Saturday, January 17, 2009

Handy Man, James Taylor (1977)

Here is the main thing that I want to say
I'm busy 24 hours a day
I fix broken hearts, I know that I truly can

As often happens, doing research about my favorite songs reveals something interesting that I didn't know about its composer. Handy Man by James Taylor is one of those songs.

I was never a James Taylor fan. Mellow sounds weren't my thing, and he was so downbeat - not a good combination for me. But Handy Man stood out.

I never knew anything about that song; for all I knew Taylor wrote it. But he didn't; it was written by Otis Blackwell with a 50's doo-wopper named Jimmy Jones. Jones had a big hit with it in 1960, a completely different approach to the song, as did Del Shannon in 1964. I've heard Jones' version before (not my cup of tea) and can honestly say that I never associated it with Taylor's Handy Man, although of course now I realize that the lyrics are identical. Taylor's arrangement is so diametrically opposite the previous two versions it's hard to imagine the thought process that was involved in transforming it. The acid-tongued Robert Christgau, in his Rock Albums of the '70s: A Critical Guide, called it a "transcendent sex ballad."

But it works! One of the best parts of Taylor's cover is the harmony, which was provided by Leah Kunkel, who was Cass Elliot's sister and wife of Russ Kunkel, one of the longtime members of his backup band.

I'd never heard of Blackwell before, but it turns out he was one of the founding fathers of what pop music came to be in the '50s. He wrote a slew of immortal songs: Great Balls of Fire, All Shook Up, Return to Sender, Don't Be Cruel, Fever ... these are just some of the blockbusters from his repertoire. He grew up hanging around the Apollo Theatre and idolized Tex Ritter, so his influences were - to say the least - eclectic. (As a teenager he worked at a movie house that played singing cowboy movies.)

Blackwell was also a singer in his own right, although that part of his career never amounted to much. A Who cover, Daddy Rolling Stone, was his first release, but it didn't chart. He did perform on the demos of the songs he wrote, however, and they came to the attention of people in Elvis Presley's inner circle, which was his big break. Over the course of his career, Blackwell's output numbered more than a thousand songs. But, as happened to so many talented songwriters, his star faded when the music scene began to favor groups who wrote their own material.

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