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DOT 1024; DECEMBER 1950

 
 

 

In what seems like about the 54th time we’ve covered the utter folly of the cover record trend that dominated music in the mid-Twentieth Century, we at least have a fairly new angle to criticize about it that becomes clear with this record as it’s the second release of Margie Day’s this very month.

That’s it, right there in case you missed it… the fact that in order to get a cover record of a hot song on the market as soon as possible when the many competing covers are all jockeying for position, record companies had to disrupt their entire release schedule just to make sure their version of some insipid tune was available while the original was still going strong.

So rather than let Day’s previous record have the floor to itself and get the distributors and jukebox operators focused on promoting it, they now are being asked to split their attention for this worthless garbage.

Yes, boys and girls, this was the so-called glory years of the record industry… a bunch of penny pinching thieves with hollow heads and no vision… it’s frankly amazing music itself survived their collective ineptitude all those years.
 

 

The Sweetest Man You Ever Did See
Let’s dispense with the entire history of the French Revolution and the broader reign of Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800’s and cut to the chase when it comes to the song we’re reviewing today by reminding you of just who Napoleon was and why he’d be deserving of a song that… mocks his skills in humorous fashion.

Just a reminder for those of you not paying paying attention in ancient history class Napoleon was reputedly one of the legitimately skilled military leaders of all-time who nevertheless had some astounding losses on his fight card including a full-scale disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 that found him drawn into Moscow just before winter fell, that saw his supply lines cut and the city burned to prevent him taking it, then forced to retreat through two feet of snow hundreds of miles back to the border.

He survived that rout and remained ruler of France only to see his empire crumble during an even greater defeat in Belgium a few years later in the Battle Of Waterloo in which after driving the British forces to the brink of surrender while the Dutch and Belgium armies were fleeing, the defending armies were joined by the Prussian IV Corps who dramatically turned the tide as they and the British began to drive back the weary French leading to a panicked retreat and ultimately total capitulation.

Napoleon abdicated the throne in the aftermath of his crushing loss and the massively successful French Revolution that had dominated world affairs for a quarter century ended in ignominious defeat.

Anyway, other than the title of the song, those famous events have little to do with the origins of Bonaparte’s Retreat when it became a popular fiddle tune years before Pee Wee King took the basic melody, slowed it down and wrote some insipid lyrics around the title about a love affair in which the fiddle song is referred to as the song being played during the rather dull drama taking place on a dance floor.

The next year Kay Starr, a very talented pop singer who had a natural comfort with country material, cut a hugely popular version of the song which zoomed up the charts and naturally led to additional covers (covers of the cover as it were), including this one by up and coming rock songstress Margie Day who with one hit under her belt and another surefire hit having just been released, did not need to stoop so low as to jump on this particular bandwagon.

But Dot Records begged to differ, so they hastily had her cut this and sent it out right on the heels of Little Red Rooster, sure they were going to reap the rewards of their daring advance into the pop realm. Instead like the subject of the song itself they wound up with an embarrassing loss on their hands when nobody chose it over Day’s far better originals.
 

Goodbye, My Guy
The song as written and performed by King is a stereotypical sound – fiddles, steel guitar and King’s accordion – with bare bones lyrics (a “lyrical refrain” is how the label refers to it) about meeting his dream girl at a dance who urges him to stay close to him once they’re together.

Unfortunately it ends there. We get no resolution which was a let down because a good one seemed rather obvious and so it was left to Starr herself to bring it to fruition the following year by adding a final refrain that has the boy (thanks to the gender switch necessitated by having a female sing it) leave her after telling her the same tripe that King’s girl told him about sticking together.

“He’s gone and I’ll admit I knew
That I had met my Waterloo
I knew that he would say adieu
With Bonaparte’s Retreat”

That last stanza frankly made the record, giving it both an historical relevance to its original source but also a humorous yet bittersweet twist that rewards you for paying attention throughout the song making it one of the truly great pop records of its time.

So that’s what Margie Day was asked to duplicate more or less and if anyone could theoretically bring something to the table in rock circles it would be her for she’s proven herself to be one of the best singers out there, not so much for her voice, which is good but nothing remarkable, but rather for her ability to inhabit the persona her songs require.

That’s where she seems to have put her foot down, for she’s either trying too hard to distance herself from Starr, whose brassy Dixieland styled trumpets had taken Bonaparte’s Retreat far away from the country idiom it began in, or else Day is just showing her utter contempt for the demand being made for her to risk sullying her reputation with such ill-advised songs as this.
 


 
 

While The Saxes Played
There are a few changes that Margie Day and The Griffin Brothers instituted on their rendition that stand out and are to be admired, even if the end results are still pretty dismal all things considered.

The first is how Day ad-libbed lyrics – or at least plotted them out to sound as if they were off-the-cuff – to point out the difference between her version and the others based on the musical personnel.

Rather than sing “When the fiddles played…” Bonaparte’s Retreat, she substitutes “saxes” (two different times) and “trombones” (once, leading into Jimmy Griffin’s trombone riffs), thereby highlighting her own band and the style of music they played… and for good measure it probably pissed off the pop fans who surely felt it desecrated the accepted lyrics.

The OTHER change she made is how she messed with the melody in two distinct ways. The first clearly came about because the tune is so locked in to that sing-songy pattern that she was just going to come off sounding like everybody else who tackled it – a number rapidly approaching double digits by now – so she added a sort of striptease tempo to it, her voice rising and falling, swelling and deflating, almost as if she were running down a checklist of technical attributes to make sure each one was in working order.

This of course doesn’t always work, though you at least like the brassy confidence she shows in treating the composition so disrespectfully. But there are vocal runs she makes that derail the song’s natural flow and whatever your thoughts on how inappropriate it was to have her cover this in the first place, the fact is the finished record does need to come off without hitches and her oddball choices tends to prevent that from happening.

But buried within this is the second sly nod to her own style as on the lead line in the chorus she’s clearly modeling her delivery on the way Ruth Brown sings the chorus to her current #1 smash Teardrops From My Eyes in the way in which she rises up before sliding back down on the words “and it’s RAIN-in teardrops from my eyes” which matches up nicely with Day’s “while the saxes PLAY-ed the Bonaparte’s Retreat”.

It’s subtle, but it’s definitely there and I’d like to think it was intended as a middle finger to Dot Records, pop music in general, Pee Wee King and for good measure Napoleon Bonaparte who had no comment on any of these songs since he had in fact died in 1820, sparing himself from more public humiliations like this.
 

I Tried… So Long
There’s two stories here, three if you want to include the one about the defeated ruler of France, that lead to far different conclusions.

The first is that Dot Records were already showing signs of the very thing that would make them financially successful in the mid-1950’s while completely destroying their musical credibility when they had a roster full of white pop acts cover black rock originals. Here the roles are reversed but the mindset is the same and it’s just as degrading now as it would be in the future. Rather than let artists chart their own course, they were out to simply capitalize on whatever seemed promising in the moment, making them no different than the pop labels they aspired to be.

The other story however is one with a bit more to recommend and that’s Margie Day’s refusal to bend completely to their will with Bonaparte’s Retreat, as she at least tried to make it unique to her and the band and more suitable to her growing audience in the rock kingdom.

But no matter how much she is to be applauded for that attempt the final product is still one most rock fans will wish to avoid for good reason. You might even say they’d be wise to follow ol’ Nappy’s lead and make a hasty retreat from this one.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Margie Day as well as The Griffin Brothers for the complete archive of their respective records reviewed to date)