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The Singer not the Song

Written by admin on December 13, 2010 – 7:30 pm -



Harley Payette asserts that the artistry of the pop singer is too often undervalued because of the importance placed on songwriting.


More than 35 years ago, Pete Townshend, one of the greatest songwriters of all time, wrote “It’s the singer not the song who makes the music move along.” Despite Townshend’s status as not only a great songwriter, but also one of rock music’s best critics, this is one little bit of his wisdom that did not stick despite its essential truth. Ever since the rock press was born in the mid-1960s, the songwriter has held sway as the ultimate figure in pop artistry. This is an assessment that ensures pop history is much less interesting and inclusive. This misguided perception has resulted in an occasionally topsy-turvy pop history and an elevation of the wrong artists, records, and aesthetics. Examining the songwriter can only take you so far when you’re evaluating pop music because pop music is primarily a performance and production medium.

Now, some fans have seen too many American Idol wannabes to fully drink this in, but if they analyze their own tastes and listening habits, and the history of pop music and its greatest song, there isn’t really another conclusion.

The Way We Hear Pop Music

Think about the way that you enjoy pop music. Most people consume pop music through recordings of their favorite artists. Even the most diehard adherent of the personal expression of pop songwriting would not buy the latest Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Amy Mann, Radiohead or Joni Mitchell compositions if they were just recorded by anybody. As hard as it may be to believe, it is imperative to hear the Radiohead catalog as performed by Radiohead. If the quality of songwriting were all these fans were after they would be satisfied to hear these songs by any competent singer (or in the case of Radiohead, an incompetent singer). If they were really serious, they would just purchase the sheet music whenever these artists come out with a new set of songs. So, it’s implied that even for the most hardcore fans of singer/songwriters, performance maintains a primary importance.

While sheet music was the way fans consumed pop music before the advent of recording technology, except for a few musicians, recordings are the choice today of most pop fans. (The cult of songwriting may even keep some musicians from playing the hits of their favorite writers because they perceive that playing another’s work as somehow inauthentic.) People buy recordings not songs. The radio is filled with the dominant hit versions of the latest popular songs, not dozens of versions of hit songs. More often than not, the key to our emotional response to any given piece is in the aural and emotional power of the sound and performance on a record and most of the time that is due to the performance and the production.

This is not meant to belittle the craft of songwriting. Great songwriting is an art and the works of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Bob Dylan and so many others are creations of a high order. Their best creations have a life of their own. However, great singing and producing are also arts, and that art is the most dominant form of expression in popular music. While the works of a Bob Dylan or Rodgers and Hart stand on their own, they often stand like a Stradivarius violin, as an instrument. A weak or ordinary player can make even a Stradivarius seem pedestrian. Yet, an extraordinary player can make a factory cookie cutter sing.

Hits and Flops

Often times, fans don’t really understand the way a popular song comes to life and makes its way into our lives. There is almost no such thing as a natural hit. Many of the best loved songs of all time sat around unsuccessful for often years, passed over from performer to performer. Many of the best known songs of the past five decades were remakes of unsuccessful or unexploited records. The list includes Nilsson’s “Without You” (originally recorded by Badfinger), Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (originally by the Arrows), The Dave Clark Five’s “Over and Over” (Bobby Day), Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody” (Frank Sinatra), Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” (Jackie DeShannon), George Harrison’s “I’ve Got My Mind Set on You” (James Ray), Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” (Dennis Linde), Elvis’ “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame” (Del Shannon), Glenn Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” (Larry Weiss), The Drifters’ “On Broadway” (The Cookies), The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” (Richard Berry), Dion’s “Drip Drop” (The Drifters), Fats Domino’s “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” (Bobby Mitchell), Natalie Cole’s “Pink Cadillac” (Bruce Springsteen), Lee Ann Rimes’ “Blue” (Bill Mack), Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes) and literally dozens upon dozens of others.

