Posts Tagged ‘Aretha Franklin’

Is there a better song than “Moon River”? Perhaps. Yet there’s no denying that it’s one of the greatest songs of all time. Composed by Henry Mancini and featuring lyrics by Johnny Mercer, it features prominently in the 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where it’s first heard as an instrumental during the classic opening sequence…

…and, later, when Audrey Hepburn sings it while sitting on her apartment’s window ledge. Initially, Paramount executives considered dubbing a trained singer’s voice and, after an early screening, then cutting the scene altogether. The former was taken care of Mancini, who specifically composed something within Hepburn’s range; and Hepburn herself took care of the second threat, insisting it remain. (Good thing she did: It won the Oscar for Best Original Song at the next year’s Academy Awards.) 

In October 1961, Mancini’s re-recorded orchestral version was released as a single alongside the album Breakfast at Tiffany’s: Music From the Motion Picture. The 45 peaked at No. 11 on the charts that December, while the LP went to No. 1. Hepburn’s winsome rendition, however, could only be heard in the movie until after she passed in 1993, when Music from the Films of Audrey Hepburn was released on CD. (Mancini is quoted as saying, “‘Moon River’ was written for her. No one else has ever understood it so completely. There have been more than a thousand versions of ‘Moon River,’ but hers is unquestionably the greatest.”)

Jerry Butler’s rendition was released concurrently with Mancini’s orchestral rendition, and also reached No. 11. 

Over in the U.K., Danny Williams – aka Britain’s Johnny Mathis – scored a No. 1 hit with the tune in 1961. (His was an interesting life. Born in 1942 South Africa, he won a talent contest at age 14, joined the Golden City Dixies and, when that act visited London in 1959, was signed to EMI.) 

Back in the U.S., meanwhile, a whole host of singers began covering the song – most notably Andy Williams, who covered it on his 1962 Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes album. He also sang it at the 34th Academy Awards and, then, adopted it as his theme song…but, oddly, never released it as a single. 

One of those “whole host of singers”: Ben E. King, who infused a “Spanish Harlem”-like vibe into his version, an album track on his 1962 Ben E. King Sings for Soulful Lovers LP.  

Bobby Darin recorded it in early 1963, though it sat in the vaults until 1999, when it was included on the Unreleased Capitol Sides compilation (and again, a few years later, on the five-star Legendary Bobby Darin CD).

Here are a few – of many – memorable renditions from the 1960s:

I’ll jump forward – and skip many other worthwhile renditions – to 1987 for one of my favorite versions, which hails from the Irish singer Mary Black’s 1987 album, By the Time It Gets Dark. At the time, it wasn’t included on the LP or cassette, just the CD. 

CD bonus tracks became all the rage by the early 1990s, of course, as music companies pulled out the stops while striving to get fans to re-purchase albums for the second (or third) time – LP/cassette —> first CD release —> CD reissue. In 1992, I.R.S. did just that with R.E.M.’s early albums, including their classic sophomore set from 1984, Reckoning. It featured five bonus tracks, including their take on “Moon River.”  

Michael Stipe & Co, though initially classified as “college rock,” weren’t the only alternative-minded rockers to cover it. In 1996, the Afghan Whigs released a cover of it as a bonus track of their “Going to Town” CD single. 

I’ll skip ahead to the next decade, when former and future Belly frontwoman Tanya Donelly shared her sweet version of “Moon River” on the 2010 Sing Me to Sleep: Indie Lullabies compilation.

The next year, the retro-minded Puppini Sisters – whose close harmonies are a thing of wonder – sang it on their Hollywood album.  

The British singer-songwriter Rumer, who pretty much makes every song she sings hers, included a version of it on her 2014 B-Sides & Rarities set. 

Frank Ocean surprised fans in February 2018 with his rendition of the song…

And, finally, here’s the rendition that sent me on this journey: Melody Gardot’s. Her luminous version can be found on this year’s Sunset in the Blue.

On a chilly eve in late December 2014, Diane and I traveled from our suburban enclave to center-city Philadelphia, home to the region’s best concert hall (acoustically speaking, that is), the Kimmel Center. It was for no mere concert, however. It was for an audience with the queen – the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. 

She was touring in support of her then-recent Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.

It was a great, if odd show. The evening began with “(Your Love Is Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” and included such stalwarts as “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby),” “Ain’t No Way,” “Angel,” “Don’t Play That Song,” “Freeway of Love” and – of course – “Respect,” as well as her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which she turned into a medley with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The Williams Brothers joined her for “Precious Memories.” Also in the set: the Christmas carol “O Holy Night”; “The Way We Were” (which she sang offstage); and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” (Yes, you read that last one right – the Irving Berlin song from Annie Get Your Gun. It was reminiscent of when we saw Van Morrison, decades earlier, cover “Send in the Clowns.”)

