Songs of Loss and Longing

The pandemic has me going through the old record and CD collections and I found myself looking for songs of loss and longing that dug really deep. I wound up revisiting songs that seemed delightful trifles in their original versions but were transformed to downright profundity by some extraordinary interpreters.

Take the Carole King/Gerry Goffin-penned Drifters hit, “Up on the Roof.”  Here it is in the original

It’s a catchy as hell pop song. However, in 1971 the inestimably great singer/songwriter Laura Nyro got her hands on it, and found levels of sublimely poignant, yet hopeful world-weariness that you would never have guessed could be plumbed from the notes and lyrics. It not only tells you how great an interpreter Nyro is, but also reminds you how great a song King and Goffin wrote.

In 1970 Laura Nyro released an entire album of Motown covers. They included a song called “The Bells.” Written by Marvin Gaye and originally performed by The Originals, it sounded like this:

Laura Nyro, backed by Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sara Dash, turned a somewhat callow-sounding love song into a naked, desperate plea that can sound downright frightening in its intensity. When Nyro sings, “If you ever leave me I believe I’ll go insane…,” you believe her. Again, it makes you appreciate the depth of the early pen of Marvin Gaye:

You’ve probably heard Marvin Gaye and Tammi Tyrell’s irresistible, sunny Motown classic, “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing.” It’s a spectacular, sunny duet performance of the great songwriting team of Ashford & Simpson’s indelible melody celebrating enduring love.

Aretha Franklin, proving yet again why she was one of the greatest singers to draw breath, reharmonizes the song, loosens up the rhythm, amends the lyrics, and utterly transforms it from an ode to enduring love to a shocked requiem for its loss. There’s now real hurt in the opening stanzas, “I see your picture hanging on the wall…” She removes some lyrics to build toward a climax that begins around 1:50. She sings “Let’s stay together, and then repeats the word “together” with increasing desperation, only to follow with a breathtaking reading of the line, “I’ve got some memories to look back on,” that can break you with the depth of the loss it suggests. What had been an incredible pop song takes on layers of meaning that you may not be able to exactly articulate, but that you most certainly feel.

On his album “Tumbleweed Connection” Elton John included, “Talking Old Soldiers:”

Its potential is there, but John sounds like a third-person narrator despite the first-person lyrics. The song was never fully realized until Bettye Lavette turned third person into first and tore the guts out of it—and you:

Paul McCartney’s song “For No One,” is a pop confection in its original. Emmylou Harris, a singer who can reach Aretha Franklin levels of interpretive genius, did this to it:

Finally, just because they don’t often hear voices like this anymore, the Dells singing “Stay in My Corner.” Wait for the ridiculous display of breath control at 4:24 after the slow burn.

– Leonce Gaiter, Vice-President, Content & Strategy