Saturday, October 9, 2010

Without You, Harry Nilsson (1972)

No, I can't forget this evening
Or your face as you were leaving
But I guess that's just the way the story goes

While today we commemorate what would have been the 70th birthday of John Lennon, I'm going to cast my net toward another brief candle - one of John's contemporaries and great friends, Harry Nilsson.

Last week I finished up the tome Here, There and Everywhere by Geoff Emerick, who was the Beatles' recording engineer for most of their career and for some of their solo enterprises. I could write a book about the book (well, maybe an article), and one of the many things I learned about is the connection between Nilsson and Badfinger. Badfinger, of course, was one of the early acts in the Apple Records stable. I never paid that much attention to them because their big hit, Come and Get It, was exactly the sort of jaunty pop music that I never took a shine to and that Paul McCartney seemed hellbent on writing, producing or recording himself after the Beatles broke up.

How Nilsson and Badfinger are connected is via one of the great melodramatic songs of the 70s, Without You. Some may know that Badfinger recorded the song first; and since it was co-written by the group's two tormented lead singers, Pete Ham (the verse) and Tom Evans (the chorus), I guess that makes sense. Emerick, who worked for Apple after leaving EMI/Abbey Road, produced the No Dice LP that this song appeared on. I had never heard their version before now.

What this reminded me of is how little I know about Nilsson. In a few weeks that deficit is going to be corrected because a documentary about his life, Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? is coming out on DVD. It's gotten great reviews in the few cities where it's had a theatrical release.

I associate Nilsson, who was a prolific singer-songwriter, with just a very few things - Without You (which he didn't write), the Midnight Cowboy touchstone Everybody's Talkin' (which he also didn't write), and his so-called "lost weekend" with John Lennon that took place over the course of more like 78 weekends in Los Angeles (for John anyway) after John and Yoko Ono broke up once. Oh, and also that the Beatles once told the press that their favorite "group" was Nilsson. 

That's pitiful, and I'm looking forward to filling in all the blanks when the doc comes out. I could never really reconcile in my mind the image I had of the angelic looking guy with the three-octave voice with his reputation of being a debauched wild man who could drink everyone he knew under the table and died too young.

One of the extended sequences on the DVD details how Nilsson came to record Without You and how it became such a smash hit. I've read various stuff about it, but I think I'm just going to wait instead of writing about it now. As songs that take histrionics to the pinnacle, it has almost no peer. We've all felt the emotions this song lays bare, and the way Nilsson interpreted Pete Ham's and Tom Evans' anguish is one of his many legacies. In memory of his friend John, here he is singing one of his own beautiful songs, Remember.   

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Cry Baby, Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters (1963)

My new best friend, Pandora, continues to knock 'em out of the park, with discoveries daily without too much effort on my part. Today's offering is Garnet Mimms.

I love me a good torch song, and one of my favorites has always been Janis Joplin's Cry Baby. As it turns out, though, her version was a cover. The original torch singer on this was a man, Garnett Mimms, and the song was written for him specifically. The divine Mr. Mimms version charted first, and it landed high on the R&B and pop charts (this was just a year before I was really listening to music though so I never heard it). This guy had pipes! Why am I just now discovering him?  Everything I'm reading says he was "criminally underappreciated."

Ignorance of the provenance of many songs is rampant, and combating that ignorance - including my own - has become one of my greatest motivations for continuing this blog. I don't watch American Idol, but I just saw a piece stemming from a 2009 performance of Cry Baby by Allison Iraheta.  Simon Cowell referred to the song in front of 30 million viewers as Joplin's song. A gigantic missed opportunity to say whose song it really was, especially since he is still alive, and has spent many years since leaving the music business ministering to his own church flock in Philadelphia as well as to prison inmates.  

Mimms was born in West Virginia but moved to Philadelphia after high school graduation.  He idolized Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, and it shows. Around Philly, Mimms sang with various gospel ensembles and then made the usual move to secular music, forming a doo-wop group called the Gainors with Howard Tate (here's their biggest hit, The Secret). New York called to Mimms, though, where producers Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns wrote Cry Baby to showcase his spectacular gospel-inflected voice. It skyrocketed to success. (Ragovoy is the same guy who wrote Time Is On My Side and Piece of My Heart, songs that were recorded by black artists before they were covered by white.)

Just after that, however, something happened that conspired to keep Mimms in the background. Late in 1963, and continuing until early 1965, Billboard suspended its R&B chart, maintaining that the crossover phenomenon largely spurred by Motown's ascent made the pop chart fully representative of the spectrum of popular music at that time. An interesting concept, but a British Invasion-Motown collision in 1964 made it virtually impossible for other R&B acts to get the attention they deserved. And so it was with Garnett Mimms. 

Once Billboard restored the R&B charts, Mimms regained some traction with I'll Take Good Care of You, but getting singles on the radar screen was a losing enterprise after that. He went to the UK and performed with Jimi Hendrix there; he tried funk in the 70s. But he never again had the momentum that he did with Cry Baby.

Still, I have friends who not only remember him but saw him live in 1966. My music pals Jim and Chuck were two of those who were blessed to see Mimms in a big soul revue here in Akron, Ohio, headlined by Otis Redding. The mind reels just thinking about what the entirety of that experience must have been like. On the same freaking bill were the likes of James Carr, Percy Sledge and Sam and Dave. 

I'll play Mimms out with another great Ragovoy song that he recorded, As Long As I Have You, a dynamic ditty that one Robert Plant would probably have a lot to say about since he's covered it for years in Band of Joy, early Led Zeppelin and Priory of Brion. The rest of us have probably never heard of it, because it was no more than a forgotten LP track until the advent of YouTube. That's just wrong, but there's no time like the present to come up to speed. 

And I'm not done yet - two years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a great story on Mimms and a new recording he was enticed to do, Is Anybody Out There?  Not sure what might have happened in the intervening two years, but I see I have more research to do ...