My grandfather loved his guitars. He listened to old Hank Williams Sr. records, a bit of Les Paul and Mary Ford, and a smattering of Hawaiian music, all to hear what was happening on the fretboards. Williams stuck to strummed chords, Paul overdubbed, sped up and slowed down his jazz licks to possessed proportions and the Hawaiians always knew their way around the pedal steel. As far afield as these tastes ran, there was a definite common denominator, so the fact that Pop loved “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?” by Hurricane Smith was even more confusing.
For starters, this hit single sounds nothing like the rest of Smith’s output, the sort of music you would expect from the early 1970s. It is a throwback to Big Band Hit Parade panache, with a swinging string section worthy of Nelson Riddle and an up-front sax that complements, not kills, the tune. Secondly, Smith’s voice is treated with an echo-back bounce more in line with David Bowie and John Lennon than Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. None of this seemed to make sense in Pop’s collection. What gives?
What I only recently found out was that Smith, indeed, was more contemporary than I thought. “Hurricane” may have been the nickname for his forceful singing voice, more a burst than a nuance or a bellow that occasionally creaked and went thin, hence the padding that dynamics treatment remedied. Such a treatment would have been a second-nature trick for Norman Smith, having produced and engineered at EMI during its heyday, working with late period Beatles and early period Pink Floyd.
It doesn’t really get at the heart of the question: why, at this point in pop music when the crooners and orchestras were making their exodus across the deserts to the Vegas strip, did Smith decide to bring his alter ego to the mic — and with such an unfashionable (for the time) musical statement? Smith, in the few articles I’ve been able to find, never satisfactorily answers that. Sometimes he calls it nostalgic and other times pegs it as no more than a lark. Other articles suggest it may have been a demo for another performer, which would square up why he was so “black tie and jacket” in his “bell bottoms and muttonchops” world. Proving perhaps that there was still a warm feeling for the swing, America took to the song, making it a tidy little hit.
This 45 found its way into many homes. In my grandparents’ old home I can remember Pop’s stereo, a massive piece of furniture like a dining room sideboard. The speakers, found at each side of the piece, were covered in front with an upholstery not unlike an old couch. The lid on the top flipped up like a Studebaker hood, revealing a turntable the size of a Studebaker steering wheel. Pop, a Hudson man, probably didn’t buy it for that reason. Likewise, I don’t think he bought that 45 because of the history behind Norman Smith or that it was so radically different. I don’t even think he wanted to recall those Hit Parade years, per se. He just recognized the song as being a beautiful little tune, something to take note of, something that would sound great on that monstrous antique downstairs by the dining room table.
These days, we carry tiny devices that provide the same oomph as the hardwood behemoth, and now you can have this song to hear on yours. Pop would have wanted you to have it because, even more than his guitars, he loved a great song.