Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Darlene Love (1963)

It's a big night for music on TV - Richard Thompson, Levon Helm, Nick Lowe and Allen Toussaint on Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ... , and for the 23nd year, Darlene Love, age 68, belting Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) for a thrilled David Letterman audience.   

Written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and the late Ellie Greenwich, Christmas was the only original number on an LP of 13 secular holiday songs Spector gave his trademark Wall of Sound treatment in 1963.  Performed by Love, the Ronettes and the Crystals, his regular stable of artists, their efforts received little notice at the time, justifiably eclipsed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the same day it was released.

As luck would have it, however, Christmas has metamorphosed into a holiday classic with a cult following. First seen on Letterman's show in 1986, when it was still on NBC, Love has performed the song with Paul Shaffer and the band, along with various luminaries as additional musicians and backup singers, every year since, except for 2007, when the writer's strike brought television to a screeching halt.  A lot of people were disappointed that the strike could not be resolved in time for this show to go on - such a tradition it has become - or at least that some special dispensation could not be made for it to go on despite the labor dispute. 

Of those I have seen, Love's 2005 performance is my favorite.  That's the year she was on Broadway in Hairspray and she just tore the song up with her gorgeous powerhouse voice. (Ellie Greenwich was one of the backup singers that year.)  Whether she is singing in front of others or behind them, she is a one-woman wall of sound, and arguably one of the hardest working women in the music industry, a fact acknowledged by her nomination this year to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (this is not her year to be inducted, however).    

If you've never seen the Letterman gig, don't miss another year.  It's worth every glorious second.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore, Walker Brothers (1966)

Here in America, we know a lot about the British Invasion, but during that momentous cultural upheaval, the odd American combo crossed the pond and became bigger there than they were here.  The Walker Brothers (not their real name) was one such group.

I knew nothing about them until now, just that I loved their second deliciously melodramatic hit, The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore.  It was the perfect song for teen girls prone to heartbreak which, let's face it, is all teen girls.

Written by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, who were responsible for many hits for the Four Seasons, the song was first sung and recorded by Frankie Valli but was not particularly successful - I certainly never heard that version. It's a bit of a different animal, not as operatic as the Walkers performed it.  Produced by Johnny Franz, who was the British equivalent of Phil Spector, the song's orchestral stylings enhanced its effectiveness and was pretty unusual for the time. His touch can also be heard in Dusty Springfield's output.   

The Walker Brothers = Noel Scott Engel, a bass player from Ohio who moved to California, and John Maus and Gary Leeds.  They apparently just liked the name Walker Brothers, perhaps modeling themselves after Righteous Brothers Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, to whom they've been compared.  Another American singer known to them, P.J. Proby, had moved to England to do his thing and become a star, and the guys liked the idea enough to pack up their belongings and become expatriates.  Good decision - they were huge, for several years at least.  Their concerts were screamfests.  My friend Sheila, who is a major Cat Stevens aficionado, found this intriguing link that captures the tone and reveals the Walkers' touring acts at that time were Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck, and yes, the Jimi Hendrix Experience!  That's one out-there picture.

Their first hit on both continents, in 1965, was also a crowd pleaser, a Burt Bacharach-Hal David number called Make It Easy On Yourself, a song first recorded by Jerry Butler in 1962 (here's his version). But the group disbanded after a few years in the limelight, reuniting briefly in 1978 with an album called Nite Flights.

The history of the solo career of Scott Walker, as he became known, and which continues to this day, is quite a tale in itself, but would take up an entire post.  Another blogger has already taken care of that for me, though, so I will just refer you to his well-researched and hilarious recounting