Then there is a large group of songs that met with limited success with one particular audience and then months or years later became much bigger hits with the pop audience. The list includes Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” from 1956, a three chart topper that three years before was an R&B hit for Big Mama Thornton; Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” from 1967, a 1965 R&B Top Ten and minor pop hit for Otis Redding in 1965; Dion’s “Ruby Baby”, a 1963 pop and R&B smash that the Drifters took into the R&B Top Ten in 1956; Whitney Houston’s mega smash “I Will Always Love You”, a remake of a then 18-year-old Dolly Parton’s Country Chart Topper.

In nearly all these recordings, the songs were resurrected to success or greater success by the performers. They believed in the songs. They used the songs for something they wanted to say and, in nearly every case, the new performers made radical adjustments to the composition to tailor it to their vision. Aretha’s “Respect” changes Redding’s tempo and instrumental attack and interpolates a lyrical improvisation on the finale that completely upends the song. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/ Find out what it means to me.” His record is about a man who at least wants his wife to show him respect when he comes home from work even if she doesn’t show it elsewhere. Aretha’s is a near feminist anthem.

Aretha Franklin – “Respect”

Presley does a similar alteration to the Thornton song. He accelerates the tempo, incorporates lyrics from a second remake, eliminates lyrics from Thornton’s original, screams the lyric where Thornton used a traditional blue shout, and adds a loud distorted guitar, furious drum rolls, and a strident vocal harmony that make the record a noise more than a song.

Nilsson and Whitney Houston turned intimate pieces into arias. The star of Houston’s record in particular was her astounding vocal bombast. Carnes and her producer Val Carey slowed the tempo of “Bette Davis Eyes” and drowned the song in synthesizer riffs that made the lyrics, wryly ironic in Jackie DeShannon’s country rock original, seem ominous.

The Vision of the Performer

All of these records were tributes to the vision of the performer. His or her or their alterations made the song popular. They used the song to express something they felt strongly about even if it was in contrast with the writer’s original points.

The failure to understand this is one of the reasons that the performer does not get credit, particularly the singer. Many, many fans I’ve spoken to actually believe, as do some writers, that the great pop singers are merely glorified karaoke singers. Only in pop music do we assess greatness by multi-tasking. Multi-taskers or not, the best singers are the authors of their greatest moments.

All the greatest singers generally choose their own material. They are not empty vessels into which a song is being dumped. They don’t just make it seem pretty. The song is the vehicle they use to express themselves through singing. When they sing a song, the song often functions to highlight what they can say with their voices. When Aretha is laying herself out on something like “I Say a Little Prayer”, what matters is the sound and feeling of her singing. Listen to Dion turn the phrase “Here’s the moral of the story from a guy who knows” from “Runaround Sue” into a single mysterious word “heresthemoralofastoryfromaguywhoknows.” It’s not the words but the flow of words out of Dion’s mouth that matters.

A singer like Sinatra would ask for certain sections of songs to be re-written with a specific objective in mind. A prime example is his recording of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Sinatra found one of the verses too bleak for the mood he wanted to create and commissioned a lighter rewrite.

Presley was famous for his tempo and mood changes. He also had no compunction about deviating from a song’s lyric sheet, usually shearing pieces off redundant lyrics or verses that contradicted with his vision. Further a Presley mumble or a Sinatra highlight could often add multiple meanings to a song in the same way that a Marlon Brando added depth to the lines he spoke in his movies. They can add or eliminate ambiguity. Many writers have noted that Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock”, for instance, hints at homosexuality because of the line about “Number 47 said to 3″/”You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see” as prison are not sexually integrated. Whether that was a mere concession by the song’s writers to then current market place where songs with a romantic angle played best, or a or a joke on that market, doesn’t matter because Presley performs the line with such ferocity. (Some of his phrasing actually obliterates a pure phonetic understanding of a lot of the song.) The thunder of his singing means you can blow right past any contradiction. By the same token, you can embrace it because the way Elvis sings “Jailhouse Rock” means all bets are off. Critic Dave Marsh said “For Elvis (at least during the fifties) every situation was charged with enormous sexual/musical energy, with little need to discriminate between one and the other.”

