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Thursday, October 2, 2008

GMVW # 39: "It's the Singer, Not the Song"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 39:  It’s the Singer, Not the Song
Song:  Withered and Died by Richard and Linda Thompson
(Songwriters: Richard and Linda Thompson)
October 2, 2008

Most everyone on this email list has experienced it at least once: My sister Amy’s singing at a wedding.  Here’s how the scene typically unfolds: Folks shuffle into the church, a variety of thoughts on their minds; perhaps some still have the taste of that last parking lot Bloody Mary on their lips; perhaps a few laughs about the idea of putting a ‘kick me’ sign on an uncle’s back at the reception; a few meets and greets for friends and extended family whom you have not seen in a while; and then suddenly….Amy starts singing! Everyone is immediately brought to the moment at hand.  It never fails, and there’s a reason for it.  I hope to explain it here.

In Gem # 15 I discussed the bass guitar, along with the songs and musicians that showcase that instruments potential.  Following up on the theme, this gem focuses on another musical ‘instrument’:  Lead Vocals.  In a way all the gems thus far are a testament to the lead singer, because as Pete Townshend once wrote:  “It’s the singer, not the song that makes the music move along”.  Fans of Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Billy Holliday probably know that better than most of us.  Vocals can make or break a song.

For me the lead vocal doesn’t have to dominate a band’s sound like it does in the music of the 4 singers listed above. I’m not looking for crooning, or shattering glass.  All I really need is balanced emotion, originality, and a few intangibles.  Even the cigarette ravaged vocals of Keith Richards can work on occasion (as in ‘Before They Make Me Run’, with a little help from Mick Jagger).  Yet, where other instruments in the mix can sometimes get away with the music for hire mentality (studio musicians have played on a number of great recordings over the years, walking in for the day, doing their part, and leaving) the one person in the band you cannot fill in with a studio musician is lead vocalist. 

Like other band members, the lead vocalist can take a while to find his/her sound.  I consider Roger Daltrey (and to a lesser degree John Entwistle) as the only member of the Who that was not gifted from the start with raw talent.  He had to work at it, and struggled for a while to carry his weight in the band.  By the time the Who went on tour in 1969 with ‘Tommy’, however (and even more so by the release of “Who’s Next” in ‘71), Daltrey had made himself irreplaceable.  The same could be said for Bob Weir with the Grateful Dead.

With most classic songs, the lead vocals just fit:  Great, but not dominant. Occasionally, however, the lead vocals are THE brilliant part of a song.  There’s Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Freddie’s Dead’ (from the ‘Superfly’ soundtrack);  any song by Joan Baez off the ‘Any Day Now’ album (and a thanks to Jeff Strause for introducing me to that album); Roger Daltrey’s fantastic vocals in the more recent Who song ‘Real Good Looking Boy’; Mick Jagger singing ‘Worried About You’ off the Stones ‘Tatoo You’; Van Morrison singing ‘You’re My Woman’, ‘Madame Joy’ and so many other songs; Roy Orbison near the end of his life singing ‘Not Alone Any More’; Robert Plant singing ‘Down by the Seaside’ off ‘Physical Graffiti’.

And then there’s Gem video of the week, ‘Withered and Died’, sung by Linda Thompson off the Richard and Linda Thompson critically-acclaimed early 70’s album “I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight”.  There is an amazing depth to this song, and it lies in Linda Thompson’s vocals.  Linda Thompson doesn’t electrify a crowd like the 4 singers mentioned near the top of this email, but she conveys emotion as good as any of them.  Ideally, I would have the studio version to present, because it is there where you get the true depth of her vocals to this song, reflecting the lyrics precisely.  The live version in this url link was performed in the early 80’s at a time when Linda Thompson was suffering from a form of stage fright which was soon to drive her from the stage for 17 years.  The Gem works to a degree, but I recommend the studio version off the album.

So, this gem is for all the inspirational vocal chords of the music world, and particularly to Amy, who sings to us with deep emotion at the most inspiring of times  ** In fact, if I had a home brewed video I would probably showcase Amy here (note to self: get nephew Joe on that one) **

- Pete

Gem Video: Withered and Died (this video has been temporarily lost *Dec, 09*)

I’ve also included a performance of the album’s title track:

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About the video: A rare video of Linda Thompson singing (with Richard & band) circa 1983? The video was removed from YouTube.

Video Rating: 2 (how I would love to find something better)

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Best Feedback: Amy, responding to a follow up question on songs (vocals) that inspire her:

Let's see.
Off the top of my head, these are some of my all-time favs.  I'm sure I'm leaving out quite a few:

Son of a Preacher Man, Aretha Franklin
Bobby McGee, Janis Joplin
What's the matter here - 10,000 maniacs
Under my thumb, Stones
Just like a woman, Dylan (entire tribute album)
Last Dance with MaryJane - Petty
Once in a very blue moon - Nanci Griffith
Sunday Papers, Joe Jackson
I Must Have done something good, Sound of Music
How to Handle a Woman, Camelot
Sister Golden Hair, America
Famous Final Scene, Bob Seger Silver Bullet Band
Pictures of You, Cure 
Catch, Cure
Cool, Gwen Stefani
Video, India Arie
Underneath it all, No Doubt
Stop your Sobbing, Pretenders
Pete, the Pretenders came out with a new cd.  I heard a song from it yesterday called "Chinese Plastic"  I almost went off the road, it was so cool.  Paul ordered it for me last night.

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