Friday, April 08, 2011

A Song for the Ages

»... one of the most emotionally devastating recordings in the history of soul music«
(Wayne Jancik in Robert Pruter [ed.]: The Blackwell Guide to Soul Recordings, Oxford 1993, p. 86)

»... an example of pop-soul at its most effectively bombastic«
(Richie Unterberger: Music USA: The Rough Guide, London 1999, p. 30)

»... rightly regarded as a high point in the history of classic soul ballads«
(Larry Grogan, Funky16Corners)

»... probably the greatest R&B ballad ever done«
(Corb Donohue in R. Serge Denisoff: Solid Gold: the popular record industry, New Brunswick 1995, p. 130).

»The track has to be heard to be believed because it simply defies description«
(Bil Carpenter: Uncloudy Days. The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, San Francisco 2005, p. 131)

»I was reminded again of how many great songs there are out there that I have simply forgotten about over the years«

»Did you ever caught yourself breaking down to pieces without a reason? Without absolutely NO reason?!«

Warner Bros. LP # 1674 (1967)
After these introductory quotations, I guess everyone has already understood that I am going to talk about Lorraine Ellison's ballad of the century, »Stay With Me«. It is one of these songs which only chance, in the hands of a merciful music God, can bringt about. A rich legend surrounds this mythical song, and at least the gist of it will probably correspond to what really happened: In spring 1966, a full orchestra of 48 musicians was waiting for Frank Sinatra, to record with him the ballad »Stay With Me«. But Sinatra canceled the date in the last moment when in a nearby studio there were Lorraine Ellison, completely unknown at the time, and her producer Jerry Ragovoy. Somebody came in and told them that in a studio next door there was a huge orchestra waiting for Frank Sinatra who, however, would not appear anymore. Well, Ragovoy immediately recognized what lucky moment that was, so he dragged Lorraine into that studio and presented her to the orchestra. Then he made up a new arrangement for the piece, fitted to Lorraine's voice and style, while the musicians were little enthused and waiting. Eventually one went about recording the song with Lorraine, take one. After Lorraine had finished, the musicians put down their instruments, rose to their feet and gave her a standing ovation. Everybody who had witnessed Lorraine's performance knew that take one was a seminal recording, a song for the ages. That's what the legend says. However, true or not, the recording of that song was in fact the start of Lorraine Ellison's career as a singer.
POSTSCRIPT January 1, 2012: Over on the Boogie Woogie Flu blogspot, a comprehensive piece by Andy Schwartz covering the production work of Jerry Ragovoy has been published. It contains a very detailed account of how he and Lorraine Ellison recorded »Stay With Me« and differs in details from what I wrote above. In particular, there seems to have been two days between Sinatra's cancelling and Ellison's actual recording of the song. This is as legends are. However, the said article does also have interesting material and thoughts about the reception of Ellison's first LP, please check it out!

The unique recording was released as a single few weeks after the legendary studio session. Legend further has it that the single was sold out in New York within a few hours. People reportedly paid $50 for a copy which they were lucky enough to find. Nonetheless, the song peaked at # 11 r&b and only reached # 64 on the pop charts, which in retrospect seems incredible. In January 1967 Lorraine Ellison's new LP »Heart and Soul«, over-titled »Introducing Miss Lorraine Ellison«, was released. It is this LP-version that you can hear now:

Lorraine Ellison: »Stay With Me« from the Warner LP # 1674:

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Phew! After this emotional ride on the witch-broom it is a good idea to chill down a bit by diverting our attention to some musical facts about this song. Without doubt, with »Stay With Me« Lorraine Ellison had recorded »her signature song-the intense, symphonic-drenched ballad "Stay With Me« (Ed Hogan in All Music Guide to Soul, p. 223).

But, it can be asked, what kind of song is this power-ballad? Well, this is far from settled. Is it Soul? Deep Soul? Jazz-Soul? Pop-Soul? Even Gospel-Soul, as has been said? Or simply a unique piece of music history that defies any categorization? And finally: Is it important to know that?

