Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 10
If you’ve been reading this series since the beginning, you’ve seen two names pop up more than any others — Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Throughout the 1960s they were perhaps the most prolific and successful songwriting duo in American music, and their fingerprints are all over the AM Gold series. This week alone we get two more Bacharach/David hits, courtesy Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield. You’ll be seeing more from the pair in coming installments, but we just wanted to take a moment to recognize their incredible legacy.
With that out of the way, let’s carry on with five more from 1964!
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#6: Stan Getz & João Gilberto, “The Girl from Ipanema” – #5 U.S., Grammy award for Record of the Year
David Lifton – What always strikes me about Astrud Gilberto’s vocals is how out of tune they are, but it doesn’t bother me too much because everything about this is so sexy. I hate that the song has become a cliche and a punchline (although Stephen Sondheim’s parody is hysterical), because it’s a gorgeous example of how to put air into a song and let it float.
Chris Holmes – In my mind there is one version of this song worth owning, and it’s one from the Sinatra/Jobim record. Absolutely sublime. Sinatra nails the tone, and Claus Ogerman’s orchestral arrangements put it over the top.
Dw. Dunphy – This is another case of overexposure, as has already been mentioned. The song has been so overplayed and overused, mostly as a punchline, that it is hard to appreciate it in a serious context.
Jon Cummings – Yeah, it’s a cliche now — the stuff of a million commercials for tanning lotion and foreign cars and whatnot — but Astrud’s opening vocal line is also perhaps the most perfect 15 seconds in pop history. It’s sooooo sexy, and so evocative … of tanning lotion and foreign cars and whatnot, but also of the isolated beach that we’d all love to be on with some Brazilian hottie. (Now, if you’ll please excuse me for about 4 minutes while I consider that prospect further…)
Jack Feerick – So much to say about this one. Jobim, for my money, is one of the great songwriters of his generation; this isn’t even my favorite song of his (that would be “Corcovado,” for those of you playing along at home), but I’d still rank it as one of the forty or fifty greatest songs of the 20th century.
I love Astrud’s voice. Is it flat? Sure, in more ways than one — there’s a curious emotional opacity to go along with her pitchiness. But if it is a defining characteristic of all great pop to sound effortless — and I would argue that it is — then Astrud Gilberto succeeds in spades. She is just too cool for school here, and the effect is pleasingly narcotic.
(João Gilberto has a similarly offhand, breezy style, which is what drew Getz to want to work with him in the first place — he was a star in Brazil already, certainly a much bigger name than Astrud. I’m pretty sure Astrud was only invited to the recording session because Getz was trying to get into her pants — in which he later succeeded, making the ensuing concert tour, during which they all traveled and performed together… interesting. And they edited João right out of the single. Poor bastard.)
And Getz, well… It was his session, after all, which is why he gets top billing on a single credit that looks like it’s for a modern R&B track. But when he launches into that solo, so breathy and present that you jump, thinking that he’s standing right behind you… well. If that doesn’t steal the show, what could?
#7: Dionne Warwick, “Walk On By” – #6 U.S., #8 U.K.; hello Bacharach/David!
Lifton – Before I give my thoughts, I want to say that this album is in my “New and Unplayed” smart playlist. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize it was on Shuffle just now, so instead of hearing this, I get “Queen Of Hearts” by Fucked Up. Quite a shock for a Wednesday morning.
But on to “Walk On By.” Trying to maintain dignity in the wake of a break-up is a great topic for a pop song, and Bacharach/David have two classics: this and “Make It Easy On Yourself.” This one’s a bit more defiant, which could be why it was more successful. Or it could just be that, by this point, the three of them realized they had something incredibly special.
