Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Sam Cooke's "Tennessee Waltz": An Appreciation.

I cannot stop listening to Sam Cooke's "Tennessee Waltz."

The song has overtaken me, demanding to be played repeatedly, beckoning to be solved like a riddle, plumbing me further into its seemingly bottomless depths.

The other day I listened to nothing but the song for close to an hour--hearing it, studying it, contemplating it, trying to make it reveal itself to me.

Sam Cooke's "Tennessee Waltz" was first released on March 1, 1964, as the closing song on the first side of his criminally-underrated album Ain't That Good News. The following July it was culled as the B-side of "Good Times," where it made the Top 40 with a respectable #35. By that point, the song was already around eight months old.

Cooke originally recorded "Tennessee Waltz" on January 28, 1964, in that odd string of months after JFK was assassinated but before The Beatles came to America. He recorded "Rome Wasn't Built In A Day" & "Meet Me At Mary's Place" before it; each took little more than two takes to master. It's said that he was more focused on the song he would record two nights later--his epic "A Change Is Gonna Come," which has been rightly hailed as the finest soul record of all-time.

Which means that "Tennessee Waltz" was the last song he recorded before his masterpiece. While nowhere near the scope of "A Change Is Gonna Come" (virtually no other song could be), to my ears "Tennessee Waltz" plays like a small epic in & of itself. Only instead of an epic looking outward that takes in all of society, "Tennessee Waltz" is an epic that looks inward to a story that is central to pop music: Love.

Part 1: Words.

As a story, "Tennessee Waltz" is simple to the edge of banal, consisting of one verse & one refrain that would be entirely cliche if not so economic in their presentation:

I was dancing with my baby to the "Tennessee Waltz"
When an old friend that I happened to see
I introduced him to my baby & while they were dancing
My friend stole my baby from me

But I remember that night & the "Tennessee Waltz"
Only you know how much I have lost
You know that I lost my baby that night they kept playing
That beautiful "Tennessee Waltz"

As a lyric, it's not much, but Sam Cooke transforms it into a small saga of a performance, endlessly wringing new meaning from its words & music.

Part of Cooke's power derives from his focus on the word you--as in "only you know"--which cements the connection between the singer & the listener. The relationship between the singer & the listener in recorded sound is so taken for granted that we hardly even notice it today, but Cooke's "Tennessee Waltz" makes you appreciate it in full. He isn't so much singing the song to himself as much as he's confiding to you about it, as though you share the song's burden by the mere act of listening to it. Part of music's magic is its inherently intangible nature, & the way in which every person listening to a song has a direct connection to the singer. This is what helps give music its profound power, & touch our lives. Cooke's "Tennessee Waltz" reinforces this with the way he seems to confide in us, as though it is not so much a song as it is a pact.

In Dave Marsh's classic The Heart Of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, he chose Marvin Gaye's version of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" for the hallowed #1 spot. (Like Cooke, Gaye was another '60s soul pioneer who died way before his time because of a bullet that was supposedly fired in self-defense.) Marsh picked it in part because of the way that Gaye sings it as "an internal dialogue," working his way through a confrontation, then overtaken by humiliation, before finally ending with mourning. It is, in a little over three minutes, the psychological journey through the ending of a relationship, by feeling the words of the story through the emotion of the music.

In many ways, Sam Cooke's "Tennessee Waltz" does the exact same thing over nearly the exact same length of time, only four years earlier--& it does so with a third of the lyrics to work with.

Similar to what Marsh heard in Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," I hear in Sam Cooke's "Tennessee Waltz": The psychological scope of the end of a relationship. Traditionally, grieving has been divided into five major stages since the Kugler-Ross Model was introduced in 1969: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, & Acceptance. "Tennessee Waltz" is not an exact replication of this model, but it's about as close as one can find in a pop song.

For the first verse, Cooke plays it coolly, evenhanded, even nonchalantly, taking you through the facts of the case like it was a burglary (which, in fact, it essentially was). One imagines that only his denial can allow him to keep his anger at arms length, with a reasoned calm that nearly spills over into aloofness.

But then the melody of the refrain causes things to turn; it seems to bring out a passion that had remained latent in the initial verse. He doesn't sing it, but rather rides his emotions simmering just underneath.

The second verse (same as the verse) finds him going through the facts of the case again, but now his cool resolve has hardened into something close to anger. He sounds like someone exasperated after having to explain the same thing seventeen times in a row with little faith that this eighteenth time it will stick. On one hand, it is like an old man retelling the same story as though it holds the elusive key to his freedom; on the other, it sounds like Einstein's definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over & over but expecting a different result. & if one can hear the latter in his words, perhaps one can find a sense of bargaining in them too. I'm honestly not sure.

