Saturday, August 28, 2010

Torch Songs: Torch Song Trilogy

I couldn’t resist using the title of this post this week. I knew it had to be a three-song post at week’s end. Fortunately, there are plenty of great songs available.

k d lang: Black Coffee


We’ve been hearing the name Peggy Lee a lot lately, and yes, Black Coffee was one of her signature tunes. It was also recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, so it certainly qualifies for our theme. K d lang did this wonderful version with the legendary Nashville producer on her album Shadowland. Lang’s voice is perfect for this or any torch song. If she ever does an album of torch songs with a small jazz ensemble, I’ll be the first one in line to get it.

Lyle Lovett: All My Love is Gone


Lyle Lovett is known for not-quite country music, as well as his later large band experiments. His songs are often quirky, with his droll sense of humor and taste for bizarre and absurd scenarios coming through. But All My Love Is Gone is a fine example of torch song purity, and Lovett nails it with his performance. He plays it straight here, and it really works.

Was (Not Was) featuring Mel Torme: Zaz Turned Blue


Not that I have anything against the bizarre and absurd. Mel Torme, in his heyday, was known as the Velvet Fog for his silky smooth vocal delivery. In the early days of Was (Not Was), David Was was working as a jazz reviewer, and he wrote a glowing review of a Mel Torme concert. Torme, in gratitude, reached out to Was (Not Was) and offered his services. A hasty decision, perhaps. The result was Zaz Turned Blue. The Wases wrote it as a spoof of the crooner genre, setting a strange tale to a melody and arrangement that sound like torch song heaven. This one fits right in with our theme, until you catch the words. But a funny thing happened. Mel Torme not only performed the song on the album, he also added it to his concert repertoire. So in the eyes of Was (Not Was), this one may have started as a practical joke or Torme, but if so, it backfired.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Torch Songs: A Long Way Down

Driver Quartet: A Long Way Down

[out of print]

I've written about Driver Quartet before, but when I saw what this week's theme was, I knew I had to post another song from them.

"A Long Way Down" is another Adam Bernstein original, recorded for both their EP and their album. This time I went with the earlier, EP recording.

Those of us who have been there know: It is indeed a long way down.

Torch Songs: You Don't Know What Love Is

image by Roy Lichtenstein, 1963

Karrin Allyson: You Don't Know What Love Is


John Coltrane: You Don't Know What Love Is


You don't know what love is
'Til you’ve learned the meaning of the blues,
Until you’ve loved a love you've had to lose,
You don't know what love is.

Here's a classic jazz torch song from the Great American Songbook. But who torches it better? Gal, guy, or… Well, can you have a torch song without lyrics? I think so.

Representing for the women is Karrin Allyson, from her 2001 Grammy-nominated album, Ballads: A Tribute to John Coltrane. A nice, church-going girl from Kansas, she skipped around the midwest before settling in New York City and releasing 12 albums (and counting).

Saving the best for last, we have a classic take by John Coltrane (yet another heroin addict, but one who kicked his habit after several firings by Miles Davis, another—you guessed it—reformed addict. The smack-filled 50s were especially hard on jazz musicians). From 1962's Ballads, a gem of an album if you like your Coltrane mellow. That's McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. This version has my vote. If you don't think that listening to Coltrane is a religious experience, maybe you should visit San Francisco and check out a service at the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. From their website I learned that the weekly service features "the Coltrane Liturgy, which combines the Divine Liturgy of the African Orthodox Church and the Twenty-third Psalm, with the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of Saint John Coltrane's masterpiece: A Love Supreme."

Torch Songs: Beulah The Good

James Jackson Toth: Beulah the Good


I've wanted to post this song for quite sometime now but have been patiently waiting for a theme that it would fit. When I first learned of this song by James Jackson Toth, I didn't know that he was the front man for Wooden Wand And The Vanishing Voice. He has also recorded under the name WAND. On this track his former wife, Jessica Bowen, serves up the background vocals. Dylanesque in sound, Beulah The Good is a surreal take on a tale of lost love with lines such as 'It was like I lost my favorite hair between the bristles of a broom'. That said, I'll let the song take it from here.

Torch Songs: Nothing Compares 2 U

Sinead O'Connor: Nothing Compares 2 U


These days torch songs don't often make the charts, or at least the ones that sound as melancholy as the subject matter within them don't. But one of the saddest and most beautiful torch songs to have made it to #1 in the last few decades was Sinead O'Connor's fantastic cover of the Prince-written "Nothing Compares 2 U".

Back in 1990 when this song came out people were blown away by not only the beauty of the song, but by the simplistic and emotional video that went with it. A video mostly of O'Connor staring at the camera and singing, and at one point a single tear rolls down her cheek as you know she's feeling the words she's singing. If you ask me, Nothing Compares 2 this song.

Torch Songs: Why Don’t You Do Right?