Many see in this song the dominant influence of gospel at work, especially as Lorraine Ellison had been singing gospel for years. Bil Carpenter wrote in this respect: »Although Lorraine Ellison is scarcely remembered by any but the most fanatical of 1960s soul aficionados for her earth-quaking ballad "Stay with Me", her approach to that classic and whatever else she sang was pure gospel. (...) Possessing a piercing soprano with raw emotional power, her soul-drenched ballad "Stay with Me" finally gave her the hit she always coveted.« (Bil Carpenter: Uncloudy Days. The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, San Francisco 2005, p. 131.) Also Larry Grogan (Funky16Corners) argues more or less similarly:
»Ellison’s recording, like so many of Ragavoy’s creations is a sublime mixture of gospel inflected soul with touches of R&B grit. The “build” of the song is much like that of ‘Cry Baby’, with a slow, drawn out verse building into a dynamic, nearly overpowering chorus. The lyrics are a heartbreaking plea to repair a shattered love and Ellison’s delivery, especially during the chorus where she soars into the stratosphere (vocally and emotionally) is brilliant.«
And back in 1969, Robert Christgau in the New York Times (January 18, 1969) already referred to the tradition of gospel:
»Lorraine Ellison is a gospel-based singer reminiscent of Aretha Franklin who on her first album was cast by Ragovoy - succumbing to the advice of others - in a Nancy Wilson soul-going-pop mold, which is where Aretha herself was stuck for five years before moving to Atlantic Records and producer Jerry Wexler. She did cut loose for one song, however, a hard-wailing ballad called "Stay With Me" which became an instant underground classic in Harlem.«
Others spoke of »Uptown Soul« or in other words the urban soul of the northern cities, which often is caracterized by elaborate arrangements and large orchestral backing: »Ragovoy took the uptown soul sound to a delirious extreme with Lorraine Ellison’s volcanic Stay With Me (1966)« (Barney Hoskyns).

Still others qualified Lorraine Ellison's as »Deep Soul«: »Wenn man wissen möchte, was Deep Soul ist, dann führt an diesem Album kein Weg vorbei« we read on rockzirkus, and this probably takes up David Nathan's expression who called Lorraine a »deep soul diva« (in The Soulful Divas, Billboard Books 1999, p. 76), Pete Nickols, to conclude, mentioned Lorraine's song as »her name-making monumental slab of deep soul«.

And we must recall that the question of which song we have here is not purely an academic question. Categorizing a song was (and still is to a certain point) highly relevant for the record industry: The »broader« you could market a song or a singer, the better for the respective record company. Thus it is interesting to see that contemporary reviews of Lorraine's song stress its »blues-soul« character, for example in JET (February 2, 1967, p. 63): »Once heading a teen-age gospel group, Lorraine Ellison is heartily soulful on her bluesy ballad Warner Bros. album titled, appropriately, Heart and Soul.« Yet of all what could be said about »Stay With Me« it certainly isn't very »bluesy« in the common sense of the word. However, the label »Blues« had stuck with some while others resorted to »Rhythm & Blues« and underlined that Lorraine Ellison had crossover success, from r&b into the pop market:
»Undoubtedly, the biggest music trend in 1967 as in 1966 will be the growth of r&b music. (...) Most of the major labels, all now deeply involved in the r&b field, aim product so as to sell in both the r&b and pop markets. (...) A good example is Lou Rawls, who now scores in both fields. Capitol Records has a "Carryin' On!" album coming out soon it should prove highly profitable for dealers in both markets. Warner Bros. has Lorraine Ellison with "Introducing Miss Lorraine Ellison - Heart and Soul" in this same bag.« (BILLBOARD, January 28, 1967, p. 34)
click to enlarge
The sleeve notes on the back cover of the Warner LP # 1674 underline another aspect, as the word »soul« is more than once applied to Lorraine's songs. But towards the end we find, little surprisingly, that one tried to put Lorraine Ellison in several drawers at the same time: »Blues chaser. Ballad swinger. At the brink of stardom one of the most original and compelling jazz singers.« Blues, Ballad, Swing & Jazz. Nothing less than all that. And I think they are right, with a little more jazz than blues in it.

