Monday, February 14, 2011

The Lives of a Love Song in the 20th Century

One of my favorite songs is "(You Were) Always On My Mind", and as today is Valentine's Day, I thought I'd embark upon the musical equivalent of a "tasting flight" (a recently fashionable offering in restaurants and pubs of small quantities of several wines or beers) of some of the numerous versions of that song that have been recorded by a wide range of artists in different styles over the years.

The song was written in the genre of country music by Johnny Christopher, Mark James (who also wrote Elvis Presley's hit, "Suspicious Minds"), and Wayne Carson Thompson (who also wrote "The Letter", made famous by the Box Tops.)

Following in the modality of exploring the miracle of information-gathering in the 21st Century in my first meditation of the New Year, I can proceed first to search for online versions (i.e., on the Internet), and to compare the styles and approaches of several different artists.

The first recording was by the popular Brenda Lee (see her official Website here) in 1972, when the song reached number 45 on the Top 100 Country Music Hits chart of Billboard Magazine. Of course, now it's 2011, and a music lover who wants to consult the current Billboard charts to see who's rising and who's falling in a given musical genre can, in many cases, be fowarded to the artist's or record company's online Web link (for example, on MySpace--official Website here) to hear the song in streaming media format (ranging from a brief excerpt to the entire song with a few silent patches), share the link with an online friend, see the lyrics, or purchase the song as an MP3 which can be downloaded from a Website (iTunes,,, etc.) Oh yes, and download to a cell phone a ringtone from the song. . . .

In any case, her version is quite straightforward, as in this brief introduction, yet sublimely honest and eloquent in its own idiom:

We can ask why this song is so popular, why its melody and its message have endured through time and different interpretive styles. The version just heard is on most levels true to form: the distinctive voice of the singer, seasoned by experience yet preserved by a kind of girlish, breathless innocence so often found in country music, with the instrumental accompaniment running parallel with chugging violins and a plaintive guitar ringing with drama and pain, and the limpid liquid voice of the pedal steel guitar with its rounded glides from note to note still reassuringly voicing a message of hope. And the lyrics, pervaded by guilt but still apologizing, asking forgiveness, begging for another chance--what is there here that is not recognizable in the human condition?

Well, let's take the song to the next level, with Elvis Presley's version released in the same year as the "B-side" of his "Separate Ways". The logistics of popular music's popularity through most of the twentieth century were driven by the release of "single" records--whether in highly breakable 10" (diameter) 78 rpm (revolutions per minute) shellac discs, or later in the 7" 45 rpm vinyl format that lasted into the end of the century--in which one side was guessed to be a likely "hit", but with a backup song on the other side that would at least be listenable, and which in some cases, grew in popularity to eclipse the song on the "A" side. (I go into some technical detail here because I realize anyone born after 1990, or even earlier, will have no idea what I am talking about in terms of music available on "hard copy" recordings, actual physical artifacts in sound.)

In any case, the Elvis version rose (soared?--the metaphors of popular music being particularly kinetic) to #16 on the Billboard Country Singles chart in November of 1972:

Well, we might well ask, what accounts for the greater popularity of Elvis' recording? In terms of the instrumental arrangement, the introductions resemble Brenda Lee's rather closely, though more defined in the Elvis version. As voice goes, Elvis' is more resonant that Brenda's, with more capacious tremolo, and his dialect is more mainstream: "I" ("aa-ee", a dipthong, in effect, two syllables) instead of the single syllable "Aa" in the more "country" pronunciation, as is Brenda's "yee-oo" (diphthong), instead of the monosyllabic "yoo" in Elvis' rendition. And again, her "goo-ud" and "hay-uv" softening the words ("good" and "have"), which she utters in her gentle, melodic southern twang (twa-ung . . . . )

On another level of assigning popularity and success, Elvis had become a certified American superstar following his "meteoric" rise (that is to say, fast and bright--though actual meteors fall down the sky) in the 1950's, following the 1956 release of "Heartbreak Hotel", his first recording for RCA Records--a mainstream international label, in comparison with the more recognizably southern Sun Records, on which his first recordings were issued--and a #1 hit on the Billboard Top 100 chart for seven weeks. And with such fame and such a widespread audience--to say nothing of his much celebrated "sex appeal" in that era-- is not surprising that his recording garnered more fame than did Brenda Lee's.

