Tag Archives: The Shirelles

Holiday harmonies, part 4: You Really Got a Hold on Me – The Beatles

With a straight face, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame inducted the Manhattan Transfer before The Beatles.* Really.

So absurd is the scale of The Beatles’ achievements within popular music that we sometimes put them in a box by themselves, lest we be unfair to everyone else by making comparisons. We talk about, say, Don McLean and James Taylor as singer-songwriters without acknowledging that, by any meaningful definition, John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and for that matter Stevie Wonder and James Brown) were singer-songwriters too. But Lennon and McCartney were Beatles, which makes them somehow other, a category unto themselves.

We’ve got the big picture right – they are incomparable within popular music. But our judgement of them is skewed in favour of the huge obvious masterpieces. Of course we bow down in awe before Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Tomorrow Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, Hey Jude and so on. Who wouldn’t? But The Beatles would have belonged to the ages if they’d never made another record after A Hard Day’s Night.

One of the chief pleasures of listening to The Beatles’ early records is to hear them tearing through styles and genres, delivering precociously accurate yet idiosyncratic takes on each of them, then moving on to the next thing. Girl group pop. Bakersfield country. Hollywood musicals. Hard R&B. They could do everything. As much as they were the originators of much of what we talk about when we talk about rock and pop music, The Beatles were the world’s greatest human jukebox, their ability to assimilate and mimic styles of pop honed in sweaty late-night gigs in Hamburg clubs and adrenalised lunch-time sets at the Cavern.

Lennon and McCartney had the two greatest rock ‘n’ roll voices Britain has ever produced, both of them with enough acid in their throats to strip paint off the wall if they so chose. Yet they could harmonise like angels too, switching from one to the other with the sort of ease most singers would kill for.

Probably only McCartney could tell you what sparked the band’s collective interest in harmony singing. We know that he and Lennon were practised Everly Brothers imitators in their teens, and that hints of that influence are audible throughout their work, up to Let it Be, where they recorded Two of Us explicitly in the Phil-&-Don style. But the dominant influence vocally on The Beatles’ first few albums are The Shirelles and Smokey Robinson & the Miracles.

Boys, a 1960s Shirelles single that The Beatles covered on Please Please Me with Ringo on lead vocal, features Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison singing three-part harmonies in call and response with Starr (in a dead-on recreation of the original arrangement). It’s huge fun, and all four throw themselves into it excitedly. It’s probably the least self-conscious, most satisfying vocal Ringo ever sang, and shows a band forthcoming about its influences.

You Really Got a Hold on Me is something else again. Recorded not much more than six months after Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ own version, it sees Lennon and Harrison singing the verses with McCartney joining in on the high third part (taken on the original by Claudette Rogers) in the choruses. The rhythm section on the Miracles’ record is slightly more subtle than the Beatles were, but not by much, and this impression may just be because of the relative lack of low end on the Beatles’ early records. Vocally, though, Lennon’s lead is hugely impressive technically and emotionally, and McCartney and Harrison are magnificent in support. Lennon would probably not have accepted the compliment, as he was always rather insecure about his singing voice, but he’s every bit as good as Smokey was on the original.

If you don’t know the Beatles’ early albums, do check them out. The singles (which you can get on the Red album, or Past Masters Vol. 1 or the newly remastered and re-released 1) aren’t the whole story by a long way. Their first few records (everything up to Beatles For Sale) showcase the band’s full, enormously wide, musical range. As such, they are full of great harmony vocal performances, on both the original material and the covers. The couple of songs I’ve talked about just happen to be among my favourites.

Of course, the band’s other achievements are so vast that we just consider their harmony vocals as a mere facet of what they did, but among everything else they did and were and represent, The Beatles are one of pop music’s finest harmony singing groups.

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*Six years before, in fact. Because the ability to travesty Edith Piaf and sing “ra-da-da-da-da” in perfect unison is presumably a greater achievement then anything the Beatles did.

 

 

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Will You Love Me Tomorrow – Ronnie & the Prophets (Gerry Goffin, 1939-2014)

Gerry Goffin, lyricist, died on Thursday. He was 75. With his first wife, Carole King, Goffin co-wrote some of the finest popular songs of all time: Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Natural Woman, Up on the Roof, Wasn’t Born to Follow, and many more. As such, he was one of the key architects of pre-Beatles pop.

Plenty of people have sung Will You Love Me Tomorrow, and the song has proven adaptable to any number of treatments: the Shirelles’ original paired Shirley Owens’s vulnerable vocal with a perky backing track; Carole King’s own version pared it down to piano and vocal; Dave Mason from Traffic layered phased acoustic guitars and organ over a half-time feel; the Four Seasons’ take on the song is quite, quite mad (diminished chords, incredibly ornate harmonies, electric sitar, verses consisting of single bass notes/bass drum, with a cavernous echo); Laura Branigan’s went for melodrama, taking it even more slowly than King did on Tapestry and underpinning her skyscraping vocal with 1980s synth pad and slightly ersatz gospel piano. I could go on

All of these recordings have their merits. The song is damn near indestructible, after all, and contains maybe the best lyric Gerry Goffin ever wrote. But none of them have what I think of as the song’s ideal arrangement. Shirley Owens’s vocal is certainly one of the best, but the emotion of her performance is undercut by the sha-la-las and the bouncy piano and drums. King sang her own song already knowing it was a classic, and it shows; the tempo is on the draggy side of stately and, being blunt, her voice was never up to the task. Mason is somewhat oleaginous, although his arrangement (half-time verse, double-time bridge) was definitely on to something.

So whose version to listen to, if you only have room in your life for one?

Maybe Ronnie James Dio’s?

Don’t laugh.

Ronnie James Dio, heavy-metal vocalist known for popularising the devil-horns hand gesture, lead singer of Rainbow, Black Sabbath and Dio, began his career in music in the 1950s as a trumpeter, then a doo-wop singer with a buttery tenor. One of the best-known yarlers in the business, Dio was capable of singing beautifully if the mood took him, and when he sang Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1962 with his band Ronnie & the Prophets, he sang it about it as well as anyone ever has. It’s a simple recording, not much more than a demo, but stripping down the arrangement of the Shirelles’ original gave the vocal more space (without having to slow the tempo) and allowed the words to resonate. In response, Dio delivered a quite lovely performance. I would really love to have a high-quality version of it, as the one I have sounds like it’s been taken straight from an acetate, or at best a much-played 7-inch. Just don’t think of the Holy Diver video while listening to it, or it’ll spoil the effect somewhat.

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Ronnie James Dio and his Prophets