If you listen to Lorraine Ellison's entire album »Heart and Soul« I think there is little choice but calling her a »Jazz-Soul«-singer. One even could speak of »Big Band-Soul«, were it not for the fact that nobody uses such a term. After all, there are many jazzy standards on this LP, among them hits made famous by Dinah Washington (»What A Difference A Day Makes«), and Dinah suffered from the same problem: She was given many labels throughout her career, but wouldn't like to hear of any. And Lorraine Ellison? You can hear two examples of her Jazz-Soul at the end of this post. Indeed, her entire LP contains only one tune that stands out, »If I Had A Hammer«, and you can hear that Lorraine isn't at home there. Yet she was never recognized as a jazz-singer, which is why her name is missing from standard reference works, e.g. Scott Yanow's The Jazz Singers. The Ultimate Guide, Milwaukee-New York 2008).

So I tend to opt for Jazz-Soul, after all. I don't think we have any gospel here, and it doesn't sound much like urban soul or blues. Whether we have »Deep Soul« is a matter of definition, but to me »Deep Soul« has some southern flavour to it and requires rather simple, intense arrangements. It's not enough for a song to be emotionally dense in order to be labelled »Deep Soul«, and to me this term neither fits the particularly pitched, actually quite opera-like voice of Lorraine nor the majestic orchestration. If at all, for the compactness of the sound, some parallels to Phil Spector's »Wall of Sound« come to mind, as has also been suggested. And in this context the term »Deep Soul« might be suited:
»I wonder how many songs in your life may touch you like this? By taking you without a warning from the neck and mangle your flesh without mercy? That's the very f***in' meaning, explanation whatever you want anyway of the term "Deep Soul"! A full emotional moment that sadly comes VERY FEW times in your life. The absolute peak! ... And if the myth's proved right, this brilliance was because of Frankie who at the last minute canceled the session. The orchestra was there, warmed and so was Lorraine Ellison. An unknown black beauty. What caught on tape it's Drama in its pure Wagner meets Spector vein!« (read more here)
This is very much the last word on the song! Otherwise, we may also choose not to care. The song obviously transcends any established musical category, and that's one of its important qualities. Dusty Springflied said in an interview that three songs changed her life, and one of these was Lorraine Ellison's »Stay With Me« (quoted in Annie J. Randall: »Dusty's Hair« = Ch. 1 in Dusty! Queen of the Postmods, Oxford 2009, p. 22, reprinted in: Laurie Stras [ed.]: She's So Fine: Reflections on Whiteness, Feminity, Adolescence and Class in 1960s Music, Farnham-Burlington 2010, p. 123).

If you are interested in some more information and personal impressions concerning Lorraine's masterpiece »Stay With Me« you find them here:
Here you find information about David Weiss who together with Jerry Ragovoy co-wrote the song; Weiss's best-known songs are »Lullaby of Birdland« (1952), »The Lion Sleeps Tonight« (1961) and Elvis's »Can’t Help Falling in Love« (1961):
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To conclude you can listen to two more songs from Lorraine Ellison's album »Heart and Soul«. The first song is Sam Cooke's melodramatic »farewell song« which was released posthumously, »A Change Is Gonna Come«. The second song, »Cry Me A River«, I love best in Dinah Washington's version. However, with both songs Lorraine Ellison offers an outstanding performance:

Lorraine Ellison:
»A Change Is Gonna Come« / »Cry Me A River« from the Warner LP »Heart And Soul« (1967):

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