Dunphy – I really love this and you can tell that Burt & Hal knew they found their muse. But as I’ve mentioned in previous Warwick sightings, I’m saddened that her legacy has been forever compromised by latter wackiness. She ought to be on an equal footing with so many ’60s/’70s stars that are revered today, and yet it is her songs, not her that people recall. That might be a good thing after all…
Cummings – I believe I’m supposed to be a fan of this song, and to think reflexively that Bacharach/David/Warwick records are pure genius — but I’m not, and I don’t. I’ve discussed my ambivalence (bordering on antipathy) toward the Dionne/Bacharach team earlier in this series, and this song doesn’t move my enthusiasm meter any more than most of the rest of their collaborations. Perhaps it’s just my … wait for it … FOOLISH PRI-IDE — but listening to this song has always made me feel 25 years older than I am, and that’s an even worse feeling now than it used to be.
Feerick – Ah, here’s the genuine item. Often imitated, never duplicated.
So many hooks! That six-note horn motif, the staccato backing vocals — that’s the stuff I remember. But listening again, it’s interesting to note how lean the recording is. Everything is judiciously applied — even the string section comes and goes, makes its statement and disappears again. Proto-funk chicka-chick guitar, minimal drums and bass, great swathes where the whole band disappears leaving only a voice and a single roiling piano, obsessively playing the same three notes over and over. I’ll say it again: Bacharach and David were up to some seriously avant-garde subversive shit here, applying the orchestrations and structures of Schoenberg’s Viennese School to the pop-song format. It’s like they were daring each other to see how far into high modernism they could go and still come up with something recognizable as pop.
#8: Jerry Butler & Betty Everett, “Let It Be Me” – #5 U.S.
Lifton – Unfortunately, Jerry Butler will probably never get his due because he happened to once be bandmates with Curtis Mayfield (then again, what about the other Impressions?). But what a voice! Supper-club smooth with just enough church in it. And Everett more than holds her own during her solo on the bridge.
I discovered this a few years ago when I reviewed a Vee-Jay Records box, and this may be my favorite song we’ve done to date. Since I grew up hearing the Everly Brothers’ version, I was surprised to see that this wasn’t a Felice and Boudleaux Bryant song, but rather written by French composers with English lyrics. It has that same heightened-teenage-emotions-but-still-romantic quality to it.
Dunphy – This songs returns, only this time it is with Jerry “The Ice Man” Butler, and that’s not a bad thing. Both of them sell this song so completely that it is impossible to resist it. Of course, Butler’s bigger hit will be “He Will Break Your Heart” (later covered by Tony Orlando & Dawn as “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)”) but this track totally makes his case for him.
Cummings – As long as this column is forcing me to listen to a version of this song other than the Everlys’, I’m going to go ahead and call up every version that I have. Let’s see … Glen Campbell & Bobbie Gentry (pointless); Leonard Nimoy (horrifying, though not a bad instrumental arrangement); Rod Stewart & Jennifer Hudson, from his Soulbook album (surprisingly not terrible — it combines the Everlys’ harmonies with Butler & Everett’s heavy string arrangement); Neil Diamond, from his most recent album (yuck!).
And as long as I’m engaged in this exercise, it’s a kick to hear the original French version by Gilbert Becaud (pretty funny) and the original English-language version by Jill Corey (very Doris Day). All of this is pussyfooting around what I want to say — which is, give me the Everlys every time. The way Don sings “What would life be?” sends chills down my spine. By comparison, Butler & Everett’s version sounds overblown to me. It’s one of those “special” duets that looks great on paper, but (to me, at least, in this case) doesn’t work so well in reality — at least compared to Don & Phil. Jerry & Betty never turn their vocals loose like they should, perhaps stilted by those overdone strings.
Feerick – Haven’t had a big orchestral ballad in a while. The strings are lovely — to the point where the Supremes-slap of the drums sounds out of place — but it’s the voices that do the real heavy lifting here. There’s a long stretch of the second verse where the strings and piano drop away, and there’s nothing but those two twined voices, in gorgeous, primal harmony. Great stuff.
#9: Dusty Springfield, “Wishin’ & Hopin'” – #6 U.S., #2 Australia; Bacharach/David strike again.
