Elvis Presley — “the King” — became a cult hero as well as a famed performer, yet despite his short, interesting life, neither Joanna nor I ever understood what turned so many people into Elvis fanatics. As we have with many performers, we appreciated the talent far more than everything else that came along with it.
Still, there’s no doubt that the talent was there; the man could sing, and turned out a multitude of hits. My favorite is probably “Love Me Tender,” boasting the same title as the first of 31 films in Elvis’ 14-year film career. The black-and-white 1956 Western was originally to be titled, “The Reno Brothers,” but sales of the song “Love Me Tender” had taken off — so despite the fact that Elvis didn’t receive top billing (Richard Egan and Debra Paget were credited ahead of him), his song did.
The song itself — written for the film — is a revision of an old Civil War tune, “Aura Lee” (cool video of that song, performed by Tom Roush, here). Each verse is simple and straightforward, lacking the kind of literary embellishment that we might normally think of as creative writing. Until the final parenthetical verse, each starts with the same three words and has an interesting five-line cadence. Most of the words have only one syllable. Until the final verse, no word has more than two syllables — but the simple sentences are nearly perfect expressions of what I feel.
From the first verse: “You have made my life complete, and I love you so.”
From the second: “For my darlin’ I love you, and I always will.”
From the third: “I’ll be yours through all the years, till the end of time.”
“Love Me Tender” has been recorded by dozens of artists from a variety of genres, including Julie Andrews & Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett, Pat Boone, James Brown, Connie Francis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Norah Jones, B.B. King, Barry Manilow, Johnny Mathis, Jim Morrison, Ricky Nelson, Willie Nelson, the Platters, Linda Ronstadt, and Katie Waissel.
Like many young future reporters, I once envisioned working for the New York Times. That wasn’t ever likely, and though Joanna and I love to visit New York, today I have no desire to ever live there or to again work as a journalist. Still, the Times probably remains the best American newspaper, and I’ve enjoyed taking students to visit. I appreciated being quoted in a Times story about Andrew Breitbart, and having a post (about profanity in Newsweek) from my media and politics blog cited in another story (and then elsewhere).
But the first time I ever “made the Times,” it was with my wife and came because a friend asked me to help out at an anti-nuclear rally in the Idaho desert; when organizers found out that I was a fairly big guy who had been through non-violence resistance training sponsored by a Spokane peace organization, they handed me an orange armband to “work security.” Joanna and I sat together during the speeches, and ended up in a photo later used to illustrate a story in the Times magazine. We were not identified in the photo, and found out about its existence only because someone who saw it later recognized Joanna on the street. (How do people do that?)
Shortly after the rally, we went back to school. I eventually wrote a doctoral dissertation about former journalist and anti-nuclear activist Sam Day, Jr. After helping his wife, Kathleen, pick Sam up at the federal prison where he had spent the previous several months, Joanna and I became friends with the couple. (Yeah, we like political activists.) We even spent a few nights in their home after a crazed Texan threatened to kill us with an axe in the campground where we had pitched our tent. After Sam’s 2001 death I attended his funeral, where the hundreds in attendance sang, “We Shall Overcome.”
“We Shall Overcome” (three words that might serve as a motto during to the inevitable tough times of any marriage) was an anthem for organized labor and for the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., cited the song in his final sermon, and just over 50 years ago Joan Baez sang it during the 1963 March on Washington. She also did so in the White House almost exactly four years ago.
The song also is closely tied to the career of another folk singer, the legendary Pete Seeger (whose sister also has a song on this blog). Seeger — whom the Los Angeles Times called “America’s conscience” after he died Monday — offers a short history of the song here.
One of the things I have learned is that resistance is easier as part of a group, and that unity-building activities such as locking arms, holding hands, chanting or singing can make civil disobedience even easier. It seems appropriate that one nice version of “We Shall Overcome” comes from a group that gathered to celebrate Seeger’s 90th birthday. Among the singers were Baez, Emmylou Harris, Toshi Reagon, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Billy Bragg, Keller Williams, Ani DiFranco, Ruby Dee, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and New York City Labor Choir.
“We Shall Overcome” lyrics here, with video of my favorite Joan Baez version (done for the BBC in 1965) below. And below that — because Seeger died this week — I’m posting a video with his voice from a 1963 concert.
As I’ve noted previously, Joanna has a problem with the whole “beauty thing.” So do I, in some ways. For example, I’m troubled by the number of women’s photos that I see on Facebook where the overwhelming majority of responses are something like, “so pretty,” or “beautiful.” However accurate the responses, they seem to be reflections of what I consider to be distorted values — and of a “selfie” generation that spends too much time fishing for compliments based on looks.