& then the bottom falls out of the record.

As Cooke reaches for that second refrain, he soars with a graceful sadness that can only result in beauty. I've now listened to it dozens of time, but it always remains new, always catches your attention, always demands to be heard. His performance takes you by the chest & pulls you into his pain, his suffering, his world. It's tempting to label this bottomless sadness as depression, but depression never sounded so beautiful.

Which gets to the heart of the record--& its profound statement on not just love, but music. The thing that seems to keep the singer going through his friend betraying him with his lover is the beauty of the "Tennessee Waltz." Lyrically, it sets up an odd dynamic for a pop song: The song "Tennessee Waltz" is about a person who keeps hearing the song "Tennessee Waltz." If they are different songs, it is like Russian stacking dolls; if they are the same song, it's like a hall of mirrors. Either way, the importance is its beauty. A beauty so great that it can distract the singer from the greatest heartache he will ever suffer.

I remember talking to my grandfather about his time serving in World War II in Papua New Guinea. He was a Navy man, but for some reason that I've never been able to piece together, he went down in an airplane. For the rest of his life, he hated to fly & only did so out of sheer necessity. But when I remember him describing the crash, he spoke with a near mystic sense of wonder. "I was so terrified," he said. "But looking out the window at the lush vegetation all around us, I had never seen anything so beautiful."

I believe a similar thing is happening in Sam Cooke's "Tennessee Waltz." He loses his girl to his friend, but boy, that song was beautiful! If it wasn't handled so effectively by Cooke, it might fall flat as a joke, but it never even gets close to one. Is there some sort of hidden self-loathing that would make the song seem even more beautiful to have this traumatic experience happen during it? Nietzsche might think so. If the record does finally make its way out of depression to acceptance, it is by the grace of the music it is said to. Like Dante being unable to describe Beatrice upon finally reaching her in the Paradisio, Cooke grasps at meaningless adjectives: "That Beautiful, That Wonderful, That Marvelous, That Glorious." It is not a conclusion so much as a transcendence over the human spirit.

Part 2: Music.

One of the first things you might notice about Sam Cooke's "Tennessee Waltz" is that it is not a waltz.  It's a sort of shuffle built around a groove--an acoustic guitar strum pitted against porto-funk horns playing a simple, scratching three-note lick while a piano dashes around them, quietly building the tension secretly, but in plain sight; one could easily mistake it for an Atlantic-era Ray Charles song (say, "I've Got A Woman") played at the wrong speed. Its straightforward rhythm is a reminder that many of the hottest songs sounded like samples long before anyone was actually sampling records. But the live performers are revealed when the horns start to peel away from each other towards the end, which ultimately give it that much more of a visceral quality.

All put together, the sound jumps off the record & forms a cocoon that you can virtually crawl inside of, enveloping you in its tale of woe. By the time you're blindsided by the performance, it makes no difference whether the song is a waltz or not.

(& in case anyone wasn't sure whether Cooke was basking in its majestic wonder, you can just hear him clap once after singing the "dirty dog" line, in a moment of joyous spontaneity.)

But the "Tennessee Waltz" did begin as a waltz, composed by country crooner Pee Wee King in the mid-1940s, as a sort of answer record to Bill Monroe's "Kentucky Waltz." King didn't record it until late 1947 & didn't release it until early 1948, but it became a hit song with this band, The Golden West Cowboys, as well as a cover version by Cowboy Copas (who was originally a member of the Golden West Cowboys).

In 1950, bandleader Erskine Hawkins--best known nowadays for writing "Tuxedo Junction"--cut a jazz version of "Tennessee Waltz," smoothing it out & bringing it to something close to a pop standard. While the song initially missed the charts, it made enough waves that a young Jerry Wexler (later to become a legendary producer at Atlantic Records) played it for the manager of Patti Page.

It was Patti Page's version of "Tennessee Waltz" (recorded in November 1950 as the B-side to "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus") that became a smash hit, sitting atop the national Billboard charts for nearly two months straight. It was as white-bread of a record as could be imagined in that period--right at home on the shelves next to the likes of Perry Como & Mitch Miller--& serves as a case-in-point why rock music just had to happen. Among the cover versions that cropped up in her wake were by Jo Stafford, Guy Lombardo, & The Fontaine Sisters. 'Nuff said.