Lifton – If she had never shocked everybody by recording Dusty In Memphis, I wonder if she would be remembered as anything other than a decent pop singer who had a few good pop hits. The way she works the dynamics on the bridge shows how much was there, and between that and the arrangement, keeps me coming back to it. That said, the whole “do whatever it takes to please your man” idea hasn’t aged well in the post-feminist era. I find it odd that, at the same time that Bacharach/David could write things like this and “Wives And Lovers” and then come up with “Don’t Make Me Over.”
Holmes – Yeah, even as a man those lyrics make me cringe. But it’s Dusty, so all is forgiven. And I dispute your assessment of Dusty’s pre-Memphis work. As far as I’m concerned her legacy was cemented even without that album. “The Look of Love” anyone?
Dunphy – Alright, so it’s not Dusty’s best, or most progressive stance, but if you can put aside the slightly icky Sixties neediness (which, honestly, was unavoidable), this is a primo earworm.
Cummings – Now, after all my previously expressed ambivalence toward Bacharach/David, why do I adore this track so? Maybe it’s because Dusty isn’t nearly so mannered as Dionne’s vocals always were. Maybe it’s because Dusty gives the song a bit of a belting, rock edge. Or maybe I just
really like this song; to me, it seems less obsessed with being tasteful than most of the Burt/Hal/Dionne oeuvre. I’ve never heard Dionne’s original version (a B-side from ’63), so I can’t compare apples to apples here, but I wonder if Dionne was able to control those mannerisms. I imagine it can’t be that great, as it was relegated to a B-side. Fortunately for everyone involved, the song got matched with the right singer.
Feerick – Of historical interest only. It’s almost impossible to hear this fresh, for what it is, knowing the triumphs that were still a few years away. Dusty’s already got great pipes, but she’s still pretty uptight — square phrasing, an occasional pinched tone — and while this is not a bad record, exactly, it is far less interesting in itself than as a blueprint for better records to come.
#10: Diane Renay, “Navy Blue” – #6 U.S.
Lifton – I don’t think her steady really joined the Navy. I think he just told her that to get as far away from her as possible. But who can be sure if he’s even real? Wasn’t “my boyfriend’s in the military” the female’s version of “my girlfriend lives in Canada?”
Dunphy – Corny. You can get away with the (already mentioned) Sixties neediness if the arrangement kills, but this is just a series of plugged-in “hit” bits. Lonely girl? Yup. Noble guy fighting for his country ’cause he’s glad ta be an Ahmurrican, check. Beat ingredients one and two repeatedly until it’s a tasteless poi? Yup.
Cummings – I never heard this song before — or even heard OF it. Musta skipped right past her listing in Whitburn. The chorus starts out sounding exactly like one of Bobby Vinton’s “blue” songs, and then … wait a cotton-pickin’ minute! Did she just sing, “My steady boy said ‘ship ahoy’ and joined the Nay-hee-yay-hee-vee”? Yeesh! I mean, Bob Crewe co-wrote some real cheese for the Four Seasons, but I bet Frankie Valli sometimes wakes up with a start in the middle of the night, then thinks to himself, “No, it was only a dream. Thank goodness Crewe never wrote me a chorus hook as icky as ‘joined the nay-hee-yay-hee-vee.'”
Lifton – Wow. I can’t believe Cummings and I only agreed on two of these songs.
Cummings – Well, when one of the songs we disagree on is a Warwick(e) … Dave, you and I may usually be in cahoots musically, but clearly we’re not quite Psychic Friends.
Feerick – Despite the “rock and roll” instrumentation — including an electronic organ straight out of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” — the song sounds like something the Andrews Sisters might have recorded in 1941. That could be a testament to the sturdiness of classic pop songwriting, or a dig at a tune that sounds well past its sell-by date. You decide.
- Sunday Music – Anyone Who Had A Heart (papundits.wordpress.com)
- Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 3 (popdose.com)
- Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 8 (popdose.com)