Like I said, it was a great, if odd show. 

Other oddities: After 30 minutes, or thereabouts, she left the stage for a full 10 minutes. While the band vamped, we were treated to pictures from her holiday party. And, after singing with the Williams Brothers, she left the stage and let them take the spotlight for a few songs.

It wasn’t the best concert I’ve seen in my life – but it gave glimpses of what Aretha must have been like in a live setting in, say, 1970 or ’71.

I’ve uploaded my video of “Respect” and the Berlin send-off to YouTube (but am leaving it unlisted due to its poor quality):

The Allentown Morning Call reviewed the show, which can be found here. Philadelphia Magazine reviewed it, too. 

And Diane, who saw Aretha once before, asked to chime in:

The weirdness of the show didn’t matter to me—Aretha invited us (the audience) into her world for a bit and played songs that are the heartbeat soundtrack to my life. Jeff surprised me with tickets to this show, which was a good thing, because the first time I saw Aretha was a show in Atlantic City, and I left it rather disgruntled with the idea of never seeing her live again. She barely acknowledged the audience’s existence and seemed put out at being there.

This show—even with the pictures of her party and the Williams Brothers—was a much better memory to have of the greatest woman performer in rock and soul, the icon, the Queen. I walked down to the front when she performed the song that never gets old or careworn. Aretha may be gone but ‘Respect’ and her musical legacy will never suffer with the aging process.

Thank you, Jeff, for getting those tickets!

As I mentioned in Friday’s countdown, “This Guy’s in Love With You” may well have been lost to time if not for Herb Alpert reaching out to Burt Bacharach and asking if he had any old tunes lying around that had never been recorded. Bacharach offered him “This Guy.” Alpert liked the melody, that there was a break where he could insert a trumpet solo, and that it didn’t require vocal gymnastics on his part. He was a horn player, after all, not a singer.

That clip comes from Alpert’s TV special The Beat of the Brass, which aired on CBS on April 22, 1968. The 45 was released the same month, and flew up the charts, eventually spending four weeks at No. 1 and becoming the year’s seventh most popular single.

The song’s soothing, sweet melody can’t be denied; it lingers with you long after the song is over. Lyrically speaking, it’s the declaration of a head-over-heels guy (or gal) laying it on the line to his dream gal (or guy). It works equally well no matter the gender of the singer, or who they’re singing to. Love is love, after all.

Anyway, it quickly became one of those songs every vocalist of note wanted to sing, and I thought it might be fun to spotlight some of those other versions here. Dusty Springfield, for example, recorded it for her Dusty…Definitely LP, released on November 22, 1968 – not that folks in the U.S. heard it (except via import). Dusty was on different record labels in the U.S. and the U.K., and Atlantic – her American home – decided not to release the album. It wouldn’t become available in the States until 1972, when it was included on the A Tribute to Burt Bacharach compilation LP. (It’s since been included on a handful of best-of/rarities collections, including Dusty in London.)

Here’s the audio of her singing it on the All Kinds of Music TV special, which was broadcast in the UK on Christmas Day 1968:

That same November, the Temptations and the Supremes released their own version on Diana Ross & the Supremes Join the Temptations LP.

Before both of them, however, Petula Clark included her rendition of it on her 1968 Petula LP, which was released in the U.S. in September 1968.

Dionne Warwick, a frequent collaborator with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, also recorded it for her Promises, Promises album, which was also released in November 1968. It would become one of her greatest hits when it was released as a single the following year; it rose to No. 7 in the charts.

Also in 1969, Ella Fitzgerald covered it on her Sunshine of Your Love album. Here she is on TV performing it…

Sammy Davis Jr. also laid down a jazzy rendition of it on The Goin’s Great the same year. Here he is in Germany:

In early 1970, Aretha Franklin released her This Girl’s in Love With You album, though the song wasn’t issued as a single.

That same year, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles covered it on their whatlovehas… concept album.

Hundreds of others have covered it in the years since (and thousands more in karaoke bars). In 1982, the Reels – an Aussie pop-rock band – scored a No. 7 hit with it Down Under:

In 2009, jazz-pop singer Jane Moneheit included her dreamy take on the song on her The Lovers, the Dreamers and Me album:

Here’s She & Him (Zooey “One Day You’ll Be Cool” Deschanel & M. Ward) from their 2014 album Classics:

Finally, British singer-songwriter Rumer released her rendition of it on This Girl’s in Love: A Bacharach & David Songbook in late 2016. (That’s Burt Bacharach himself at the song’s start.) It and Dusty’s are my favorite versions, though every rendition has something going for it.