice balances things out, but to my ears Darrell's flatter delivery is better suited to the song. He sounds wearier, more resigned, which seems in keeping with the idea of a man who knows or imagines he's already lost the game.

At the end of his record, unlike Jennings, Darrell begs Ruby to "turn around" - though rather than coming to a  halt, as Kenny Rogers would later do, he then repeats the title. This brings to mind the double underlining of "Don't take your guns to town" at the end of Johnny Cash's 1958 song of that title - a conscious echoing? The result in both cases is, I feel, bathetic: enough already, we get the point.






I'm not absolutely clear about recording, as opposed to release, dates for all the covers mentioned so can't be certain who influenced whom, though by the time the First Edition came to record it in 1969 they would have had a range of interpretations to draw on. That said, according to a 1998 article by Bill DeYoung,
Kenny had first heard the lonely, loping country tune on a Roger Miller album.
And when you compare this track to the other interpretations there does seems little doubt that this would have been the single most influential one. 





Mr DeYoung's piece on Rogers includes a quotation from a former member of the First Edition:
We always liked to joke that we were a cross between country and rock,” Mary Arnold says today. “We were a crock.”
The First Edition arrangement is indeed more rocked up than Miller but I'd describe it as a turbocharged version of his particular take on the song. All the essential elements can already be found on Miller's recording, including that section at the end where other instruments fall away and Ruby makes her exit to the sound of throbbing drums. Which is not to take away from Glen D Hardin's arrangement or Jimmy Bowen's production on the Rogers record, still sounding fresh and powerful however many times you hear it. But had I only heard Waylon Jennings' and Johnny Darrell's records I might not have realised that the First Edition hit is perhaps as much about what might be termed inspired consolidation as it is about invention.

Miller's drums-only farewell is not to be found on the other recordings mentioned, though drums are certainly prominent at the end of the Bobby Goldsboro version. As far as I know Miller's is also the first rendition to end with "For God's sake turn around!" rather than repeating the plea of the title. But it's that spare, affecting vocal which really crowns his achievement.

Before we hear that First Edition recording - better, it should be pointed out, than Rogers' later solo remake, which is what you get on a lot of compilations - let's take a listen to how Goldsboro handled it:




Quite a busy arrangement, I think, though an agreeable one, but his singing feels a bit exposed when listening to this immediately after Roger Miller. The plaintive quality doesn't quite cut it in this instance. It doesn't feel as though he is inhabiting the song to the same degree.

Alight, let us proceed, without delay or dismay, to the main deal: 

 



According to Mel Tillis, quoted in a piece by Rick Moore on the American Songwriter website, there wasn't a lot of forethought about the First Edition's recording of Ruby, and the composer wasn't involved.
"They were in Los Angeles recording their Something’s Burning album," he recalls. "The way I heard it, they had 15 minutes left on the clock. (Producer) Jimmy Bowen came out of the control room and handed ‘Ruby’ to Kenny. And you know the rest."
That sounds a little too neat to be true, like the story of Stand By Me being a happy afterthought knocked off in the last twenty five minutes of a Ben E King session. (When I had the chance to raise this directly with Leiber and Stoller during a Q&A they were quick to make clear that all the arrangements had been written out already.)


But if Ruby was indeed recorded quickly that may have been to its advantage. Bill DeYoung says that the solo success which Rogers enjoyed with his self-titled second album came about because of his producer at UA:
 Larry Butler knew what to do with the voice. "Kenny put everything he had into it in the first couple of takes," Butler says. "After that, he felt it was redundant. And a lot of Kenny’s vocals were live vocals on the sessions."
Might Jimmy Bowen have been aware of this too and held that final song back from the group deliberately, in order to ensure the freshness of Rogers' delivery? But whatever the degree of premeditation it is a finely judged vocal performance, with the the emphasis on "performance": there are moments where the voice is slightly strained, but that's the character's strain. At  times he is flat and resigned; at others the emotion glints through, as in the line:
But it won't be long, I've heard them say, until I'm not around
Though even then I think there's a sense of the character holding back, which helps support Ray Connolly's idea of the song being an inner monologue: that what we are hearing is not the broken soldier's attempt to harangue Ruby but the sound of his edging himself forward, with understandable reluctance, in order to contemplate the abyss ahead. And if Rogers did model his vocal approach on that of Miller it's more pointed, dynamic, as befits the percussion-heavy setting.


