Sunday, November 4, 2012
Under the Boardwalk, Drifters (1964)
But on Friday night, at an impromptu one-hour telethon to raise money for Hurricane Sandy relief, one of the first songs offered up was the perennial favorite Under the Boardwalk, sung by the likes of Steven Tyler, Jimmy Fallon, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.
As everyone by now knows, boardwalks along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard took a beating, and while they're collateral damage compared to the devastation suffered by people in their own homes and businesses, there's been a lot of chatter about the romantic role that boardwalks have played in people's lives.
The song, which was a hit for the Drifters in 1964, conjures many things - summer, of course; young love; a seaside sanctuary from prying eyes and from urban heat islands. Throughout my life, I've vacationed at many Eastern Seaboard beaches - Hammonasset in Connecticut, Rehoboth in Delaware, Long Beach Island in New Jersey, Nauset and Skaket in Orleans, Cape Cod, Mass., to name just a few - and I feel lucky to know what it's like to revel in the freedom and wide open spaces that being by the sea affords.
For the Drifters, the sea-celebrating song was the last top 10 hit for a group that had been around since 1953, and had many iterations, with as many as 25 different members over the years. In the lineup that sang Under the Boardwalk, Johnny Moore served up the soaring lead tenor that has wafted through more radio speakers than could ever be counted. The song's arrangement was unusual for the time - besides strings, there was a güiro, which is an open-ended hollow gourd that's responsible for the odd percussive sound at the beginning, and a triangle.
The song was recorded under difficult circumstances, as the then-lead singer, Rudy Lewis (that's him on Up on the Roof), died suddenly, aged 27, the day before the session was scheduled. For whatever reason, the show went on; Lewis was replaced by Moore, who had been in the first lineup, when it was led by Clyde McPhatter and included Ben E. King.
What makes this song especially interesting to me is who it was produced by, because that may account for its appeal as much as the voices of the Drifters. Bert Berns was a producer and songwriter who had a knack for knowing great music. He succeeded Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller at Atlantic Records as staff songwriter, but he also later had his own labels, and produced everyone from the Isley Brothers and Solomon Burke, to Van Morrison (with and without Them) and Neil Diamond.
What I didn't realize is that he has songwriting credits for all of these phenomenally great songs: Twist and Shout (Isley Brothers, Beatles); Cry Baby (Garnet Mims, Janis Joplin); one of my favorite songs of all time, Here Comes the Night (Them); Tell Him (Exciters); Piece of My Heart (Big Brother and the Holding Company/Joplin); and Cry to Me (Solomon Burke). He died of a heart attack at 38, so it's hard to fathom what his other contributions might have been. Any one of these songs would have been a legacy.
Returning to the subject of Hurricane Sandy, last week New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg endorsed President Obama, something no one expected him to do since the mayor had sat out the 2008 election. He did so citing his belief that climate change is fully upon us, and that Obama is the only candidate who is prepared to address the issue head on. Sitting here in Ohio, where there was a lot of Sandy-related activity but nothing compared to what happened on the coast, it's hard to wrap my head around the magnitude of the rebuilding effort that is needed there, combined with the realization that these kinds of incidents may become more commonplace.
If that's the case - and I have no doubt that our sustained abuse of the environment has had dire, likely irreversible, consequences - boardwalks may become nothing more than symbols of a more innocent time that will never come again. It's hard to feel optimistic about the future when whole regions can be transformed into a Third World country overnight.