Thursday, September 25, 2008

One River Heading For The Sea: Al Hibbler: "Unchained Melody"

The room is dark. It is night. A man sits, unable to sleep, looking out the window, searching for the moon. He is alone; surrounded by so many men, he is indeed very alone.

I’ve never seen Unchained, but the movie is set in a prison in Chino, California – based on a book written by someone who worked there. The dilemma – does our main character stay in and serve his time and be guaranteed to see his wife and kids, or does he escape? At some point, perhaps as he gazes longingly out the window at night, this song plays – not this exact version, but this song. Unchained has faded into obscurity, but the song was recognized as an instant classic, nominated for an Oscar and being covered almost immediately – first as an instrumental, then by both Jimmy Young and Al Hibbler. By June of ’55, they battled for number one, Hibbler getting second place, but surviving ably as it is one of the best versions of the song (and there have been tons).

“Unchained Melody” is both named after the movie and also after the song’s structure itself – it feels a bit improvised, a bit loose, with lots of room for the singer to move and express him/herself. Certainly in the Righteous Brothers’ version there is a grandeur and longing that are practically operatic, for instance – but it is easy to take this song and simply belt it out as an expression of missing the Other and miss out on all the nuances. Those singers (such as, oh, Tom Jones for instance, and as another example, Robson & Jerome) forget that the lyrics are ‘sung’ by a man in prison. He needs his Other intensely and yet also worries that she doesn’t love him anymore or perhaps has found someone knew. He wants her to wait for him, but does she? He is beside himself to know how she feels, but he has no idea, no clue. Al Hibbler sings with some doubt but also some reassurance – as if this song is a lullaby he sings to himself to keep himself going. (Whether Hibbler's being blind from birth has anything to do with this understanding, I don't know - he sings the song with great sympathy, if I can put it that way). At the same time, it is formal enough - sweet strings, noble singing, nothing that would upset Lord Reith should he offhandedly hear it one morning. But Hibbler's "" is humble and wishful, expanding the song into a prayer for anyone who has been away from anyone for too long, who is anxious to know that they are indeed loved.

If you know very well you're loved, The Goons' version is perfect, complete with a cry to "Make it fresh!" in the instrumental break. Clearly something rambunctious and impolite was heading towards the charts, as the smooth 50s gave way to something rougher and looser. But for now, Hibbler is a step forward to more open-throated singing (as opposed to Young's much more formal and British version) and the eventual appearance of r&b on the UK charts.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Sense of Fullness: David Whitfield: "Santo Natale"

It is now, amazingly, almost 1955. Much has happened; in the UK, rationing has ended and the new monarch is settling into her job. In the US, McCarthyism is on the way out and the 'fun' part of the Fifties is about to begin (in the Happy Days sense of 'fun'). The passion for all things Italian has not abated, and this song is proof - even if he didn't have to tell you it meant 'Merry Christmas', "Santo Natale" - with it bells at beginning and end, the choir of female singers who all sound as if they are wearing red velvet ball gowns and hovering around the singer like cherubs - is full of Italian passion and goodwill and is a bear hug of a song. Whitfield's tenor is high and English (as tenors go) but still dramatic and maybe even a little too rich; but then he sounds distinctly like the kind of singer who would have a career no matter what - there are women (and men) who like a good strong voice with heartfelt sentiments and a kind of vocal handsomeness, and he has those to spare. (He actually sounds as if he has to stand away from the microphone as he is so loud, but I could be wrong.) He sings not just as if he wants you personally to have as many blessings and as few troubles as possible, but as if he almost has the supernatural ability to make that happen. It also conjures up visions of a young swain singing in the street up to his beloved who is leaning out the window – the stereotypical scene of courtship from Europe – though more common in Italy, I’d imagine, than in Whitfield’s hometown of Hull. Like the previous song, this is exactly the kind of song that would be termed ‘square’ by the hipsters of the day, and I am guessing the next time a Christmas song appears here, it will be quite different.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Sun Will Shine: Nat King Cole: "Smile"

And now we have the first confluence of two previous number two performers/writers - Nat King Cole and Charlie Chaplin. "Smile" was written for Modern Times and then seemingly forgotten about, and then made a hit in '54 by Cole and has been covered consistently ever since, by those you would expect (Michael Buble, Holly Cole) and those who undoubtedly took the song other places (Michael Jackson, Sun Ra).  It is the oldest song here so far, and the most-covered.

