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SELECTIVE 113; JANUARY 1950

 
 

 

Say what you will about rock ‘n’ roll’s artistic qualities… criticize the importance it has always placed on image… rail against its sometime limited ambitions… and scoff all you want about its reputation as disposable music that hops on and off trends like a streetcar, but no matter your view on the aesthetic value of rock music there’s one thing that nobody can question…

It’s got balls.

Whether or not that’s always a good thing however is up for debate, as this B-side by a novice group demonstrates by covering a song that had just come out by perhaps the most revered female singer in history, Billie Holiday.

Then again Lady Day was the kind of gal who seemed to appreciate those who, through ignorance or arrogance, had big enough balls to do something that couldn’t possibly turn out well for them.
 

 

This Love Affair
When going by the usual standards of record sales and radio airplay, Billie Holiday was never close to being the biggest star in music. She had just one moderate sized hit after 1942 and by this point in time was probably far more infamous for the tumultuous life she’d led than for her music.

But in terms of impact and influence there were few singers, if any outside of Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong, who could hold a candle to Billie Holiday in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Her improvisational style was revolutionary, treating her voice as if it were an instrument and changing the dynamics of how songs were approached by vocalists forever after. As such the esteem she was held in by her peers was almost unmatched.

Her catalog of songs is a veritable goldmine of exquisite performances, from the smash hit Trav’lin Light to the delicately tender Lover Man. Though not a prolific songwriter she was a superlative lyricist when she put pen to paper, giving the world such gems as Fine And Mellow and her most legendary composition, God Bless The Child, showing that she had far more creative input than many of her more acclaimed contemporaries.

Meanwhile few songs ever had the notoriety of her signature number, Strange Fruit, a gut-wrenching performance that lays bare the racism that was commonplace in the South, a song that was so incendiary for the time that Columbia wouldn’t even let her record it, which meant she was forced to cut it for the small Commodore label who didn’t have the means to promote or distribute it, costing her a potential hit in the process. Yet the song became so renowned anyway that people flocked to clubs to hear her deliver the achingly dramatic showstopper night after night, almost making it a form of audience voyeurism.

By 1950 her legend was secure but she’d endured a particularly rough past few years. Arrested for drug possession in 1947 and sentenced to prison she made a triumphant return upon her release the next year, playing Carnegie Hall to rapturous acclaim before being busted for drugs a second time in early 1949. Though acquitted in June on those charges Decca seemed to be taking no chances at losing her again and had her in for five sessions over a two month span from mid-August to mid-October.

Though for the most part they weren’t quite up to her usual standards the results seemed to improve each time out and it was the floridly arranged Please Tell Me Now from that last session in October which the young rock vocal group The Flames decided – or had decided for them by Selective Records – to try and tackle.
 

Must I Go On Wondering?
There are two ways to look at this record aside from merely seeing it as pure folly. The first way, and surely the manner in which most rock fans coming into this nowadays will do, is to just take it straight, no chaser. In other words, hit play and evaluate it on its own merits, disregarding its origins and the style in which Holiday delivered it.

In that sense this probably won’t fare very well. There’s too much pop airiness in the vocal arrangement as lead singer Bobby Byrd sings in a breathy tenor that’s not his strongest suit. The accompaniment is hardly adventurish either as a guitar is playing discreet and hardly invigorating fills after each line to add little melodic twists to the song while a waltzing piano chiming in with faintly audible parts meant to emulate the barest of rhythms to keep it progressing forward. But do we get an actual rhythm section or any mood-shifting solos by that guitar? Don’t be silly, of course not.

Therein lies its problem. The song basically rolls over and plays dead. The melody is fairly good, the lyrics aren’t bad, but even if you DIDN’T know where it came from you surely know it wasn’t something meant for your sensibilities as a rock fan.