But however it came about , and whatever it may or may not owe directly to Roger Miller, the record was, is, and evermore shall be, a stone classic.

In the service, of  course, of a classic song. Which, as it happens, was based on a true story, as Tillis told Rick Moore. Some readers will already know that "that old crazy Asian war" is a reference to Korea, not Vietnam, the time of Rogers' hit, but may not be aware that the original inspiration dates from further back:
"Ruby is a real life narrative about a soldier coming home from World War II in 1947 to Palm Beach County, Florida," says Tillis, himself a Florida native. "The soldier brought along with him a pretty little English woman he called 'Ruby,' his war bride from England, one of the nurses that helped to bring him around to somewhat of a life. He had recurring problems from war wounds and was confined mostly to a wheelchair. He’d get drunk and accuse Ruby of everything under the sun. Having stood as much as she could, Ruby and the soldier eventually divorced, and she moved on."
So why did Tillis choose Korea? "That had been his era," Bill DeYoung writes - and goes on to explain the First Edition's success:
Kenny Rogers’ gauzy reading of Ruby in 1969 came just as many in America were questioning the logic of the Vietnamese conflict, and rush-released as a single, it became something of an anthem (especially after it closed the Huntley-Brinkley Report one night, over news footage of that week’s carnage in Vietnam). 
The vagueness of the phrase "crazy Asian war" feels right: the song may have struck a chord in 1969 America but it could be about a casualty of any conflict, which helps account for its longevity.

But finally I have to go back to the power of the language, and a line already quoted. Like Bobby Russell's Honey, this is simply a superbly crafted song. You cannot get more compact, surely, than:
The shadow on the wall tells me the sun is going down
Rick Moore's piece concludes by giving credit where it is most due: to the songwriter, without whose vision and application no hit record would have cause to exist:
In this day of writing by committee, “Ruby” stands up as an excellent example of what can happen when a lone craftsman gets an idea and works it and polishes it by himself until he knows it can’t get any better.
Which seems like a good point at which to let those ominous drums recede into the distance and hand the song back to its composer, who sings it for himself on Porter Waggoner's TV show in 1967, "just like you did it when you first wrote it, just with a guitar," as Waggoner requests. I'm not sure of the precise date of transmission but I'm guessing that the applause is partly in acknowledgement of the success of Johnny Darrell's hit version.






Which just about wraps things up, except to say that in the last few days I have been in email contact with my sister in law, my eldest brother's wife; utilising such vestiges of my dominie training as remain, I have been trying to select poems she might enjoy reading. At one point our exchanges were rudely interrupted by her husband who, in what seemed like a spooky rerun of Autumngate almost fifty years on, passed judgement on our endeavours in this wise:
poetry nonsense, threr [sic] is enough in music

I have a sneaking feeling he may be right.



Links:

Post about Honey and The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp here and here.

Some other versions of Ruby on youtube: Waylon Jennings here; Johnny Darrell's hit version here

Darrell also recorded The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp, subject of an earlier post here.


Kenny Rogers: Built to Last by Bill DeYoung can be found on the author's website here.

Behind the Song: Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town by Rick Moore is here.

Ray Connolly is the writer of That'll Be The Day and much else; his website is here.

25 April 2020

Wild About Honey


Like all right-thinking people I follow Alwyn Turner's online series Revive 45 on the Lion and Unicorn website, and I urge the more malleable reader to go forth and do likewise. Once a month Mr Turner casts his eye over the top ten from forty five years ago, and the resulting mix of insight, original research (he's interviewed quite a few of the artists) and unashamed enthusiasm for hits long condemned as "uncool" by others has frequently been an ear-opener for me - and he knows how to turn the odd pleasing phrase too. The most recent post considers the charts from April 1975, including Bobby Goldsboro's oft-disparaged Honey (above).