In Jim Miller's Flowers In The Dustbin: The Rise Of Rock & Roll, 1947-1977, he describes Page's "Tennessee Waltz" as "the biggest pop hit of the postwar, prerock era" and as "a synthetic new kind of music, the hybrid product of several different vernacular genres."  as "And the sheer sound of Page's recording was unprecedented. A tricked-up, technologically evolved sort of pseudo-folk song, Patti Page's hit was hard to categorize, impossible to reproduce on stage, & instantly unforgettable."

The song itself--which already by the time Cooke got to it was a country-song-turned-jazz-ballad-turned-white-bread-pop-smash was like a chameleon, taking the form of anyone who sang it. The song didn't reveal itself as much as it revealed whoever was singing it.

Take Elvis' home recording of the song from 1966, where he turns it into pure 19th century parlor music, as though it came straight by a tunesmith on Tin Pan Alley:

At least until he starts riffing about a man stealing his horse--which would have been a real concern in the parlor-music era--before it devolves into him cracking his friends up like the jokester he was known to be. If anyone wondered where the kid who talked his way into Sun Records to croon The Ink Spots' "My Happiness" in 1953 went, this performance (mostly) showed he was still right there.

& to stretch the point, here's Spike Jones' novelty version--a #13 hit in 1951:

He seems to jump on the pioneering multitrack vocal by Patti Page by turning over the vocal to two old Jewish ladies, for no particular reason. (Unless I'm missing some reference to Yiddish vaudeville, which is entirely possible.) The instrumental break is vintage Jones, mixing all sorts of crazy sounds at a breakneck pace--& all recorded live in the studio, of course--that mirrored his earlier masterpiece from 1945, "Cocktails For Two."

(Unrelated but related quandary: When The Band sing about having "Spike Jones on the box" in "Up On Cripple Creek," were they listening to his version of "Tennessee Waltz"? Discuss.)

But all roads lead back to Patti Page's monster hit version, which makes it all the more surprising that it was not included on Cooke's second RCA album, Hits Of The 50s.

But it seems that once he nailed it in the studio, he was happy to keep it close by. In July of 1964, Cooke included it as the finale of what would be his first live album, Sam Cooke At The Copa.

Generally, Sam Cooke At The Copa is not held in terribly high regard as it captures Cooke playing at a dinner-club for people who politely applause upon recognizing whatever song he is singing. It's a bit like the sonic equivalent of those early rock movies were Little Richard plays for a room of middle-aged white people sitting still in tuxes.

The previous year, Cooke had cut Live At The Harlem Square Club in Miami, Florida, for a proposed live album that was to be called "One Night Stand." Cut with the then-current smash James Brown's Live At The Apollo ruling the nascent soul world, it appears to try & beat that record at its own game. To my ears, it largely succeeds, giving Cooke a hot & sweaty night that serves as a testimony to people who remember him as a pious choirboy.

But that's what did the record in. Deemed too wild for his clean-cut image, the album was shelved until over two decades after his death.

So for several decades, the only live taste one could get of Sam Cooke was at this polite supper-club album. For the most part, he plays it safe, giving the people what they want--jazz standards ("Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?"), blues standards ("Nobody Knows You When You're Down & Out"), & folk standards ("Frankie & Johnny"). Aside from "Twistin' The Night Away," his biggest hits are trotted out on the first side in a five-minute medley. "Tennessee Waltz" seems like a nice place to end the set.

He sings it fine--even noting that Patti Page might not recognize it--but it lacks the drama of the studio version. I was surprised to see that this version was cut nearly half a year after the studio version; played next to the more familiar hit, it sounds like a rough draft for a song that will be tightened up later.

When Otis Redding covered the song a few years later, he stretched it out into a dirge, perhaps to differentiate it from the version sung by Cooke, who was one of his idols. If Cooke sung it like a therapy session, Redding sang it like he was in the confessional. The song is pure church, from the 6/8 time signature to the gospel flourishes on the piano. Redding seems to worry over the lines about what he has lost, driving it home home like an atonement for his sins.

& just in case you doubt Cooke's influence, Redding throws in the words "cotton-pickin'" towards the end, a direct lift of phrase from Cooke's version on the Copa LP.

That said, there's one part of Cooke's Copa version that sticks out to any modern listener. Towards the end of the song, as he's riffing his way to a close, Cooke sings "I know, I know, I know, I know" in a tone & style that provides the blueprint for Bill Withers' 1971 classic "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone." Where Cooke's song is swinging & off-the-cuff, Withers' song is smooth & slick; the way the beat locks in with the strings seems to predict the next 30 years of R&B music.