In that way it’s just another slap in the face from the music industry which seems to think – with absolutely no corroborating evidence to prove their instincts had any basis in fact – that it would be a group’s ability to maximize pop appeal which would give them the greatest odds of success. God forbid ever being content focusing on stoking our interests and trusting that the rock constituency, whose dollar bills are every bit as green as the adult pop listener, would gladly hand that money over if our tastes were given the respect and attention they deserve.

So with that indignity staring us in the face we’re ready to cast this record aside, giving it not much more thought than if they’d released as the B-side an argument over whether to have tuna fish for bologna for lunch.

But if you did know its source and the sheer improbability of it being done with any conviction, let alone any artistic merits of its own, that might allow you to see this differently. It may even let you consider Please Tell Me Now to be a rather ambitious experiment, albeit not necessarily a successful one if judging it strictly by rock’s own evolving benchmarks.
 

You Never Said You’d Be Mine
Though we can all admit the decision itself wasn’t wise from the start, if they ARE going to try something like this it helps if they can at least do so in a way that adds something unique that wasn’t found in the style from which it came.

Now of course this is fraught with its own problems because in a strict match-up, regardless of approach, there were few singers who could compete with Billie Holiday when it came to vocal interpretation. That was her forté after all and Bobby Byrd on his best day couldn’t hope to be anything more than the stickpin that held Holiday’s trademark gardenia in her hair. So it’s going to fall to the overall arrangement to try and establish the stylistic shift they’re seeking on Please Tell Me Now in hopes that it’ll be enough to set this apart.

On Holiday’s original the arrangement is a tad mawkish, even for a pop-jazz setting that she was firmly entrenched in. Strings – which she had long desired – are heavy-handed, swirling around like the sound effects for cartoon birds in some Disney production of the time. But Holiday is typically sublime in her reading of it, effectively using a series of pauses at every turn to control the tempo and increase the anticipation for the payoff in the next lyric.

Obviously The Flames couldn’t – and shouldn’t – follow suit in those regards, but the question of how closely to stick the basic concept, or conversely how radically to deviate from it, would be what determined their fate.

To that end while the musical intro sounds as if the pianist was expecting Holiday herself to walk through the door of the studio, once Byrd enters in her place you’re somewhat pleased by how they actually try and bend the song to suit their needs.

Granted, Byrd is largely sticking to a tried and true approach of other vocal groups, emphasizing the emotional undercurrents by letting his voice swell at certain times and drop down to a breathy sigh at others, yet it’s these gimmicks that make it sound like a much different song than the one Holiday delivered. Byrd’s quavering effect at the start works well enough that you wish he kept it up longer and later on he shows his lack of reverence for the material by employing a gimmicky stutter for emphasis which is something that just wasn’t in the bag of tricks for a jazz chanteuse – and for good reason. But in rock that kind of attention getting maneuver is better appreciated, shallow though it may be.

Sadly their mistake is in not going far enough. They remained too respectful of the material in many ways, from Byrd’s open-throated over-enunciation on certain lines to the the mild accompaniment that does it no favors (imagine a sultry tenor sax solo thrown in to really change the mood), this cautious approach is what ultimately sinks it.
 

Don’t Keep Me Waiting
Maybe the best compliment we can give is that it doesn’t tarnish Holiday’s original in the process. They manage to inject just enough of their own persona into their reading of Please Tell Me Now to not be massacred for it (though surprisingly it was the most played record on Mary Dee’s show on WHOD in Homestead, Pennsylvania in late January, whatever that’s worth).

But then again what it doesn’t do is stake out much new ground for The Flames themselves, or for rock ‘n’ roll in general, and that’s where our generosity ends. Since they’d never be able to live up to the Billie Holidays of the world in her style the bigger problem is by wasting their time trying they’d eliminate any chance of establishing their own style for other rock acts down the road to have to live up to.

What The Flames should’ve considered is that while it’s one thing to be ballsy enough to cover this, it’s another to be smart enough not to try.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of The Flames for the complete archive of their records reviewed to date)