Reading the piece has prompted me to listen to Goldsboro's record again and to look at the lyrics more closely. But before I get onto a more detailed examination I need to bring a certain hangup of mine into the open. The notional "coolnesss" or otherwise of certain records has often proven a hurdle to my fullhearted enjoyment of them, so I rather envy Mr Turner's lack of shame in that respect. I suppose it all goes back to my childhood ... childhood ... childhood ...

Alright, enough with the reverb already, but it's true. Some readers may recall a post in which I described how, in the seventies, my brothers and I would cheer or boo as artists' images flashed up during the chart rundowns on Top of the Pops. Such snap judgements were easy to make then: fear of being mocked by one's siblings concentrates the mind wonderfully.

To give a particular example: I don't think it was much of a hit, but I recall seeing a group called Autumn perform a song called My Little Girl on TOTP, and really enjoying it ... until my eldest brother gave an incredulous laugh, declaring it to be "terrible". I knew better than to offer any argument. Years later, when I bought a secondhand copy of the single, I could feel shame and rebellion warring within me as I handed over a grubby pound note.





In fairness to my brother, he may have been responding to the banality of the lyrics, which didn't mention revolution even once. Nevertheless, I think I knew then, as I definitely know now, that harmonies are the thing, and witless joy is a whole lot better than none at all. Which is very much the creed of Revive 45.

The main subject of my post about cheering and booing was the Floaters' 70s hit Float On, one of many records of that time which I've belatedly reassessed. This has been prompted partly by nostalgia but also by the extra musical knowledge I've acquired over the years, which has made it easier to see a particular single in context and give oneself permission to like it, heedless of real or imagined fraternal judgments.

I now see that Float On is not unrelated to doo wop: at once ridiculous and touching. And although the ubiquity of Shirley and Company's Shame, Shame, Shame, also mentioned in that post, made it hard to bear for a few years, now it's a winner on two levels: an indelible memory of a friend as well as a prime example of the excitement and joy which can be generated when two gospel-inflected voices engage in friendly battle.

Alwyn Turner's series will likewise encourage you to pick up and reexamine records from that earlier age - always assuming, of course, that you are old enough to remember them. If not - well, I suppose that'll be a different sort of education, though no less worthwhile. Either way, give him a go is my advice.

I can't say for certain what I felt about Honey when I first heard it. I imagine that there would have been at least the outward show of resistance, for the reasons outlined above. But at some point, lost to history, I must have softened, because in September 2012 I was emboldened to record the following:

A few days ago I was having a conversation with a friend about stories in song, prompted by hearing Honey, the song associated with (but not written by) Bobby Goldsboro, on the mixtape of the restaurant where we were dining. Yes, it was corny and sentimental but my point - not really grasped by my companion - was that details had lodged in my brain ever since childhood, like Honey 'sittin' there and cryin' over some sad and silly late, late show'.
This is what Alwyn Turner has to say about the song:
I like it a great deal. This is death-disc schmaltz at its very best. And I love some of the lyrics: 'She was always young at heart, kinda dumb and kinda smart.' Try, in your mind’s ear, to hear Joey Ramone singing that, and you’ll see how splendid it is.
Which observation set me to thinking about the rest of the lyrics ... and I quickly began to see that this is indeed a fine piece of work, on a par with other stories-in-song such as Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp and Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town. Here, then, for all those who remain intimidated by real or imaginary viewing or dining companions, are my thoughts about Honey. Take them as your own if you wish; whisper them to yourself in some place of safety, if such be available.

I would have first heard Honey on Top of the Pops in 1968. Was it one more boring song to be endured, like those of Val Doonican and other balladeers, before a good one came on? In 1975, the year of the chart being surveyed, it was a rerelease. Could that have been the point at which phrases from the song first lodged in my brain? I can't say - though as with the Autumn single I would have known it wasn't an enthusiasm to be bruited about.

But before the lyrics, let's examine the performance. The song was not written by Bobby Goldsboro but I absolutely believe in the restraint of his vocal: plaintive but controlled. It's not difficult to imagine Gene Pitney tackling such a song - the result, I suspect, would not have been dissimilar. Except that, being Gene Pitney, he might have given freer rein to his emotions at some point. As in the more extreme case of Robin Gibb, there is an inbuilt quaver in his voice which I fear would have tipped the balance.