That’s the way the piece hits me. Presley makes the phrase “Let’s Rock” revolutionary advice. It’s an invitation to a world where anything can happen and sexual preference is only one of dozens of new choices open to us. When other singers sing it, it’s a standard party song. With Presley, it’s an invitation to anarchy or at least near limitless freedom. What the Sex Pistols needed to spell out in words with “Anarchy in the UK” Presley demonstrates with his singing.

Elvis Presley – “Jailhouse Rock”

Many great singers also control aspects other than their vocals. A singer like Sinatra would not only choose songs and commission songwriters to pen material, he would also choose conductors, producers and arrangers to help him achieve the vision he wanted to achieve. When he wasn’t getting what he wanted, he was known to conduct an orchestra himself.

Similarly, Presley was known to lead and direct his bands with body motions during his performances. Presley would also decide on the various elements that would be included on his recordings. Like Sinatra, Presley was not afraid to delegate. The Jordanaires, for instance, would generally work up their own backings. Whether or not that arrangement would appear on a Presley recording or whether the group itself would be used on a track was up to the singer.

The totality of the recording was the point, with the song as only one component. The sound made its own points. This is not a trivial elevation of style over substance. The idea that somehow sound does not have value is unique to the appreciation of pop music. This is mostly due to the unfair elevation of lyrics. Since Dylan, it’s been necessary for an artist to not only be a musician, but also a poet (not that most pop lyrics work as straight poetry). You have to make a lyrical statement. This has led to a lot of bad lyrics (in an attempt to obtain that significance) but it has also led to an appreciation of music out of tune with the rest of the art. Fans of classical music appreciate the pieces of the masters without the use of lyrics. Fans of free form jazz accept that the improvisations of the musicians are more important than any individual composition and that a horn player or guitarist can express themselves through the sounds created by his or her playing. This is not to make a one to one connection between these musical forms as there are differences in the overall aesthetics, but the lack of lyrics does not indicate a lack of depth in any of these forms.

The art of album making allows performers another opportunity to express themselves. When Sinatra made his series of great concept albums, he not only expressed himself through each individual song, but within the collection of songs and the order in which those songs were presented. The collection means as much or more as any individual performance and that collection would not exist in the way it does without the recording artist.

Many times songwriters work with producers and composers to create work that suits them. The songs are specifically designed for their talents and often in accord with their world views. For instance, Steve Binder, who produced Presley’s 1968 television comeback special, has often recalled the origin of Presley’s hit “If I Can Dream.” Presley and Binder were looking for a way to end the show. The two had discussed Elvis’ dismay over the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Binder was struck by the conversation and ordered W. Earl Brown, a songwriter working on the show, to come up with a song incorporating Presley’s concern to use as the finale to the show. So even though Presley did not write the song, his viewpoint was expressed in its composition. This enabled him to run rough shod over some of the song’s hokier lyrics when he delivered it.

In a different type of example, when Dionne Warwick worked in collaboration with Hal David and Burt Bacharach they would often write specifically for her voice and range. They valued her opinion on composition and did their best to accommodate her desires just as she did her best to meet the challenges their melodies and lyrics would provide. Both men have stated on the record that their work with Warwick was a true collaboration. The records they made together bear the mark of all three personalities.

This is actually a very common situation in producer-performer partnerships. Even within a more producer dominant relationship like the Motown producers had, there were performers whose views and talents informed the writing. Many of the Four Tops records are lyrically and melodically darker than their Motown contemporaries. This is because of the deep baritone and melodramatic delivery of lead singer Levi Stubbs. Stubbs’ voice and the snap of his group’s harmonic arrangements, not only expanded the songwriting of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, but also provided the trio with additional inspiration as producers. The Four Tops records feature instrumentation- like the flute that opens “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”- and effects that separate them from other Motown records of the mid-60s. Holland-Dozier-Holland’s brilliant work with the Supremes seems almost conventional in comparison.

