Wednesday, 5 October 2011

5.30 Plane - JIMMY WEBB - Composer

Connie Stevens (1970)  & The Supremes (1972)

Connie caught relaxing...
"All the empty reasons that we
 gave ourselves
 For going on or dying 
 in your misty eyes
 Floating in a boat
 That's so filled with both our lives
 We'll never make the shore"

TV star, Republican and former Elvis date, Connie Stevens entered 1970 as the newly divorced spouse of singer Eddie Fisher. Between time goofing on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and VIP tours of Vietnam with perennial wise-cracker Bob Hope, she recorded this single in the hope of scoring a hip hit with her less than hip fan-base. She also found time to sing the theme to a series of "Ace Hardware" TV commercials in Southern California. The housewives of America passed on the single but the commercials were very much a hit.

Walter Wanderley's 1969 LP
A climactic break-up song, it premiered in 1969 in the hands of Walter Wanderley and his singers who robotically droned the words over an oppressive bossa nova like Stepford Wives programmed into dealing with the pesky perils of divorce in brownie-baking downtime. After Connie's up-tempo version flopped, the baton was passed on to the late-flowering Supremes who took a world-weary approach to the song, slowing it down into a soulful meditation of loss. It's measured and mature and as such a very different beast to the version preceding it. This is highlighted in the chorus when Jean Terrell delivers the simple lines that define the whole song:

"I don't know what you're gonna do
 But I decided I can make it on my own" 

...better off having a fag
She gives the barely concealed impression that she'll be mulling over this break-up for a long time afterwards. As such I hear this performance as a resigned prequel to Bacharach's sublime "Check-Out Time" as sung by Dionne Warwick. A song that acts like a female perspective-homage of sorts to Webb's own "By The Time I Get To Phoenix". The weary acceptance of the inevitable break-up and then the teary and existential loneliness of the next step.

Connie Stevens approach is different! Once you've heard her belting out the above lines to a pa-pa-ing upbeat arrangement of choir and strings, the song is transformed into some sort of anthem to the new dawn of strident 1970's Womanhood. Well at least the omnipotent image of strident womanhood that would soon be patronised and exploited to high heaven over billboards and Sunday magazines throughout the western world!

Her vocals are both kittenish and assertive, mirroring all the contradictions I find and love in Webb land. She's as glossy as the adverts in those magazines with all that Hollywood oomph behind her, but there's also something honest and deep to counter the froth. She's a singer edging outside of her comfort zone but not too far. Dean Martin is somewhere looking on, tapping his foot. It's an impression conveyed in both performance and lyric. One imagines the protagonists of this song facing each other down in a late night Denny's with Connie veritably "freaking-out" over the "Mac n' Cheese Big Daddy Patty Melt"!

The Supremes 1972 "Webb" LP
There is another clue to the song that distances it from 1972. The Supremes open the song indicating the equal footing of both partners. Hell they both cheated! The 1970's are up and running so they both have to face the consequences;

"I don't wanna know about the whole affair
 You don't wanna know about his pretty hair"  

Whilst Connie's version makes all the hurt blissfully hers. Like some really dark Prom date gone wrong. Here she toots:

"I don't wanna know about the whole affair                
I don't wanna hear about her pretty hair"

The focus on her makes more sense to the song and adds a greater direction to her delivery and the overall impact of the performance. She's the real injured party in all this and she's the one that's gonna split to that "motel room" in that Bacharach song. The two versions are like two very different songs. That both are excellent prove the quality of the songwriter.

Webb at his peak

And so a lost gem nudges it's way into the bulging Jimmy Webb canon proving there is more than the classic Campbell/Harris/Houston/Fifth Dimension axis out there. Apart from the bravado and quite unique lyrical risk he employs mixing rich metaphor one minute with direct confession the next, there is another reason for these songs continued and enduring appeal. In the right hands they transcend musical genre. The same song can be taken as pop, soul, cabaret, folk-americana or singer-songwriter material and yet remain, quintessentially Jimmy Webb. For this reason alone I regard him as one of the greatest American songwriters.

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