One thing every great vocalist needs is a great lyric to sing. Sure people say "she's so fantastic she could sing the phone book and it would be great", but seriously who really wants to hear that? A stupendous voice deserves an equally amazing lyric, so that as well as technical perfection we can be moved on an emotional, spiritual and (when it's done really well) a physical level. This last week we lost one of the greatest lyricists of popular music, Hal David. I absolutely love the songs he collaborated on with Burt Bacharach and in their prime when working with the divine Dionne Warwick (see my earlier blog Golden Legacy) they created songs so timeless they have become standards of pop perfection.
Of course Hal and Burt's work with Dionne was just a part of their prodigious output and so today I want to pay tribute to what I consider to be not just three of Hal's greatest lyrics, but three of the best lyrics to be found in all of pop music. I have also chosen, out of the many many cover versions you will find, who I think gave the best vocal interpretation.
What The World Needs Now Is Love - Jackie DeShannon
Originally written in 1965 this anthemic ballad was offered to Dionne, but she inexplicably passed. Next in line was singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon, who had just had her big break supporting The Beatles on tour. Her fragile rock voice perfectly suited the deceptive simplicity of a lyric that in essence is a plea for love to be the dominant force in the world. Jackie does not have the power and range of Dionne, but perhaps because of that she focuses more on the meaning, adding a sense of desperation to the plea that is lost in some other powerhouse vocal versions. It is a truly lovely song and Hal's direct and unfussy lyric allowed it to reach the broadest possible audience. Dionne later reclaimed it and it has become a staple of her live shows, as it is the perfect audience participation number. By not referencing current events, Hal made sure the song could continue to be meaningful to future generations and with each decade's new challenges it has given strength and comfort to many.
I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself - Dusty Springfield
Break-up songs are the staple of pop music, we all have our go-to records that perfectly sum-up the pain and misery we felt over a particular romantic meltdown. There are the angry ones, the revenge ones, the "I told you so" ones, but I've always been drawn to the "what the hell do I do now?" ones. The greatest example of this latter genre is this masterly composition from Hal and Burt. The melody is one of Bacharach's best, mournful and subdued in the verses, the chorus soars into a plaintive cri de coeur. Hal's lyric is total perfection, again it is direct and concise, but he manages to sum up the core heartache in one elegant phrase: "I'm so used to doing everything with you, planning everything for two, and now that we're through...".
The song was originally recorded by Tommy Hunt in 1962, but failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart. When Dusty Springfield visited Burt in New York in February 1964 he played her a number of songs she might like to record and she immediately saw the potential in this gem. Dusty's vocal is a masterclass, she takes her time, landing every word, slowly adding heartache to her voice, until it spills over in the final heartrending moments. Like the consummate singer-actress she was, she begins from a place of calm, trying to hold her emotions together before it all becomes too much to bear. Of course I am not suggesting Dusty loses control of her instrument: that is an impossibility for her. Instead she shows that a great singer uses tone and inflection rather than histrionics to pluck those heartstrings. One of my favourite Dusty vocals and the best break-up song ever.
Alfie - Alison Moyet
This has to be one of the most-covered Bacharach & David songs, everybody from Cher to Blossom Dearie has had a go, which is not surprising as it is truly sublime. Originally written as the theme to the Michael Caine movie in 1965, it was originally recorded by Cilla Black, who famously struggled somewhat with the song's range and Burt pushed her into numerous takes trying to find the "magic". Cilla's version is well-suited to the movie, sounding authentic as the soundtrack to a sixties Brit-flick, but try as I might I struggle to love Cilla's voice. I just don't get it. Thankfully I have dozens of alternative Alfie's to choose from and for me the ultimate version is from another Brit diva, the incomparable Alison Moyet.
Hal wrote the lyrics after reading the movie script and cleverly stole the "What's it all about?" line direct from Caine's mouth. It is the jumping off point for the most sophisticated and philosophical pop lyric ever written, which explains why so many singers want to have a bash at it. It is pure poetry from start to finish, with an impossible amount of meaning and story crammed in to just seventeen lines. I've never seen the movie, but I find it hard to believe it can better the song in terms of storytelling. Alison recorded it in 2004 during sessions for her Voice album. The arrangement by the wonderful Anne Dudley is sparse allowing Alison's sonorous voice to wring every ounce of feeling from the song. One of the very best things about Alison is she has never lost her true character from her voice, she's still Alf from Basildon, which means she always sounds totally authentic. For me Alison's voice just gets better and better and if you've never had the chance to see her live, take the next opportunity you can, as she sounds even better than she does on record. A new Alison album is imminent I believe, so I'll no doubt be returning to the subject in the near future.
So thank you Hal David for providing the world with some of the greatest lyrics we have had the good fortune to hear and for giving our best vocalists something meaningful to sing. You had the magic ability to create layers of meaning from the most simple of phrases and to cut right to the core of human experience. I have no doubt your lyrics will live for as long as humans are singing and probably beyond. Good night and sleep well.
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