Still, my wife is and always has been beautiful — inside as well as outside. So to paraphrase Minnie Riperton, loving Joanna is easy, because she’s beautiful. The song “Lovin’ You” (complete with Riperton’s impressive vocal range and the sound of birds) also goes deeper than Facebook photo appearances, particularly expressing my feelings with this verse:
Stay with me while we grow old
And we will live each day in springtime
Cause lovin’ you has made my life so beautiful
And every day my life is filled with lovin’ you
To repeat, not only is my wife beautiful but she has also made the rest of my life beautiful. And even at this time of year, we try to find ways to “live each day in springtime.”
Today probably far fewer people know Riperton than know her daughter, and in some versions of the song (including the one below, if you pay close attention) the singer repeats the word “Maya” as a tribute to her young daughter — Maya Rudolph. Riperton only had this one hit and never got to grow old with anyone, dying of breast cancer at age 31. Her short life serves as a reminder of one of the reasons for this blog: We never know how long we have, or what we might leave behind.
“Lovin’ You” lyrics here, with video below.
Cyndi Lauper was long best known — at least for those of us old enough to remember when she was a pop star — for the catchy, carefree, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” It has been called a feminist song by some (though I never heard it as that); interestingly, like popular feminist anthem Aretha Franklin’s signature song, “Respect,” it was written by a man to be sung from his point of view.
Lauper showed a more serious side in later turning out an album of jazz standards — an album that includes such classics as “At Last,” “Unchained Melody” (hers here), “La Vie En Rose,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and (with Tony Bennett) “Makin’ Whoopee.” Today, perhaps more people know Lauper for the Tony-winning Broadway musical “Kinky Boots,” which demonstrated that the singer is far more than a pop star who could put a unique spin on other people’s words.
In fact, her second-biggest hit from the same debut album as “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” is one that Lauper co-wrote and which has more emotional depth than “Girls.” “Time After Time” has been covered by a range of artists, including Miles Davis.
In terms of the words, most important for me are these, which Joanna and I each know to be true of each other:
If you’re lost you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you I’ll be waiting
Time after time
“Solid” (sometimes titled “Solid as a Rock,” which sounds too much like a Chevy pickup commercial) by married duo Ashford & Simpson is the “funkiest” song on this blog, and frankly neither Joanna nor I is much into funk. But there several good reasons to include this song on the blog.
A second reason to feature a song by the couple is the fact that they wrote some of the best Motown songs (and a few others), including “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (sung by the Coasters and Ray Charles); “I’m Every Woman” (Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston); “Cry Like a Baby” (Aretha Franklin); “Didn’t You Know You’d Have to Cry Sometime,” (Gladys Knight & the Pips); “Is It Still Good to Ya?” (Teddy Pendergrass); “California Soul” (5th Dimension); “Never Had It So Good” (Ronny Milsap, who became a country music star); “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy to Come By,” “Your Precious Love” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” (all sung by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell); “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” “Remember Me,” and “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Maybe” (all sung by Diana Ross, who also made a personal anthem out of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough“); “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing“and numerous others. Now that ain’t a bad list.
A third reason for “Solid” is a pair of lines that particularly resonates with me in relation to own relationship: “We were willing to take a chance, so against all odds, we made a start.” I regret little that has happened in my life. But as may be true of most people, I regret more the things I failed to do than things I did. I’m glad that I (and Joanna) took a chance on us.
Fourth, the song recognizes that meaningful relationships — despite the love-at-first-site-fall-in-love-forever fantasies of fairy tales, movies and romance novels — grow because the people involved work at it: “We build it up and build it up and build it up.” Doing that work is why “The thrill is still hot, hot, hot; hot, hot, hot, hot, hot.”
Fifth, and finally: That’s a lot of hot.
“Solid” lyrics here, with video below.
“Brown Eyed Girl” is the second Van Morrison song on this blog, was one of the first songs listed by a contributing reader, and is another tune that I enjoy singing to Joanna when it comes on the radio as we drive. It’s irresistible: “Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee dah. … Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee dah. La dee dah.”
The song has been hugely popular, ranking in the most-played songs, despite the fact that it is now more than 45 years old and even though Morrison says it isn’t one of his own favorites. A side note: It also has contributed to the destruction of the English language by providing an early example of a missing hyphen from a compound adjective — the song should be titled, “Brown-Eyed Girl.”
Or perhaps Brown-Skinned Girl,” since apparently Morrison supposedly meant to refer to skin color, not eye color. The song would work here either way (excluding the final verse, anyway); at least in the summer, Joanna’s eyes and skin both are brown. Our time in Oregon gave us plenty of “misty morning fog,” and one of our favorite experiences in our current house came when we stepped outside early one morning to find a somewhat surrealistic vision of three deer — Joanna’s favorite animal — walking through the fog on the street in front of our house.
Lyrics here, with video of a funky early live version below.