As a song it is a little sweet, but completely sympathetic, and Cole sings it with an understanding - a compassion - that makes it like an aural big hug. He knows you want to cry; he knows smiling is hard (as opposed to pretending, which is easy) and he asks you to just try to smile - even a little smile will do. If your heart is aching or breaking, if it's been cloudy for days, a smile can make everything worthwhile (cue The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme, which is one of many distant relatives of this song). Cole knows, Cole has most definitely been there (again, there are ironies here of a black performer singing about smiling while your heart is broken) and Chaplin’s swoony tune gets a great deal of dignity from the gentle wisdom in Cole’s voice.

1954, of course, is the ‘official’ Last Year Before Rock in the United States (yes, I know the first ‘rock’ record was already old news, but I grew up with the constant bombardment that it all began in ’55) – and so “Smile” is also an example of a song that would go out of fashion in the US (the UK was a bit slower in this regard, due to cultural differences, not to mention the boom of a certain excitable music that is just getting started). Out of fashion because the ultimate point of rock was that if you wanted to cry, you should cry and only smile when you felt like it. (Rock as the ‘sensibility’ in Sense & Sensibility.) Young rebels in the next decade would rather be sneering, but there is a literal physical truth to what the man sings – smile and you do feel better. Ultimately, the smile you are giving to the world isn’t as important as the smile you give to yourself.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Young Children Vs. The Snobs: Obernkirchen Children's Choir: "The Happy Wanderer"

I am sorry for the smallish (in the world of blogging) pause here, readers, but I am currently helping my mom redo her apartment and am busy packing up and re-packing my own things in preparation for my big move to London late this month. However this has not stopped me thinking about this song, and surprisingly there is a lot to consider, which I didn't expect.

"The Happy Wanderer" is a first in several ways for this particular parade of number twos - the first sung in another language, the first sung by children, the first one to inspire a movie, as opposed to coming out of one. It is easy to see this as a one-off, and in many ways it is, but those are all important precedents and I expect them to crop up again in various ways. The song itself is about the joys of taking a walk in nature - fresh air, blue skies, hills, pretty flowers and birds and so on. (The a-a-a-a-a part of the chorus I imagine as some hiker tiptoeing over/around something, or perhaps going down a slope he didn't expect a little faster than he would like.) It is as forthright and hearty and trailmix-crunching as you would expect a song about walking in the woods to be. The fact that it is being sung by a choir made up of German war orphans (whom Dylan Thomas called "pigtailed angels" - this being mentioned at the YouTube site) makes it a little more complex, to say the least. It's 1954, however, that odd year before so much began to be set in motion - and the world was busy renewing itself, rebuilding, repaying, and who better to act as a living bridge between once-mortal-rivals than a bunch of kids singing about the simple joys of nature?

Never mind the fact that the majority of listeners wouldn't know what they were singing about - the song itself is sung well, with passion, and the more than slight knowledge that those singing it are singing about something that they have heard about, but may or may not have experienced yet themselves. (The choir are from northern Germany; I am not sure how wild that area is, nor how much time these children got to spend in nature.) The song has become so famous (it is the backpacker's anthem) that you might think it was handed down from generation to generation of woodland-crazy Germans, but in fact it was written by the choir-leader's sister and eventually became a staple of primary schools in the UK and elsewhere in the post-war era (my husband had to sing it as a boy and did not enjoy doing so, which points to another inescapable thing - the song is fairly simple and repetitive and may well have annoyed as many people as who enjoyed it - I am willing to bet it is the first number two to hit that mark, as well).

That quality of annoying others oddly points to two examples - a little oblique, but I think they are worth mentioning. The first is an episode of The Sopranos entitled "The Happy Wanderer" wherein Tony complains to his psychotherapist about people he sees on the street who are happy, smiling, carefree - people who may have cares or worries but have genuine happiness nevertheless, unlike himself, a man who has nothing major to worry about and yet is depressed. (If I have this wrong, Sopranos fans, let me know.) I don't know what Dr. Melfi says to him, but I would say that it is folly to judge your happiness against that of others - to resent the happiness of others in particular is cruel and unforgiving. Also rather snobby, which is a word I would apply to one Madonna, who not too long ago tried to get people to stop hikers from crossing her land – land that presumably had well-worn paths crossing it already – as if those treading it cared whose estate was nearby, and were probably birdwatching, not Madonna-hunting.  In contrast to these two examples, the British public were warm and welcoming to this choir (who debuted at a festival in Wales) who were bringing their own happiness to the world.