The next time AOMM rose to popularity was in 1979, when the country idiom prevailed yet again, in the soulful rendition by John Wesley Riles (his first two names combined reinforcing his southern/Anglican identity, with more than 3,760,00 hits on Google for the two names alone). His record reached #20 on the Billboard "Hot Country Singles" chart. This version begins with a richly-textured intro (introduction): liquidly sliding electric guitars (seductive) over crisp acoustic piano chords (assertive), and soon a solid bass line (reassuring, anchoring):

Then John begins to sing the familiar lyrics, with the soft, silvery "ting" (or "tick") of the back beat (on the "two" of the "one, two, one, two") of the percussion. His accent re-establishes the regional origins of his interpretation, with the internal repeated rhyme (in boldface below) that rises so effortlessly in country music:

"Maybe I didn't treat you, quite as good as I should have
Maybe I didn't love you, quite as often, as I could have. . . ."

The forward flow of the song is enriched and energized by syncopated (off-beat) piano chords at 16 and 22/23 seconds into the clip. The sung melody is enhanced be strings blurring in beginning at 25 seconds, followed by the subtly swelling chorus rising after 37 seconds with the final line, and the heart of the song:

"You were always on my mind. . . . ."

But of course, in the total version of the song, that line is repeated twice, to make the point: No matter what else happened . . . .

But we won't hear it this way yet . . . .

John Wesley kicks in the second verse with a gutsy OOM-PAH on the upbeat (the moment before the main beat of the next rhythmic cycle) of chewing-gum infused saxophone:

to lead into the second verse, with yet another perfectly natural (would you have noticed it if it hadn't been pointed out?) internal rhyme:

"Maybe I didn't hold you, all those lonely, lonely times
And I guess I never told you: I'm so happy that you're mine. . . ."

You can listen to this clip once, twice, more . . . . and each time you'll hear new colors in the instruments (soaring violins, weeping pedal-steel guitar, syncopated chug-a-chug in the piano+strings at the end) and new inflections in his voice (the curling upturn ending a word, the soulful phrasing, and the implied "country" hiccup in the diction):

But following our chronology, and hoping for even more in this song, we come to what to me is the artist who is able to mine the ultimate soul of this song, seemingly, without even trying: Willy Nelson:

The instrumental introduction is pure crystalline piano, but simpler, and more immediate, than the earlier versions, with Willy's haunting voice materializing after only seven seconds, in a natural, even conversational (in terms of song) vibrato (he's just talking to her/you, particularly on the two "I"s), and the word "have" breaking, twice, in shyness, or regret (and his voice is shadowed, caressed by a higher feminine "ooo" after 27 seconds):

and the feminine whispering in . . . agreement, or forgiveness, at 39 seconds after "if I made you feel second best" at 39 ("you did, did you"?), and finally, a soft fusion of male and female voices, at 48 seconds, echoing "you were always on my mind. . . . . " with a choral halo.

A soft, brass "ting" on the cymbal on the upbeat leads into Willy's second verse ("Maybe I didn't ho-old you, all those lonely, lonely times . . . ), continuing to flow along ("I guess I never to-old you, I'm so happy that you're mine . . . .) with eloquently simple instrumentation--the piano embroidering around his voice here and there, a hushed drum track, and a quiet, pure-toned synthesizer replacing the urgently sawing strings or raunchy woodwinds of earlier versions of the song. And his words: "little things I should have said and done--I just never took the time . . . .) sung in a starkly honest admission of neglect, subtly enhanced by his then confession, this time with an even richer swelling of surrounding choral uplift, that "You were always on my mind":

Here (to delve into technical matters for a moment) I might mention that the audio file on my laptop of Willy's song--represented in visual peaks and depths on a sonic graph--continues from start to finish to expand in amplitude, complexity, and density of waveforms (is Willy overdubbing the second verse, singing an almost imperceptible duet with himself?) as each verse passes, with the third verse richer in sonic/graphic terms than the previous two, as the song builds towards its eloquent and heightened conclusion.

Next he offers us his nearly final, insistent rendition of the last verse, now with softly, swellingly reverberant (yet ineffable) choral enhancements of his own voice and message, and a gently insistent and eloquent guitar soliloquy echoing his plea for "one more chance to keep you satisfied", along with pointillistic instrumental embellishments of his sung central theme, that:

And then his final confession, or promise--whatever it is--with his incandescent honesty as the song surges not once, but twice, to its . . . . . fulfillment (could there be a better word?):

Well, there we have it for today. Next: later renditions of this song.

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