Sunday 15 April 2012

Slim WHITMAN: The Very Best Of Slim Whitman

(#165: 7 February 1976, 6 weeks)

Track listing: Rose Marie/Cool Water/I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen/I Remember You/Secret Love/Snowbird/Ramblin’ Rose/Love Song Of The Waterfall/The Old Spinning Wheel/It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie/Happy Anniversary/The Twelfth Of Never/Serenade/Roses Are Red (My Love)/China Doll/Walking In The Sunshine/When You Were Sweet Sixteen/Honeymoon Feelin’/Have I Told You Lately That I Love You/Indian Love Call

“Country music deals with everyday problems that most people can identify with. Some of it is about beer halls and broken homes and divorces, some of it about ordinary, everyday occurrences. When people hear that music, they get a feeling that they belong to the music and the music belongs to them.”
(“Cousin” Minnie Pearl, quoted in Tony Palmer, All You Need Is Love: The Story Of Popular Music, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Chappell & Company Limited, 1976, chapter 10: “Making Moonshine – Country Music”)

“I have had a time of seriousness, and I have known the importance and reality of a religious belief. Lately, I acknowledge, much of my seriousness has gone off, whether from new company, or some other new associations; but I still retain at bottom a conviction of the truth, and a certainty of the usefulness of religion.”
(Charles Lamb, letter to Walter Wilson, August 1801)

I do not intend to overplay the importance of the working class vote in this current run of number one albums, but then I do not feel it can be overplayed. When the Scots and Irish first came to settle in America, making their way to the Ozarks and Appalachians, they found an enclosed kind of impoverishment, a hard and tough living that was in many respects only made bearable by their sense of community. Isolated by geography and circumstance, they learned to rely on themselves and developed their own music; by “developed” I mean take the ancient folk songs they had taken over with them and adapt them so that they would become relevant to their current way of living and their current society. As these things have a way of developing, what became known as hillbilly music, and finally as country music, evolved from these beginnings. It’s not so far a step to think of mid-seventies Glasgow, in its own ways suffering its own kind of impoverishment, with a similar bunking-in of communities, sticking together with its means and its music. In direct contrast to nineteenth century America, the North suffered while the South prospered and modernised.

As the twentieth century “progressed,” country music had its own ambitions. Jimmie Rodgers was the key figure here with his yodels and his shared fascination for that abstract goal known as “the West.” More than anyone, he, or at least one strand of his music, paved the way for the singing cowboys, the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, whose aim was certainly more concerned with “ordinary, everyday occurrences,” just as they built a cinematic fantasia of an idealised West where everybody got on, ornery rustlers were rounded up and horses were rode into the sunset.

So it is not surprising that both Rodgers and Autry were early idols of Slim Whitman, who came from the decidedly non-Western town of Tampa, in Florida, and who after seeing wartime service in the US Navy set about developing a musical career for himself. He followed the tried and trusted route of Louisiana Hayride and suchlike, and by the early fifties had become a major country star, in large part due to the efforts made by his discoverer and manager, one Colonel Tom Parker; at one open-air concert in Overton Park, Memphis, another Parker client, Elvis Presley, appeared as Whitman’s support act.

Curiously this popularity did not enable crossover to the pop market; Whitman’s only major pop hit was “Indian Love Call,” which peaked at #9 on Billboard in 1953. In Britain, however, the story became rather different; “Rose Marie” had been a “sleeper” single, released here in October 1954, it had done nothing for nine months until a marketing push was applied, in part the 1954 MGM musical adaptation (or bastardisation, since little of the original material was retained) of the twenties operetta Rose Marie, starring Ann Blyth and Howard Keel (set amongst the community of Mounties, the work, and therefore the song, are secretly Canadian), and in part the efforts of an enthusiastic plugger and a receptive Radio Luxembourg. The single went to number one here and stayed there for eleven consecutive weeks, a record that stood until 1991 (and, with great generosity of spirit, when Bryan Adams broke that record, he was playing a season at Wembley and invited Whitman to come onstage and perform the song), and thus launched a brief but very successful chart career for Whitman here. Less than two years later, Elvis had triumphed and Whitman’s hits dried up, but the point remains that marketing played a vital role in his popularity to an extent which at the time was not really paralleled.