For the most famous element of "Ain't No Sunshine" is when Withers sings "I know" 26 times in a row to fill out the brief song in lieu of a verse (& even with this part, the single still doesn't even reach two & a quarter minutes). These words make the song for Withers--& in turn, powered it to become his first major hit. 
It appears that the germ of that song, the engine that drove the initial success of his career, derived from Cooke's "Tennessee Waltz."

Part 3: Video.

On October 5, 1998, Scottish indie group Belle & Sebastian recorded a set of song's in Paris, France, for a series in that country called the "Black Sessions." Currently on YouTube, it remains the longest available footage of the original seven-member lineup.

Typical for the group, they work their way through a series of familiar songs & deep cuts, intercut with a surprise cover. In this case, it is violist Isobel Campbell singing France Gall's "Poupee De Cire, Poupee De Son," which can be seen at the 33:53 mark. Campbell completely nails it, transforming Belle & Sebastian into a runaway locomotive of drums & organs, as she leads the way like a soldier doing battle with the ocean. It is a sexy, focused performance that is all the more remarkable with the way she sheepishly falls apart directly after delivering it--"I'm sorry if my French was bad"--shrugging away the entire thing like a second grader faking their way through a book report.

You can see how the leader of Belle & Sebastian, Stuart Murdoch, was completely infatuated with her.

Although they were together at the time of this concert, they would grow apart in the coming years, as Murdoch's quiet & more subdued nature made him the foil for her outspoken, feisty ways.

The following song is a rendition of one of the most beautiful Belle & Sebastian songs, "Slow Graffiti," which begins at the 36:16 mark. Although the title is a sphinx, the song itself is brimming with an odd balance of careful precision & heart; in studio, it is one their closest approximations to the pop side of their beloved heroes, The Velvet Underground. Here, in this live version, it takes on a more precious, delicate shape that outdoes the studio version with its effortless grace.

Midway through the song comes its bittersweet climax:

Listen, Johnny
You're like a mother
To the girl you're falling for
& you're still falling--

These are some of the cruelest words ever voiced in a pop song. There is nothing less sexy than a man pursuing a girl by acting like he's her mother. The words sting, making one wonder if it's not a commentary on Murdoch's own relationship with Campbell, who just proved both her strength & charisma only moments before.

& holding it all together is the melody in "Slow Graffiti," which maps directly onto "Tennessee Waltz." Did Murdoch realize this when he wrote it? Or was it just in the ether of a popular music subconscious?

Either way, I find it fascinating he chose this melody for these lyrics.

"Slow Graffiti" plays almost like an inverse of Cooke's "Tennessee Waltz"--where Cooke sings of a man who loses his girl to a friend, Murdoch sings of a man who can't even get a girl in the first place, because of his own maternal instincts. The cruelty of the situation--& the essential loneliness that both men feel--tie the songs together, with the thread of same melody bringing beauty to the proceedings. The contrast is further enhanced by the performers themselves--on one hand, we have Cooke, an African-American mainstream pop solo singer whose career ended over 50 years ago, & on the other we have Belle & Sebastian, a Scottish indie septet who soldier on to this day.

Coming from opposite sides, "Tennessee Waltz" is where they meet in the middle.

On September 16, 1964, Sam Cooke co-headlined the first episode of Shindig! with future-Rock-&-Roll-Hall-Of-Fame inaugural inductees The Everly Brothers. He was to be killed less than three months later.

Like he did on Sam Cooke At The Copa, he seems to be choosing his material to please a mainstream (white) audience; his two solo numbers for the show was a cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowing In The Wind" & his own take on Patti Page's "Tennessee Waltz." But then when one factors in that he was also promoting the Copa LP that was to be released the following month (which contained versions of both songs), it seems more like it was two birds with one stone.

Given all of the possible songs Cooke could have performed for this show, it's a small miracle that we have footage of "Tennessee Waltz." His abridged reading of the song (he skips over the second/first-for-a-second-time verse) is an interesting cross between the crowd-pleasing of the Copa LP and the fervor of the studio version. While it is not quite as good as the latter, it easily beats the former, landing somewhere in between the two. His performance is confident, settled--this is a man who has performed a million times before & has no reason to feel any pressure co-headlining the launch of a new primetime national series.

Whoever directed the show clearly knew the song, initiating with a tight focus framed by those ever-present saxophones, before pulling back for a third act to reveal backup singers (!) & backup dancers (!!) & additional horn men (!!!) turning it into a feel-good time once & for all. Sadly, we can't see Cooke's face for that final refrain, but his body language helps to tell the triumphant tale.

Plus, when host Jack Good bounces out at the end, Sam Cooke is beaming his big, beautiful smile.

Paradise has been found through the beauty.

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