My wise and charming daughter Kirstie, (mistress of the curious Kirstie’s Page) and I are practicing some new material for our monthly gigs at the local senior centers. We do pop standards from the Thirties and Forties plus Scottish fiddle tunes, bluegrass, Viennese waltzes, whatever. I particularly like learning the old pop standards. I see why so many rock singers have been seduced by them. Billie Holiday and her lesser known contemps like the staggeringly good Maxine Sullivan have become my constant companions and mentors.
Anyway, we decided to do Try A Little Tenderness and I went to I-Tunes this morning to see what’s up with this song because I don’t know the bridge. Which leads to the subject of this post – the similarities betweeen soul music and rococo art.
As you guys probably know, Try A little Tenderness is also a standard of the Soul genre, although actually written back in the Thirties. Most of the soul greats did it – with Otis Redding’s version generally considered to have pride of place. But Aretha’s version is beautiful and then in hot pursuit are Solomon Burke and Etta James and Guitar Slim Jr. and Percy Sledge and even Three Dog Night, Rod Stewart and Michael Bolton. And leave us not forget The Commitments – the fictional Irish soul band and the best rock movie of the Nineties – that climactic scene when the band gets its act together and performs Try A little Tenderness remains food and drink for every wannabee garage band that doesn’t have talent but wants to have it real bad.
It’s interesting to listen to these singer’s clips of the song on I-Tunes. What a battle of egos! How many trills and curleycues and rhythm changes can a singer put on this simple song to make it mine, mine, mine? And still sound like everybody else?
It occured to me that soul singing is a lot like rococo art – that 18th century phenomenon where a craftsman takes a chair, say, and ladles on curleycues and then embellishments to the curleycues and then little squiggles on the legs and arms and then extra little squiggles on top of the first little squiggles until you aren’t sitting on just a chair any more but on a piece of wondrous wedding cake.
In the soul versions, Try A Little Tenderness starts out as one thing – a beautiful little ballad, and then gets embellished and ornamented and filagreed until it becomes a statement of how wonderful and accomplished a singer is gracing us with their musical presence. Mariah Carey is the extreme example of this style.
You know what I finally bought? Perry Como’s version.
There is something about understatement, you know? Just the notes, mam. Pure and simple. No glottal wobbling allowed.
That’s why I love the Forties jazz singer Maxine Sullivan and why, when I finally own my own big estate, I will put up a statue of her – she just sings the ice cold beautiful song, and sings it like she was the android girl in Blade Runner.
I love simplicity the most. (But Aretha’s version rocks – I had to download that one too.)