Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Song of the Day - July 7, 2009

It was the summer of 1966, and a recording session had been arranged at a New York studio with ol' blue eyes himself, Mr. Frank Sinatra. But at the last minute, a Warner Brothers Records rep calls famed songwriter and producer Jerry Ragovoy to say that the session has to be cancelled. Given the short notice, and the fact that the musicians have to be paid, the exec asks Ragovoy if he has anyone to record. Ragovoy did. Lorraine Ellison.

Ellison had done some performing and recording previously with a gospel group, the Ellisons, and under her own name on Mercury. She'd also co-written an R&B track or two that had been placed with other artists, including Jerry Butler. But she hadn't had a major break as a performer when her manager suggested Ragovoy give her a shot.

Amazed by her audition, Ragovoy signed her with his production company, and got her on Warner Brothers. He had been preparing to record her with a 20-piece orchestra when he received the call from the Warner exec, and decided the potentially idel 46-piece ensemble would be the perfect setting for Lorraine.

The orchestra, unaware of Sinatra's cancellation, must have been surprised to see Lorraine, but I can't even imagine how the musicians must have reacted when she began to sing. Knowing that the finished song was done, with the exception of the first eight bars, on the first take seems impossible. I can't imagine any musician keeping his or her thing together upon hearing Lorraine. But somehow, they not only held it together, they kept pace with her. And Stay With Me , a stone-cold soul classic, was forged.

Legend has it that copies of the record traded hands in Harlem for $50 in the day, and you can hear why. No one had quite approach singing like this before. Every vocalist you hear today from Mariah to Whitney follows her template. The uncharitable ears will call it histrionics; I call it a maelstrom. Atop a deep, gospel soul bedrock, her voice swoops and soars when it hits the chorus, ranging somewhere between a howl and a shriek, rocking you to your very core. You either run in fear or stand statue-still overwhelmed by awe. There is no in between.

Though it hit just outside the R&B top ten, it took several years before Stay With Me was recognized as a masterpiece of melisma in the US. It has long been a fave of soul fans in England, however, helped in part by a cover version done by Terry Reid , the man who might have been the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, had he not pointed Jimmy Page in another direction. It's more bluesy, but no less melodramatic. Either way you choose, you're a winner; the shivers they induce stay with you long after the last notes fade... no

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