The Four Tops – “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”

Popular singers also get dismissed because, since many of them cannot read music, they learn songs by demonstration records. Those demonstration records are just used to let the singer learn the tune. The singers often stray from the arrangements, lyrics and phrasing of the demos. Even when they stay close to the demos, it’s a conscious decision because the demos are often done in their style. Even the demo reflects them. You can see this in the Presley session tapes. He is not merely aping the demos even when the finished version is close to the demo. In a case like “Viva Las Vegas” Presley tried something different only to eventually find his way back to the conception on the demo.

When a Presley, a Sinatra, a Franklin, a Warwick, etc. is featured at their best, they are amongst the deepest and most profound of popular artists. Their work is a lot more than glorified karaoke.

Producers and Collaborators

This piece has focused on singers, but it does not mean to exclude producers who often have an equal or greater influence on the sound of records. The best producers work in a manner akin to film directors with the song used as a script. They are astute in assessing the songs that will work with which artist. They often pick the bands and musicians that will play on the records. If they do not arrange the tracks themselves, they choose the arrangers. They decide what effects will be on the record, what instruments will appear.

This was the essence of Phil Spector’s vision. He took simple teen songs and gave them a symphonic grandeur by plying piles of instruments and the use of echo to create what he called a “wall of sound.” A track like “He’s a Rebel”, which he didn’t have a hand in writing, bears his mark just as much as “Be My Baby” which he did. You can tell a Phil Spector record instantly when you hear it on the radio.

Some dismiss rap producers as not creators because they often use pieces of existing records or “samples” to make their points. Sometimes, as in Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You”, the process is basically just a song remake (in this case of the Police’s “Every Breath I Take”). However, in many cases where a producer hits on a good groove, the samples serve as additional instruments. At its best, in the hands of a Timbaland or a Dr. Dre or Jay Z, it can be the height of sound collage.

That the great producers often work in tandem with the great singers is one of the reasons that both parties see their work dismissed. As Marsh pointed out in his book “The Heart of Rock & Soul”, if most people are uncomfortable with the idea of performance as creation, they are equally uncomfortable with the idea of collaborative creation. People love their lone geniuses. But, to paraphrase Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston and later Rob Base and E-Z Rock, it often takes two (or more) to make things go right/it takes two to make it out of sight.

Not Always What They Seem to Be

If fans don’t understand the fact that a singer and or producer (who often work in tandem) are creators, they equally overestimate the mere act of composition. While to write at the level of Bob Dylan, or Cole Porter, or Lennon and McCartney is indeed an amazing achievement, the very act of creation of a pop song is not all that difficult. A song like the legendary “Land of 1000 Dances” consists of two chords (one as done by some artists), a repetitive but catchy chant, and a list of popular dances. It’s inspired but it’s not the roof of the Sistine Chapel here. Again, this is not to dismiss the difficulty of writing a good or a great song, but there’s nothing that especially makes the act of putting a lyric to a sketch of a melody especially impressive in and of itself. If Irving Berlin broke down “Louie Louie” he would be horrified at its crudity. The lyrics here were so unimportant in the Kingsmen release that singer Jack Ely just mumbled his way through certain passages because he didn’t even know the words. The record is immortal though because it contains a great riff (thanks to songwriter Richard Berry), a wild guitar solo and because of Ely’s mumbles. The obscurity of Ely’s phrasing makes the potentially mundane lyric seem provocative, or in the eyes of many politicians – obscene.

Many pop songs, especially rock and blues, are built around a few consistently used chord progressions. Composers often mildly modify one of these progressions and add a new lyric. This is why so many pop songs echo others. Listen to John Mellencamp’s
“R-O-C-K in the USA” and Neil Diamond’s “Thank the Lord for the Night Time”, or John Fogerty’s “Rock and Roll Girls” and the Rebels’ “Wild Weekend” for examples of what I mean.

