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Often it’s not the talent you have, but what you do with that talent which determines your lot in life.

Though the question posed in the song’s title is open ended, Varetta Dillard should’ve been asking why a rock artist like her was being framed by an arrangement taking her as far away from the genre she was aiming for by a company that was gradually losing its grip on the current music scene.

But as always in these cases, there are no sensible answers, just more questions.


The Story Will Be Over
Over the next decade Varetta Dillard will have a few hits to her name and even now a handful of her songs are at least recognizable titles to those with an interest in the era in question, so her career is hardly inconsequential… but she was never a star.

That’s not to say she was somebody who was a constant disappointment, but Dillard certainly didn’t fulfill her potential, largely because she – or more accurately, those around her – could never decide who she was.

If you’re looking to blame someone, here’s a suggestion… try Lee Magid, the guy who discovered Dillard at the famed amateur night competition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and got her signed to Savoy where he worked as a producer.

Though he had some success over the years, Magid was seemingly unsure of which direction to point Dillard and rather than let her find her own voice he kept trying to get her to replicate the voice of other bigger names, from Ruth Brown to Margie Day to Faye Adams, thereby robbing her of an authentic identity in the process.

If Dillard had a been left to follow her own muse then her vocal on Please Tell Me Why wouldn’t be a bad direction to head, as she proves she’s got vocal talent to spare and the knowledge of how to best utilize it.

But while the singing choices are definitely her own and are worthy of praise, the aforementioned producer winds up sinking her stellar performance by placing her in a smoky jazz club motif rather than a rock setting where she could’ve really shined.


It’s So Simple, Dear
The voice itself jumps out of the speakers at you but first it has to fight its way through the sappy horns with their curly-cue lines and delicate tinkling piano, all of which suggests somebody’s idea of elegance… which is another way to suggest that rock fans might want to pass this by.

We won’t of course, not just because we like poking holes in the pretentions of record company producers who don’t know what they’re doing, but also because Varetta Dillard has already suffered enough without us coming along and ignoring one of her better vocal performances due to the ineptitude of others.

The problem started when Magid decided Please Tell Me Why would be best placed in a more “adult” setting and so the musicians he chose and the arrangement they came up with became the most obvious shortcut to that end.

He wants the record to “sound sad” with a moaning trombone and crying alto with the piano replicating the teardrops at they fall, but the problem is none of them are actually LISTENING to what she’s saying!

Though on the surface you could certainly intimate this was a sad song because she’s contemplating the end of a relationship, but she’s not exactly upset over it ending. In fact she’s the one pushing for it to be over, not because she’s unhappy with her guy, but rather she sees the writing on the wall and knows that this isn’t going anywhere.

She cares for him still and is showing that in her emotional reading of it, her voice in excellent form, strong and achingly sincere, but the undercurrent the song itself clearly doesn’t belong to that old school mentality the music represents.

Instead this is a song of liberation… a modern feminist outlook where she’s not dependent on this man, or any man really, for her happiness and rather than be tied down in a perfectly acceptable – but dispassionate – relationship she’s willing to end it to find something better.

The key line is when she says “Love’s a great mystery”, which doesn’t come across as sad at all, no matter how much those horns want you to believe otherwise, but rather it reflects Dillard’s curiosity about the subject and her determination to break away from what she has in order to try and find the answer.

A pop or jazz singer would settle for this man and be reasonably happy. A rock singer would not. She may not be singing it with outward rock attributes – a steady rhythm, a lot of sass, a vibrant sexuality – but she sure isn’t singing it as if she was someone seeking benign contentment and comforting security either which is what the music suggests.

Aside from the sterile alto solo which is responsible for dragging this down even further, the rest of the music doesn’t exactly clash with her voice if that’s what you fear, but it does clash with her mindset and since her voice here is so good, so strong, so determined, there’s no doubting which perspective deserves to take center stage here and conversely which one is holding her back.


There’s A Good Enough Reason
Maybe we’re too harsh on Lee Magid. He produced the record, but didn’t arrange it… that job went to the pianist Kelly Owens. But then again I doubt Owens get paid for the extra work whereas Magid must’ve squeezed a few pennies out of the tightly clenched fist of Herman Lubinsky for producing it.

Still, somebody was responsible for the hiring of the musicians and the basic concept behind Please Tell Me Why and that undoubtedly was Magid and he’s got to take the blame as a result.

If you didn’t understand a) the English language, b) the subject of romantic dissatisfaction or c) didn’t care a whit about lyrics and instead all that mattered to you was how the record sounds on the surface without requiring you to use whatever brain cells you’re still in possession of, then maybe this musical-thematic schism wouldn’t bother you as much.

But when you know what the song is trying to say and the artist is doing a very credible job of expressing those inner feelings as Dillard does here, then you need an arrangement that doesn’t try and counteract that simply because what they chose instead is an accepted sound for the classier approach they were seeking.

That’s when it helps to remember that pop-jazz wants to paper over conflicting emotions and accept the status quo – both in music and in life.

Rock however seeks to expose those conflicting emotions and explore the bewildering vagaries of navigating life without an owner’s manual, giving you something more to think about when the records stop playing.


(Visit the Artist page of Varetta Dillard for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)