When the hits stopped, Whitman was not particularly concerned; he had become a popular live draw and simply continued to tour and record for the next few decades, averaging two or three albums a year. In the autumn of 1974 he unexpectedly returned to the UK Top 20 with “Happy Anniversary,” and shortly afterwards took advantage of the telemarketing boom; he was perhaps the first artist to benefit from specially assembled albums to be advertised on TV. The Very Best Of Slim Whitman, despite a cover illustration that makes Whitman look more like Howard Keel, and an Our Price sticker-style note on the upper right of the cover which indicates “20 SUPERB TRACKS,” was an immediate beneficiary; this is a year where nearly all the number one albums depended either on the power of television, in one way or another, or on the continued popularity of rock superstars (only two of these fourteen albums do not fall under either category, and they may well be the year’s two most significant albums). Indeed, in South Africa, the album was simply entitled 20 Superb Tracks, and I wish more of today’s acts would have the brassneck to entitle their albums similarly.

Then again, note that the album offers “20 SUPERB TRACKS” rather than the “20 ORIGINAL TRACKS” of the Roy Orbison collection. In other words, and with the exception of “Happy Anniversary,” these are not the original recordings; rather they are compiled from the long series of albums Whitman recorded for Imperial, and then United Artists, spanning the years 1962-1974, with particular emphasis on 1967’s 15th Anniversary Album, from which many of the more familiar tracks are taken. Strangely enough, and unlike Orbison, the added years do not seem to make much palpable difference; Whitman’s songs and delivery are so timeless as to defy dating. The tracks do not encompass the entirety of Whitman’s UK chart career – two 1956 Top 20 hits, “I’m A Fool” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” are absent – but, if anything, age improves his perspective on these songs. Given that Whitman was already in his thirties at the time of his initial breakthrough, the difference is minimal enough to pass for immaterial.

His original “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” for instance, contains little of the world-weariness and barely concealed despair we hear in the 1967 reading; written by an Indiana reform schoolmaster in the 1870s, probably with the traditional Irish ballad “Blow Out The Candle” in mind, this version casts Whitman as a more obvious redeemer, and even saviour; dreadful things have clearly happened to his once (and, in his mind, still) “bonnie bride” and he rushes to return her to life and hope. Here his habitual and abrupt leaps from counter-tenor to falsetto (not quite yodelling) carry emotional weight, for example in the line “Your voice is sa-AD when you speak.” He speaks of delivering her from the hostile outside world “to where your heart will feel no pain.” The supra-falsetto he finds on the climactic “green” is heartbreaking; these are adult feelings and emotions, scraps from lives lived, and he is trying to see whether a life can not only be relived, but saved. It is an extremely moving performance.

“Love Song Of The Waterfall” was his first major country hit and set out his trademarks; a high, wordless falsetto opening, contrasted with his deeper natural singing voice – a bridge between female and male. “This is heaven’s mating call” he gasps, ready to ride the rougher terrain of the “Plunging over rugged rocks” middle eight. “Indian Love Call” followed shortly thereafter, the singer answering his own echoes – he is crying out for love but only really talking to himself – with a characteristic background of sustained vibraharp, gentle acoustic guitar and distant, wan pedal steel. Were it not for the pedal steel, and the entirely different emotional approach, this, as with many of these tracks, could be a Jim Reeves record, except that I find Whitman’s voice and approach considerably easier going than Reeves. Where Reeves suffers nobly, or ignobly, in the manner of Thomas Hardy – he’ll endure anything but never lets the listener forget that there’s something he’s trying to tell them, to communicate to them – Whitman is much more of a Charles Lamb figure; he floats benignly above his songs and affably warns against taking them too seriously.

Then again, Whitman’s sustained good humour and conventionality do sometimes make the listener wonder about the underbelly, if any; more than Orbison, he seems the perfect David Lynch figure – he’s so seamlessly normal that there must be something awry (not the case in his actual, blameless life) – and “Rose Marie” is an extremely strange song to be at number one for eleven weeks. The opening piano, one swooping note pedal steel and acoustic guitar set the scene for another wordless, near-androgynous vocal incantation, and as Whitman settles into the song, you realise how unsettling the song actually is: “Sometimes I wish I’d never met you,” “Of all the queens that ever lived, I’d choose you to rule me” – this is not an uncomplicated declaration of love, much more of an expression of deadly obsession. And, when not in falsetto, he does sound awfully close to Orbison.

