Tag Archives: Jerry Wexler

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 3

6) Beware of Darkness – George Harrison

There are still people in this world – people without functioning ears, I assume – who labour under the misapprehension that Ringo Starr wasn’t a good drummer. Lennon’s joke in an interview that Ringo wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles hasn’t helped his reputation amongst non-musicians (and people who don’t understand irony), but even though Lennon’s humour could be cruel, this wasn’t what he intended when he made the crack, I’m sure – after all, who is the drummer on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band?

The former Beatles were prize catches for any session player in the early 1970s and as much as Lennon obviously respected and trusted Ringo’s musicianship, it was only natural that after 10 years with the same guys, the ex-Beatles would look to cast their nets a little wider when making their own albums, play with other people, see what others could contribute to their songs. Such was their colossal reputations, to get a nod from a Beatle and get to play on a song would establish the musician’s own rep among his peers. Alan White was not a ‘name’ when he played on Instant Karma but, impressed by him, soon Lennon introduced him to George Harrison and so White was added to the pool of drummers who appear on All Things Must Pass, along with Jim Gordon, former Delaney & Bonnie sideman, and a member of the nascent Derek & the Dominoes at the time of the All Things Must Pass sessions.

Added to this short and august list is Ringo Starr. Playing Guess the Drummer is one of the greatest pleasures of Harrison’s solo debut. You often need acute ears to tell the three apart, which speaks to the adaptability of the trio, their ability to inhabit the music, to put themselves at the music’s service.

At a brisker tempo (say, on Wah-Wah), Ringo’s playing starts to feel more identifiably Ringo-esque, but on Beware of Darkness, you could be listening to Jim Keltner, to Russ Kunkel, or to anyone else who built their career in the seventies on being able to play slow four-four grooves that swing rather than plod. There is so much more to Ringo Starr than splashy open hi-hats and backwards fills. Listen to Beware of Darkness. Listen to Ringo’s groove, the spaces he leaves for the music to breathe, listen to fills he plays, the emotional responses he’s having to the song when he plays them. You’re listening to the most important drummer in popular music.

Ringo

7) Careless Whisper – George Michael

Those who know me best know I’m not averse to a little bit of cheese in a good ballad. For many people, Careless Whisper goes too far. Maybe it’s the lyrics, maybe the saxophone riff, maybe George’s Princess Diana hair in the video, but it’s too much for them.

For me, though, it’s fine. More than fine. It’s one of the best records of its type. A key reason why is the drum track, played by Trevor Morrell, who was one of George Michael’s go-to guys in the Wham! days. Morrell is a very steady timekeeper with a good feel and who (according to the Posies Ken Stringfellow, who a few years ago chanced upon him while producing a record in Spain and ended up bringing him into the session) gives the drums a surprisingly hard battering.

There’s a lot to learn about the success of Careless Whisper as a recording by listening to the Jerry Wexler-produced version, which was shelved by an unhappy Michael but eventually released as a B-side. Jerry Wexler producing a soulful ballad by a great singer in Muscle Shoals – this had been a recipe for success for 30 years before Careless Whisper, yet when you listen to the two versions, it’s clear why Michael nixed the first one and chose to start again, producing it himself.

The rhythm track is a key difference. It just doesn’t feel very good. In the key early bars, the bassist is ahead of the kick drum, and while they feel their way into it by the first chorus, I’m surprised the take was judged to pass muster without editing in a new first verse. But even if they had been super-tight, the drum track would still have been inferior to the Michael-produced version. Wexler’s version has the kick drum and bassist playing this:

beats    1     &     2     &     3     &     4     &

kick       x                     x      x

bass     x                      x     x

Whereas the Careless Whisper we know and love is this:

beats    1     &     2     &     3     &     4     &

kick       x                         x  x

bass     x                      x     x

Small difference in terms of what is played, huge difference in terms of how it feels.

Another simple decision, to have 16th notes on the hi-hat rather than 8th, thus giving the song a greater sense of internal propulsion, was the other factor that made the drum track, and hence made the record. I’m not sure whether they were doubled on a drum machine for the second version, as a hi-hat pulse is present under the opening fill (which would require more hands I imagine Morrell has), but the difference the double-time hats make is plain. Morrell pushes Careless Whisper along while never forcing things, never stepping on Michael’s turf (or the saxophonist’s). Some of his fills, too, are inspired – I really like the big floor tom-and-snare build-up Morrell plays at around 4.35 as he goes out of the tricksy groove with displaced snare strokes back to the main groove. My guess is that he was having a bit of fun, assuming the track (or at least the radio mix) would have faded out already but his off-the-cuff fills felt so good that Michael decided to keep the whole thing for the unedited version. Good decision, George.

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Rainy Night in Georgia – Brook Benton

When you’re listening to a song about somewhere, your reaction to it is inevitably coloured by whether you know the place in real life. And by how well you know it. To appreciate some songs maybe it’s better not to know somewhere too well, but just to have an idea of it. Songs glorifying London don’t work on me – I’ve lived there, worked there, studied there. I know it too well. I can get sentimental about places where important things have happened to me. I can smile at the memories of little backwaters I can pretend to myself only I know about. I can appreciate the little details noticed and included by a writer who knows whereof they sing. But for the most part, any song that finds romance in London isn’t aimed at me.

New York, though – that’s another matter. I eat up songs about New York. Never been there. One day I might, although I do worry that no version could ever be as good as the one put in my head by Odyssey’s Native New Yorker. Nothing could be that good, that sophisticated, streetwise, worldly. Certainly I couldn’t.

Laurel Canyon, Woodstock, Maxwell Street, Beale Street – I have ideas and images about all these places that songs put there. Georgia, too, a place that has done pretty well by songwriters, as perhaps any state that has given the world James Brown, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, Otis Redding, OutKast, the Allman Brothers and R.E.M. should do.

Of course, Rainy Night in Georgia has become a standard since Tony Joe White wrote it in 1962. It had to. A cynical soul might conclude that it was designed to. It’s a song you hear often, tackled by singers great and indifferent. And Rod Stewart, too. In Britain, it seems, you’re likely to hear Randy Crawford’s 1981 version, with its plastic backing. You might hear Brother Ray’s over-egged, rather hammy version. You certainly won’t hear Tennessee Ernie Ford’s sepulchral country-baritone rendition (it’s great, though!). But the one you want to hear – and too seldom do – is the 1970 Jerry Wexler-produced recording by Brook Benton that popularised the song in the first place.

Benton had had number-one R&B hits in 1959 and 1960, and Rainy Night saw him return to the top of the R&B charts a decade later, still only 39, but with a more authoritative gravelly voice, perfect for the late-hour weariness of this kind of material.

There’s always a danger when a singer gets hold of a standard (or one in waiting) that in trying to rise to the material, they become stilted, mannered and singerly. Perhaps because the song was still just Rainy Night in Georgia and not yet Rainy Night in Georgia that Benton’s performance retains a predominantly soft-voiced intimacy, quite the best vocal anyone who’s tried to tackle the song has delivered.

Image

Brook Benton