Sunday, May 26, 2024

No Hesitation Goes Unremarked By Horn-Blowing: "The Last Farewell" by Roger Whittaker

It is sometime in the second half of 1975, and the jukebox at Graceland is a talisman to remind the singer that other lives, including his, once happened. It holds old records from the time when he still possessed energy and hope, as well as newer, not quite so hopeful or energetic, ones. Already slowing down at forty.

And there is this one record on the jukebox which he plays, over and over to the point of obsession. Something in the song being sung on that record touches him in a place no one else, bar one, has located. He needs to have the song's atoms ingrained into his tormented soul, now on the verge of becoming as red and mottled as clay.

But what was he capable of locating in this humble epic of a sea song which might have dated from the era of Drake? It was not a song that would normally be expected to be entranced into his radar. There is absolutely nothing "rock and roll" about it and perhaps not much that might be ascribable to the twentieth century.

Yet it stayed with him, within him, and the Memphis Mafia were frankly baffled. It was a song he might not have been expected to be able to hear at all, so thoroughly British - so English, in fact - a study that it could have proved as indecipherable to American ears as Slade.

Moreover, the song's singer and co-author was only English by virtue of parenthood; Roger Whittaker was born and raised - and, for a time, fought, when called up to serve in the Kenya Regiment - in Kenya, his parents having emigrated from Staffordshire to the flame trees of Thika. He began a medical degree at the University of Cape Town in South Africa but dropped out after eighteen months and signed up as a civil service teacher. Eventually he ended up at what was then called Bangor University in North Wales, reading zoology, biochemistry and marine biology, although his sideline of folk-singing eventually superseded any ambitions of that kind.

Throughout the sixties he quietly built up a reputation as a reliable fellow to have on board, and by the time he finally had a British hit with the melancholy "Durham Town (The Leavin')" in late 1969 he was already a well-known radio, television and stage performer.

Whittaker didn't so much sidestep current trends in music as leapfrog them or stroll through them as though they did not exist. This meant that he only paid occasional visits to the pop charts, but you usually knew when he was around; his was most certainly not a career that depended upon hit singles. But his 1970 top ten hit "I Don't Believe In If Anymore" was a quietly enraged, methodical deconstruction of the Kipling ethos with slashing Psycho strings and a dolorously authoritative French horn fully worthy of Scott Walker, while 1971's "New World In The Morning" was a jaunty study of cynicism in which Whittaker states that, not only does he not believe in such utopias, but also that he is baffled as to why he had to write the song in the first place.

"The Last Farewell" in fact began its life as a track on that year's New World In The Morning album. It derived from a radio show which Whittaker hosted, one of its regular features being a sort of song-poem interlude where the singer invited listeners to submit a poem or set of lyrics which Whittaker would then try to set to music.

One of these was "The Last Farewell." A Birmingham silversmith named Ron Webster sent in what read like a rather Kiplingesque meditation - the sea captain summoned away from his tropical paradise to return to England, in the midst of what sounds like a bloody war. Or perhaps it was the Baden-Powell of 1899, called away from his luncheon at the Naval and Military Club in Piccadilly and asked to travel to South Africa. In any case, the song was not released as a single in Britain, but did become a firm live favourite.

In Canada, however, a single of "The Last Farewell" did appear in the late autumn of 1974, and became a minor hit. It so happened that the wife of the program director for a radio station in Atlanta, Georgia, was travelling through Canada on holiday in the first half of 1975, heard the song on CBC, and upon her return home urged her husband to add the song to his station's playlist.

The song then slowly took off commercially, as such phenomena sometimes do, and by June 1975 had reached the Billboard Top 20. It also returned to the Canadian charts, where on this occasion it made the top ten. By that time, Saigon had fallen, and the Vietnam war was effectively at an end, so the song doubtless struck a nerve in those surviving troops returning home and the families who awaited them.

Following the song's success in North America, however, it began to be released as a single in other countries, including Britain, where it belatedly peaked at number two in September 1975 (behind, with some irony or concordance, Rod Stewart's version of "Sailing"). Overall it sold more than ten million copies worldwide.