Histrionics, or the hint of them, would be superfluous - at least, assuming you're backed by an arrangement similar to that on Goldsboro's record. It's pretty heavy on the strings and heavenly choir, so he doesn't need to overstate his case: we get that these recollections are poignant, and all he has to do to go through them with apparent lightness. The bereaved husband is, or so I imagine, like the Ancient Mariner, stopping one of three, compelled to tell his story yet again, while knowing it must be done  briskly in order to keep that neighbour or passing stranger ("Friend") from politely making his excuses and haring off.

The backing's doing a lot of the work, then. Could it be argued that it's too heavy, too syrupy, even so? Possibly. But if you accept it as the subtext - the wallowing in pain which ordinary intercourse won't permit - then it kind of works anyway ... alright, even if it could have been dialled down a bit. We'll return to this point a little later, but first let's hear the song:





Just as it's difficult for me to find fault with Goldsboro's vocal performance, the lyrics seem more or less perfect: a story told with considerable economy through judicious choice of detail.  And even if I can't remember how the song first struck me I can certainly testify that quite a few of those lines have stayed with me down the decades. And today, when I examine them more closely, I am struck by the artfulness of the narrative. Let's go through a few of them.

At the beginning the tree is the device for hooking the listener in - not just us, the record's audience, but the passing stranger or neighbour:
See the tree how big it's grown
But Friend, it hasn't been too long, it wasn't big
Then follows the detail that after she slipped while trying to protect said tree from the ravages of winter her husband "laughed till I cried". This is craftily done, undercutting the sentimentality while preparing us for later tears.

At first her weeping is presented as an endearing weakness:
... crying
Over some sad and silly late, late show
But mark the speed with which some of kind of terminal illness is hinted at, followed by the immediate transition to her death:
I came home unexpectedly
Found her crying needlessly in the middle of the day
And it was in the early spring,
When flowers bloom and robins sing, she went away
Musically, Honey has the feel of a chanson, though without the Gallic shrug in the singing: fatalistic this guy ain't. But the verses are conversational, half-spoken; it's only the choruses, in which he directly addresses his departed love, which really aspire to singing.

There's no denying, however, that the chorus does seem mawkish:
And Honey, I miss you
And I'm being good
And I'd love to be with you
If only I could
"Being good" in this context can only mean he's not sleeping with other women and has not sought out someone to replace her. A similar phrase is used in the middle eight of the Beatles' Wait, written, I presume, by Paul McCartney, who sings that section:
I feel as though
You ought to know
That I've been good
As good as I can be
And if you do
I'll trust in you
And know that you
Will wait for me
Not the Beatles' finest lyrical moment: Macca sounds like a boy scout promising to do his duty - and not in the good Bessie Smith way.

But while the songs share the same phrase, more or less, there's an important difference between the two. In Honey, the childishness of "I'm being good" is counterbalanced by something more vividly described, more - well, more adult:
And now my life's an empty stage
Where Honey lived and honey played and love grew up
It reminds us that, for all the charming or funny details about his late wife's kookiness ("kinda dumb and kinda smart") this is a song about a grief which is still raw: the timescale is vague but we know that the Christmas gift of the puppy was only two years earlier. Note, too, that phrase "love grew up" as opposed simply to "grew". Upwards like the tree which is the initial focus of the song, or with some suggestion, perhaps, of growing up as in coming to terms with the knowledge that love encompasses loss?

Either way, those lines are immediately followed by more tears before we are neatly led back to the start (via the association of "flower bed" and "trees") as our modern Mariner starts to tell his tale to the next available audience or is compelled to repeat it to the present listener:
A small cloud passes overhead
And cries down on the flower bed that Honey loved
Yes, see the tree how big it's grown
But friend it hasn't been too long, it wasn't big ...
Actually, the latter may be too extreme a supposition. Perhaps it's simply that he is repeating the odd detail, anxious not to miss anything which might impress upon his listener the importance of the tale. Whichever, the cyclical form feels right: there is no magic solution to his problem.