Still, I wondered where I’d heard that combination of pleading-verging-on-craving vocal, weeping pedal steel and general use of space before. I thought of “Harvest Moon” – needless to say, there’s a lot of Whitman in Neil Young (when it’s not Slim, it’s Walt) – but then the penny dropped; the record reminds me of nothing so much as “Boyfriend” by Justin Bieber. That downward-weeping drone which persists throughout the song might as well be a pedal steel; and Bieber, too, is almost praying for love and faith with his vulnerability (see also Elton John’s “Blue Eyes” which, with its accent on the singer’s rarely-used lower register, is practically a Whitman song in reverse); it is by some distance his best record to date.

Then “Indian Love Call” finally became a hit here; its double A-side “China Doll” was listed separately and is this record’s strangest and most disturbing song. On the rear sleeve is a photo of a white-suited Whitman onstage, putting his band through their paces (by the looks of things, indicating a downbeat), and with his florid handlebar moustache, sideburns and general air of tall rectitude, the picture could almost pass as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (except Cave would never dress in white). He begins the song by exclaiming “I’m tired of cryin’” and proposes to live his life hereafter with a China doll who will not cheat on him or lie to him as his Other has done (“someone just like you with a heart of stone”). “Her eyes are bluer,” he croons, “her faults are fewer.” He can trust her not to lie to him, for lying represents to Whitman the line in the moral sand (“It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie” indeed). I note the little section of Chinese music which concludes the piece, and shiver at the song’s implications.

Not that Whitman was much for going into the darkness. His “Snowbird” and “Ramblin’ Rose” are regretful rather than accusatory (and neither song is really suited to Whitman, the busy single-note sitar-like guitar picking on the first verse of “Snowbird” notwithstanding, which made me briefly think of the Stylistics). His “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie” is nearly drowned under Ray Conniff choir treacle but it’s a fine and dramatic performance, as his hurting “Just because these words are spo-oh-KEN!!” demonstrates. Likewise, his “Roses Are Red” – very different from Perry Como’s, but it’s remarkable how this same circle of songs comes round again and again – is polite and noble. His take on “Cool Water” is markedly different from Frankie Laine’s; instead of clenched rage, he appears to merge with the desert, so serene and unconcerned is his vocal. If nobody else sees the oasis, is that because he himself is, or has become, the oasis? The feeling, with judicious use of echo and brushes, and a similar tenor of dislocation, is not far removed from Presley’s “Blue Moon,” and again there is that single note, humming drone of pedal steel – Joe Meek, yes, but also OMD (see 1980’s “Statues”).

Generally, however, Whitman deals with happy songs, either concerning long-lasting love – in several songs he emphasises the importance of weddings and marriage – or reflections on times past. His “I Remember You” is a subtle sideways nod to Frank Ifield, whose original recording was inspired by Whitman, and although this doesn’t have Ifield’s rugged Brave New World approach, overall it’s probably a better reading; his two-syllable “ca-all” as part of the word “recall” and his subtle reorganisation of the song’s harmonies. As an incidental finding, I also note some precedence for the work of Jimmy Somerville, who would have been about fifteen when this record was first around (Billy MacKenzie I am taking as a given). Nothing disturbs Whitman too much; he canters amiably through “Secret Love” as though riding a horse throughout, with whistling to fade and a few characteristic touches such as the upward arch of “doo-oo-oor” to make the listener forget to wonder exactly what is supposed to be so secret about Whitman’s love; he is one of the least “secret” figures in this tale.

“Serenade,” originally a 1956 hit here, was also tackled by Mario Lanza; wisely, Whitman ignores the temptation to do a Lanza and drifts through the song, with its restless solo violin line – since it is harmonically a very tricky song, this is quite an achievement, although note the appearance of the bolero rhythm at the song’s climax (“I have known the magic…”). Taken in tandem with the very Orbison-esque tom-toms which soundtrack Whitman’s “Twelfth Of Never,” complete with the little harpsichord figure which twirls out of the phrase “April snow” (possibly influenced by the Beatles’ “In My Life” since the record was made in 1968), and we get a picture of a benign Orbison, one without paranoia, doubt or heartache.