Sometimes songwriters rewrite themselves. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil have commented that they never thought much of their piece “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration” because they thought it was a sideways repeat of their “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” Yet, it was a #1 hit, and today it is one of the Righteous Brothers’ best loved songs. The reason for that is partly because even sideways “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” is quite a song, but mostly because of Bill Medley’s production and the Righteous Brothers’ powerful delivery.

The Righteous Brothers – “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration”

Some of the great Motown songs like “It’s the Same Old Song” simply flat out repeat a melody (“I Can’t Help Myself” in this case), with new lyrics. Again, production and performance make up the difference. Chuck Berry often did the same thing.

Additionally, many well known songs do not have any single author. They are melodies and lyrics passed down for generations and adapted and changed by singers and writers in each era. Many of the compositions attributed to Leadbelly were like this. This does not mean Leadbelly did not personalize these songs but he didn’t create them out of whole cloth.

A lot of well known pop, folk, blues and gospel songs are really re-workings of traditional themes, even though a pop performer’s name is on them. Ray Charles’ “Leave My Alone” is a barely disguised secular version of the traditional gospel number “Let That Liar Alone” recorded by the Carter Family and the Golden Gate Quartet, among others. Charles’ lyrics merely replace the religious references with secular ones. He even adheres closely to the original song’s rhyme scheme. The recording and many of Charles’ other forays into these waters – “I Got a Woman”, “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” and “This Little Girl of Mine”- remain triumphs. But, what is radical is not the composition; it’s interpretation. The blasphemy of transforming the Lord’s lyric into sin, the absolute heresy of using the same intensity of performance on both styles thereby firmly underlining the sexual connotations in intense gospel singing.

If some songs aren’t exactly the most original visions in the world, other songs are not meant to be entities in and of themselves. Many of the great performers and producers wrote songs or had songs written with the intent of slotting them into a particular performance style. Again, the recording was the goal and the song was but a small, but important piece. Roy Orbison and his early songwriting partner Joe Melson tailored their pieces specifically to Orbison’s vocal delivery and range. They wrote the song knowing how it would sound as an Orbison recording. This may be why, “Crying” aside, Orbison’s great ballads are so rarely covered or covered successfully.

On the other hand, a song tailored for performance can fool a lot of people, if it is seamlessly incorporated into the recording. Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” for instance is oft-covered. Most of the time, it comes off cutesy and strained. Critics wrongfully write it off as one of Cooke’s weaker pop tunes, almost a sell out because of this. However, the reason so many performers cover it is because its true beauty is evident only in Cooke’s original recording. The song is not meant to stand without Cooke’s gospel wail that makes the word “cry” an action not a word, a mournful and lovely French Horn and (Cooke protégés) the Simms’ Brothers emulating the sound of a moving arrow with their voices. The element of helplessness, only hinted at in the song’s lyric, floats to the top. In this context, a more mature lyric would be too harsh. The melody, which seems to bounce, a simple hum, in other versions, floats in this arrangement. Every element balances another. Cooke’s singing, the French Horn, and the strings create an atmosphere of mourning. The lightness of the lyric and the Simms Brothers’ vocal sound effect keep things from getting too dark. You have a simple catchy song with a novelty hook, a piece of commerce. As one element of a great recording, it’s a foundation of a work of art.

Sam Cooke – “Cupid”

That last point could apply to the majority of pop recordings and it is something that needs to be appreciated by the greater whole of the pop audience. As I wrote previously, I don’t mean to dismiss the work of songwriters especially the great ones. They contribute a unique and valuable independent art form. However, the best performers and producers have created similarly memorable art often out of a sow’s ear. What they do is just as difficult and arguably more important because it functions as the center of popular expression.

We’ve had decades of worshipping the songwriter as sole creator and look what’s it wrought us: Bad records by writers who can’t sing, bad songs by singers who can’t write, and in many circumstances bad music elevated over stuff a normal human being would appreciate. So, the next time some dope at work tries to tell you that Jon Bon Jovi is a greater artist than Dionne Warwick because he writes his own stuff, or that Warwick could never be the artist that Pink Floyd was, fight back with the arguments I made here.

Sources and references


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