Looking on youtube for recent performances of the song, I saw a clip of Bobby Goldsboro performing at Ray Stevens' CabaRay showroom in Nashville, I believe in 2018. He was in excellent voice fifty years on, but I got a jolt when he ended with the image of the cloud crying on the flower bed. It did work musically, and for all I know that's how he regularly sings it now, but it felt like many more years than two had passed since the angels came.

Which, in a sense, is true, I suppose. Some singers alter the keys when they perform their old  hits, if age means there are notes they can no longer reach; is it fanciful to think that Goldsboro might be making a corresponding adjustment to the narrator's sensibility now that he is singing this song fifty years on? Is it easier to contemplate a full stop now, both for himself and the audiences who have kept pace with him?

Which reminds me of another example of Bobby Russell's skilful balancing act. The fanciful phrase "the angels came" is redolent of some sentimental Victorian ballad but note the bald statement which follows:
I wake up nights and call her name
Honey has been covered by quite a few people. There is an earlier version of the song by Peter Lotis, who gives it plenty of vibrato and takes it at a brisker pace; the result is less affecting. More interesting is the first recording, by Bob Shane. This was produced by the composer so presumably reflects his intentions. Shane's vocal has a suggestion of Rod McKuen and is intimate, understated; it's not difficult to imagine Goldsboro patterning his own approach on this.

But oh, the arrangement - unless it's just the mix. At times it verges on being one of those comedy records where the singer is gradually drowned out and has to bellow to be heard. It's as though Russell was determined that the listener would treat this as a rock song instead of the country-style ballad it clearly is. I don't know whether Russell had any direct involvement with Goldsboro's recording but even if the arrangement on the latter could have been starker - what would George Martin, say, have done? - it still seems far better suited to the song than Russell's own conception. Other versions can be found online, includng an agreeable enough rendition by Dean Martin. But Goldsboro's is the one.





There are also some female renditions of the song, with a lyric so altered that it's really more of an answer record. Most of the events happen to the wife, but it's the husband who is "kinda dumb and kinda smart". She's still the one who dies, though, so " I'd love to be with you if only I could" carries a different sort of charge. The conclusion doesn't have the power of the male version, though it works after a fashion:
One day while you were not at home
While I was there and all alone
The angels came
Guess you thought it strange of me
To leave the way I did that day,
It was a shame

But now your life is just begun
And even though you miss me, Hon,
You must go on

And when the small cloud passes overhead
And cries down on the flower bed,
You'll know you're not alone
Here's Patti Page's recording:





But it doesn't seem right to end there. Let us turn back to Bobby Goldsboro and Honey in its better-known form on that CabaRay appearance.





Pace Alwyn Turner, I'd say that Honey both is and isn't a death disc, and perhaps that's ultimately the reason for its longevity. Bobby Goldsboro's performance is not overheated in the manner of some other examples of the genre. The attitude which led to that restraint is suggested in a 1968 interview quoted on the songfacts website:
I think Honey is a very emotional song, but it's not like what I call a sick song, a death song. Actually what it is, very simply, is just a guy remembering little things that happened while his wife was alive and to me that's not sick at all.



Links:

Bobby Goldsboro's official website, with music and paintings for sale, can be found here.

Alwyn Turner's monthly Revive 45 posts can be found on the Lion and Unicorn website here. The post with the April 1975 chart, including Honey, is here

Or why not go back to the very first Revive 45 post, here, in which he makes a more convincing case than you might imagine at first glance for 5th January 1974 being "one of the best top tens in British chart history", even though it includes Marie Osmond and the New Seekers among its number.

The songfacts page on Honey has lots of freewheeling interpretations of the lyrics submitted by readers; it can be found here.

My dining disagreement about the merits of Honey was extracted from a piece I wrote about Hal David, here.

"Floating Boaters or But wherefore could not I pronounce 'Hooray' or 'Boo'?" can be found here.

A post about first hearing The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp can be found here.

And finally, a belated acknowledgement of the greatness of Shirley and Company's disco classic Shame, Shame, Shame can be found here.

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