There is a series of songs of happiness and devotion. Roger Miller’s “Walking In The Sunshine,” from 1969, is a chirpy affair with rinky-dink organ and an almost reggae-like rhythm (Whitman too was popular in Jamaica). “A snowy pasture, a green and grassy field” – it’s all the same to Slim; he finds equal or matching pleasures in both. “When You Were Sweet Sixteen” (again repeated from the Como collection) is an extremely different reading from Como’s; there are no verses at all, just the chorus (and he changes “since first I saw you on the village green” to “since first I met you”), followed by a talking section; despite its deliberate anachronisms (“Our first date together,” “Yes, honey”), it is a particularly affecting piece, largely because Whitman plays it absolutely straight and sounds as though he means it; I realise that he may be singing directly to his wife, to whom he was married for sixty-six years (she died in 2009, having been ill for some time with kidney disease; he has two children and at the time of writing continues to record). See also “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” – not the Van Morrison song, but it must have helped inspire it – where he sings of his devotion but only partly buries the dread of his world ending (cf. his life ending, as he fears, in “Rose Marie”).

But the two songs explicitly devoted to celebrating the joys of marriage are maybe the most touching. “Happy Anniversary” may sound a little corny if, like me, you were ten when it came out, but as a happily married man of nearly fifty I find it a very sweet song, delivered with truthfulness. “It’s not getting older, just much better” indeed! And “Honeymoon Feelin’,” co-written by the same author, Gary Paxton, is a dainty celebration of the joys of…well, still doing it (“Every time you touch me, it’s still the living end”). An onomatopoeic pedal steel gives its approval, and the song makes you wonder that this is a subject matter rarely touched upon in popular song; that of long-term partners still, shall we say, making whoopee.

The only song not yet touched upon is “The Old Spinning Wheel,” hymn-like with a miraculous middle instrumental section where pedal steel and guitars electric and acoustic meld into a sort of organ-like drone. “There’s that old spinnin’ wheel in the parlor,” muses Whitman, “Spinnin’ dreams of the long, long ago,” and with its meditative use of words like “twilight,” “organ” and “Old Black Joe,” it feels like a song going back to the very beginnings, of those early arrivals on the East Coast and the songs, memories and beliefs they brought with them.

That’s all there is to the album, I could say at this point, an album I remember being played on neighbours’ record players, or hearing in the shops in Hamilton; the notion of gatherings of family and friends, a few wee drams, a bit of a singalong (this album is primed towards a “singalong” audience). And yet I know that isn’t all there is to the album, or indeed Whitman. This, after all, is the first man the young George Harrison saw holding a guitar, let along playing it, and therefore inspired him to take up the instrument. Likewise, Paul McCartney, noting the left-handed set-up of Whitman’s guitar, thought there might be a place for left-handed guitarists after all, and started playing. An aspiring young Irish guitarist named Gilbert O’Sullivan, who also happened to be left-handed, wrote to Whitman asking if he could send him one of his custom left-handed guitars, but unsurprisingly never received a reply; frustrated, he switched to drums for awhile before settling for the piano.

It just keeps expanding. On a compilation CD variously titled The Paul Weller Jukebox and The Roots Of Paul Weller, the man from Woking picks the tracks which he felt most influenced him in his youth, and among them is Whitman’s 1953 reading of “Danny Boy” (a song not reproduced here). Moreover, Michael Jackson named Whitman as one of his ten favourite singers of all time. Impressive for a man who gained international stardom just about everywhere except his own country; in the late seventies, taking his TV-inspired success as a model, he started to advertise his albums on TV, available on mail order only, and found that these began to sell in the millions. The original “Love Song On The Waterfall” is the song played at the tollbooth in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. A strange but logical futurism marks Whitman’s every move, or at least seemed to do so.

But the Michael Jackson approval might be the most significant factor here. I believe that this album did so well in Britain because it represented something a large number of British people needed; a reliable singer, singing to his audience in a language they could instantly understand, offering songs to lean on (Sydney Devine, a huge star in Scotland from the seventies onwards, is effectively Bellshill’s answer, or strictly speaking Cleland’s answer, to Whitman, with his songs about silver-haired grannies and renegade grandchildren). But it’s that indeterminate register again, the female/male bridge I mentioned earlier, the notion that these performances could as well be given by women as by men. There is a similar indeterminacy, or encyclopaedic desire to reach as many people as possible, in Jackson’s work; consider, for instance, his sudden intervallic leaps in “Beat It.” Or think of Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” a song sung entirely in the style of Whitman (Bryan Ferry himself is somewhere between Noel Coward, Alex Glasgow and Whitman, and not necessarily a stranded somewhere), a song which could well be done as a country tune. If Johnny Cash was the Man in Black, Whitman is the irrepressible Man in White, his purity of tone and intent indicating that his music belongs to you, and you to it.