"The Last Farewell" is a very controlled song, wistful sighs of memory coming up against clenched-teeth expectation of blood and death. Yet the singer does not surrender hope; the song's final verse sees him dreaming of mist rolling through the English dell (has the word "dell" ever been used in another pop song?), Zach Lawrence's piano and orchestration, and Denis Preston's echoing production, adding to the song's determined stateliness.

But why did this of all songs burrow more firmly into the marrow of his mind than any others? The answer is surprisingly simple - having been called up to the U.S. Army in March 1958, his mother had been diagnosed with hepatitis during his basic training and was seriously ill. He requested and was given emergency leave to go home and see her, but she died two days after his arrival, scarcely into her forties. I don't expect he ever got over that - who would? - but it does, I think, help to illuminate his fascination with "The Last Farewell"; he listened to it again and again because he was thinking about his mother, and 1958, and being called up perhaps to fight, and maybe he interpreted what Whittaker was singing as a hymn to her ("For you are...beautiful"). The song's 1975 obverse? A desperate gatecrash of an epic song detailing a frantic need to get away from home, to find...something, anything, that he and his lover could love more dearly than the spoken word could tell - i.e. "Born To Run."

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Pieces Of A Hazy Rainbow: "Misty" by Ray Stevens


The talk at the moment is all about country music, and if you grew up in the West Central Scotland of the seventies, it was country, not rock or pop, which was the dominant music you heard; songs like Freddy Fender's "Before The Next Teardrop Falls," number one in both the U.S.A. and Scotland, unbought south of Dumfries, Tammy Wynette's seven-year-old "Stand By Your Man" which suddenly became a semi-expected national crossover smash, the continued resonance of Jim Reeves, local stars like Sydney Devine.

If you were growing up in 1975 with the music of Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen richocheting between your eleven-year-old ears, you might have thought country as square as Andy Stewart on television at Hogmanay. But it was actually quite a fertile year for the music; indeed, at least three groundbreaking country albums appeared in 1975. There was Pieces Of The Sky by Emmylou Harris, anxious to demonstrate she could do things without Gram, and which proved an excellent set of interpretations. There was the astonishing Old No 1 by Guy Clark, whose character studies and instinctive empathy with working people directly parallel those expressed on Born To Run.

Most strikingly, however, there was Willie Nelson's song cycle Red Headed Stranger, a mixture of old songs and briefer new narratives expertly sequenced to convey the feelings inspired in the singer by a song called "Tale of the Red Headed Stranger," which Nelson regularly played on the radio while a D.J. Think of the two "Smoke Hour" cameos Nelson makes on Cowboy Carter and you'll see where I might be going with this.

It was therefore quite a natural progression for Ray Stevens - the man who discovered and signed Dolly Parton to Monument Records in the sixties - to make a country record, and perhaps furnish a subtle but good-natured rejoinder to Ray Charles' appropriation of the music thirteen years before. The resulting album was named after its title song, a tune written by Erroll Garner in his head while travelling on a 'plane from San Francisco to Chicago in 1954. The 'plane passed through quite a turbulent thunderstorm, and on approaching O'Hare Airport Garner could see a hazy rainbow in the sky. He began to imagine the tune there and then.

Eventually Johnny Burke was persuaded to provide lyrics to the tune, which was promptly subjected to many interpretations, most strikingly that recorded by Johnny Mathis in 1959; a record which really resembles no other (with the possible if distant exception of the Flamingos' contemporaneous "I Only Have Eyes For You") in its weightless ethereality and the singer's supreme confidence in working the studio and treating the record as a record - he frequently stands a little distance away from his microphone before slowly walking towards it, like a lonely sea reclaiming its river.

Stevens presumably decided that, if a song was great enough, it would work in any musical style; hence he treats "Misty" as a modestly-dazzled hoedown with continous pedal steel commentary, a battalion of fiddles whenever a thousand violins begin to play and a vocal performance which in its seemingly unobtrusive and amiable way covers scales as widely and emotionally as Roy Orbison. He is dazed but happy and that's all he wants to communicate, and evidently it was all people in 1975 wanted to be told. When Stevens downplays the comedy - this is the humble novelty of a well-known song interpreted in an unexpected manner - a real smile can develop. He'll be damned if you won't fast dance with him.