Jessica Rabbit (sung by Amy Irving): Why Don‘t You Do Right


As we have seen this week already, “torch song” is a slippery term, hard to define. But I know a definition that captures it exactly. A torch song is that moment in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where we first meet Jessica Rabbit. Jessica’s speaking voice was done by Kathleen Turner, who used a Lauren Bacall kind of voice that was perfect. So I was surprised to learn that Turner didn’t do Jessica’s singing voice. That was Amy Irving, who I never knew could sing. The song, of course, was Why Don’t You Do Right?, and here it is. The song was originally a signature song for Peggy Lee, but I would have to say that Jessica more than does it justice.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Torch Songs: Motown


The Four Tops: Standing in the Shadows of Love


Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: The Tracks of my Tears


The Temptations: Since I Lost My Baby


I wonder what was going on in the love lives of Motown's hit makers circa 1965-66? These three songs from that seemingly woeful year were huge successes for their biggest names, and they're all torch songs by men (yeah, Darius, I agree: guys sing this genre quite well!) Standing in the Shadows of Love was written by the noteworthy and prolific trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland (they wrote nearly everything Motown produced), and the last two songs were penned by Smokey Robinson (who, along with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, wrote most of the rest).

Looks like the Motown bunch were crying all the way to the bank.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Torch Songs: One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)

Lou Reed: One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)


From the album simply entitled Duets, Lou Reed and bassist Rob Wasserman have produced a great cover of this fine old standard. But it's is a departure from most of the other versions I'm familiar with. You might say this isn't your father's 'One For My Baby'. Written for the musical comedy film 'The Sky's The Limit', starring Fred Astaire, Reed and Wasserman take this song to a new level. Interestingly the word torch was added in a line that replaces one from the original and that seems to be tailor made for this weeks theme. For the sake of comparison I've included the Johnny Mercer track as well.

Johnny Mercer: One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)


Monday, August 23, 2010

Torch Songs: Faded Love

Patsy Cline: Faded Love


One of the most influential singers to ever come out of the Nashville sound was Patsy Cline (Virginia Patterson Hensley). Her career lasted only five-and-a-half years before the fateful plane crash that took her life. During those five years she recorded the classic Walkin' After Midnight, I Fall to Pieces, She's Got You, Crazy , and Sweet Dreams. In 1963 she covered the Bob Wills song Faded Love. Her version became a hit on the country charts reaching number seven, but it wasn't released until after her death. It is the title track of her fourth album which was to become her final recording session. It was reported that she cried through most of the session, being taken by many of the song's lyrics. The emotion was carried into most of the songs on the album, but can be heard especially on Sweet Dreams and Faded Love. I first became acquainted with Faded Love, not by Patsy Cline, but by Micky Gilley. It wasn't until years later that I heard Patsy's cover, but as much as I liked Gilley's, I realized then and there that I had been missing out.

Torch Songs: Wicked Game

Chris Isaak: Wicked Game


As we move through our new theme, it would help to have a definition of the term “torch song”. On the sidebar, you will see “sentimental songs of unrequited love”. Certainly, that’s part of it. But some of the classic torch songs depict a love that is requited for a time, and then lost. Others depict a love that is slipping away, usually because of the misbehavior of the party being sung about. has the definition as “a popular song concerned with unhappiness or failure in love”, and that covers the range of possible topics better. That definition also says that the term dates from 1925-30, which is earlier than I expected. That means that torch songs predate the big band era. So, stylistically, torch songs begin with the Tin Pan Alley sound and really start to flourish with the big bands. After World War II, things get interesting. Most people would look at the classic crooners of the 1950s, and say that torch songs belong especially to the female contingent of that group. But you also find jazz singers working with small groups, doing material that certainly would qualify. And then there is country music. I would say that the country divas of that period certainly should be considered torch singers as well.

So, is it only a torch song if it is sung by a woman? I would say not. The singer must be the party who is wronged or unfulfilled in love. The fact that more male torch singers can be found nowadays than in the past reflects changes in gender roles in our society.

Finally, this brings me to Chris Isaak and Wicked Game. Musically, this one does not fit any of the classic sounds. Certainly the subject fits, and the song could be arranged to fit perfectly. I can imagine kd lang doing this one with a full orchestra. But Chris Isaak’s original is also a torch song. That’s because of his approach as a singer. We hear that this is an idealized love that went astray, and we hear in his performance the combination of love and hurt that makes a torch song. That’s good enough for me.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tobacco / Torch Songs: Don't Smoke In Bed

Peggy Lee: Don't Smoke In Bed


Susan had originally planned on posting a different version of Don't Smoke In Bed this week, but since she never got to it, I'm taking the opportunity to offer my own favorite take on this old torch song.

Nothing against Nina Simone - she's the queen. But I just love the way songwriter Peggy Lee's original vocals grow ever distant and echoey towards the end of the song, as if her voice were fading slowly into the night. It's a chilling treatment of the sparse lyrics, a fitting tribute to the woman that some cite as the world's first truly famous singer-songwriter - and an apt transition into a week of songs that lament unrequited, unfinishable, lost or incompatible love.