Shirley Bassey’s cover of “Something” got to #4 in the UK charts in 1970, the same spot The Beatles’ original reached the year before. I never heard the Fab Four’s version at the time and didn’t for years, but my mother had a 45 of the Shirley Bassey which she loved so that was the version I knew growing up. I even heard it by Frank Sinatra before the original too.
As a result I thought of “Something” as an adult standard instead of a pop song, so to my ears George Harrison sounded too young to be singing it. The Beatles’ version is great of course, but it feels more about the happy rapture of young love while Shirley brings a grown-up sensuality to it which I prefer. Instead of lovey-dovey infatuation, she sounds like she’s singing about sex.
I put a question mark in the title above because I’m not sure which of my parents this record belonged to. Even though it always sat in the sideboard with the rest of my mother’s albums I’ve a feeling it actually belonged to my Dad and he left it behind when he buggered off. My old man was a big fan of elegant Jazz pianists like George Shearing, Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck so in my mind I always thought of it as one of his records, but I could be wrong. I supposed I could clear that up by asking my mum but she’d probably think it was a bit peculiar me asking her who bought some record over 40 years ago. Besides, I don’t want to ruin my cozy nostalgic impressions with inconvenient things like facts.
I used to think this was a 1950s album but it actually came out in December 1961 exactly one year after my parents got married so maybe the old man bought it as an anniversary present. It’s romantic mood makes it perfect for lovey-dovey young newlyweds though my parent’s marriage didn’t exactly get off to an ideal start because, to tell a family secret, my mother was pregnant with my sister when they got married — something we didn’t figure out until she turned 16 and the penny dropped that her birthday was only 6 months after their wedding anniversary. That was a bit of a shock I can tell you. Though I’m certain that wasn’t the only reason they got married it does all sound a bit like “A Kind of Loving” with my dad in the Alan Bates role, in those days any bloke who got a girl in the family way bought himself an express ticket to the altar. There was another alternative of course, mum told us some in the family hinted she could try the “drink a bottle of gin and sit in a hot bath” way out of the situation which sounds like the shabby subplot of another ‘kitchen sink’ movie.
Still, this would have been just the right thing to put on the record player after the baby had gone to sleep for the night and my parents wanted to relax in their little council flat. Cole had a warm, milk chocolatey voice that could charm any woman out of her girdle and with Shearing’s elegant piano and the silky strings it would make all your cares float away. I thought for a minute that I might have been conceived to this record but then I realized I was born only 8 months after it came out. That’s another question I won’t be asking my mother either.
The hippies liked to sneer at the older generation for being too uptight and square to ever tune in, turn on, and get high. But just because they didn’t sit in a field with flowers in their hair didn’t mean they never got spaced out — they just did it with different drugs. My mother was very partial to the occasional Cinzano Bianco and popped a Valium or two whenever the pressure of raising two kids on her own got too much. And I don’t doubt that chilling out with The Sandpipers on the record player helped a lot too. This wispy Easy Listening vocal group were probably the complete opposite of what was hip and turned-on but their version of “Louie Louie” is as blissed-out and spacey as the most trippy psychedelia. Not only that but they sing the damn thing in Spanish — how far-out is that, man?
As I’ve noted before, I grew up in a Sinatra-loving household, both my parents worshipped the ground he walked on and to this day I can’t see a Capitol Records label or one of those Reprise Records labels with Sinatra’s photo on it without picturing it on the turntable of our old mono Bush record player.
My mother’s favourite Frank Sinatra record has always been the slinky “Witchcraft” while I’m of the rather cliched and uninteresting opinion that “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is his the best thing he ever did. But just because it’s the conventional view doesn’t mean it’s wrong, I think it’s one of the greatest recordings of 20th century popular music.
So you’d think I wouldn’t be inclined to like The Four Seasons smooth, easy listening version of the song from 1966 but it’s a record that my mother played to death when I was a kid which gives me a certain rose-tinted view of it and how do you separate pop records from your memories of them? Impossible I think (there’s a post idea right there). It lacks the passion and hunger of Sinatra’s version and takes a rather more dreamy approach but I still think it’s very pretty with a sweet arrangement full of strings and bells, and I love the big drum break after the pause at the end.
With all the interminable bollocks written about the “revolutionary” sounds of the 1960s (and still being written, I wish they’d shut up about it) it’s often overlooked that the charts then were also full of the likes of Tom Jones, Dionne Warwick, Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey, and other “square” music bought by untrustworthy over-30s like my mother. Her generation was raised on Frank Sinatra and by the time rock and roll hit the scene (she was 21 when “Heartbreak Hotel” came out) their idea of cool sophistication had already been shaped by Ol’ Blue Eyes. So even though she quite liked The Beatles, by the time the Summer of Love rolled around my mother was a bit too old to be a hippy and her idea of a swinging good time was cocktails and classy music, not drugs and dancing in a field (but thankfully she wasn’t so square that she was into Val Doonican either). Besides, by then she had two kids to raise on her own and couldn’t exactly go gallivanting off to see The Stones in Hyde Park.
So in our house “Light My Fire” was by Jose Feliciano, not The Doors. In fact it was years before I even knew that this was a cover version, my mother played this so often it still sounds like the original to me and I think of The Doors’ version as the overheated, vaguely cheesy cover. Feliciano might not have worn leather trousers and written bad poetry but he sounded plenty soulful and intense on this, though I bet the hippies hated it.
Even better is his version of “California Dreaming” which transforms the breezy hippy anthem into something darker, The Mamas and The Papas were all cheery and sunny while Jose sounds very lonely and lost. I absolutely love the Spanish bit at the end, my O-Level Spanish is a bit rusty so I’m not entirely sure what he’s saying. It sounds dead moody though.
Both of these are from his 1968 album “Feliciano!” which was a ubiquitous presence on the record shelves of just about everyone we knew back then (along with “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and one of the few records my Dad took with him when he left home which says something about its popularity — and something about its place in my memories.
My mother had a big collection of 45s that she kept in our living room sideboard, they were in bloody awful condition because for some reason she always threw away the sleeves they came in and just stacked them up like plates. Another thing she always did was write her name on the record label, often actually sticking it on a piece of paper (see above). Apparently this was so they didn’t get stolen when she took them to parties, she told me she lost a Sammy Davis Jr. album that way. I never knew she hung out with such shady characters.
There was a definite Spanish/Latin influence in the “adult” easy pop of the 60s and among my mother’s 45s were records by Jose Feliciano, The Sandpipers, Sergio Mendes, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Herb Alpert. Like a bottle of Mateus Rosé, this music brought a flavour of international jet-set sophistication into the lives of the first English generation for whom “abroad” and “Italian Restaurant” weren’t just places rich people went. Sadly, nowadays “adult” music means the likes of Sting and Norah Jones, the only place they want to take you is a Starbucks.
Chris Montez’s 1966 hit “The More I See You” is a record I’ve known by heart seemingly my entire life, and is probably the song I most closely associate with my mother (and I’m ever so slightly freaked out to realize that she was only 31 when it came out). It isn’t that overtly Latin, but it has the warm, sand-between-your-toes feeling of being in some exotic beach paradise and Montez’s light voice has an almost feminine quality which adds to the air of sexy languor. From those opening xylophone notes I picture my mother back then, looking like Dusty Springfield with her blonde hair and heavily made-up eyes, in a brightly-coloured mini-dress and a Cinzano Bianco in her hand.