Wednesday, October 28, 2015

TMFW 112 - Naked Eyes' Biggest Hit, on the Charts for the Fifth Time

[NOTE: maybe you will read this one and say "duh."  But it was new to me and blew my tiny mind.  And hopefully there's something in here for you in any event.]
Today's TMFW has a good mix of things I like: (a) one-hit wonders, (b) cover songs that I (foolishly?) didn't realize were cover songs, (c) cover songs, period, (d) weird differences between UK and US chart performance (see, e.g., the story of the maybe-a-cynical-bet girl band Vanilla in TMFW 46 or Bob the Builder's chart dominance in the Bonus Facts of TMFW 105), and (e) Burt Bacharach.  So let's get into it.
Our story begins with an earworm that my wife had earlier this week: "Take a Letter, Maria."  As she sang the refrain over and over, I was infected too.  "Who sings that?" she asked, and though I knew it was the wrong answer I guessed Sam Cooke.  We looked it up and saw that it was not Mr. Cooke but instead an artist named R.B. Greaves. (There's the one-hit wonder part: Greaves hit #2 with that song, but never cracked the top-20 again).  
With the song stuck in our heads, we had to play it so that we could purge it.  Thanks to Apple Music (which I find to be really great when it works, but I also find only works sometimes), we started listening to Mr. Greaves' body of work.  The song immediately after "Take a Letter, Maria" featured a familiar melody, and the lyrics started "I walk along the city streets you used to walk along with me..."  Within a few seconds, it was at the refrain: "how can I...forget you...when there is always something there to remind me?"  It was a cover of the big Naked Eyes synthpop hit from the '80s - or more likely, the other way around.  (There's the cover songs part.)
What the heck?!  This dude R.B. Greaves was the guy who did the original version of Naked Eyes' "Always Something There To Remind Me?"  I needed to figure this out.
Google brought me to a long and detailed Wikipedia entry on the history of the tune.  It was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David in the early '60s (there's the Burt Bacharach part).  And it turns out R.B. Greaves wasn't the first to perform it, or even to chart with it (it was his follow-up single to "Take A Letter, Maria" and he hit #27).  
In fact, by the time Naked Eyes recorded their version of "Always Something There to Remind Me," it had been on the charts four times: by Lou Johnson (#49 in the US in 1964), Sandie Shaw (#1 in the UK, Canada, and South Africa but only #52 in the US in 1964 - there's the "weird differences between the US and UK chart performance" part), Dionne Warwick (#65 in 1968) and Mr. Greaves (#27 in 1970).  And it had been released (at least) on records by The Four Seasons (1965), Brenda Lee (1965), Percy Faith (1965, an instrumental from Latin Themes for Young Lovers), Johnny Mathis (1967)  The Troggs (1967), Jay and the Americans (1967) Patti Labelle (1967), Jose Feliciano (1968), The Delrays (a local St. Louis act that briefly featured future Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers member Michael McDonald, 1968), Martha and the Vandellas (1968), and Peggy Lee (1970).  It had also been performed by The Carpenters (in 1972, as part of a medley) and Donna Summer (partly in French, as a duet in 1976).  That's a lot of famous acts that covered the song.  
I had no idea; the Naked Eyes version was so perfectly '80s, I assumed that those guys had written it.  So there's your TMFW for today: the synthpop song that made Naked Eyes famous had been done (and done and done and done) before they got to it.  
BONUS FACT:  The song is still being recorded.  UK girl pop group All Saints performed a version at a Burt Bacharach tribute concert (accompanied by Bacharach himself) in 1998, Champaign, Illinois band Braid did a rocking version in 2000, and Chicago musician/producer Jim O'Rourke did a surprisingly straightforward version with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth in 2010.
BONUS FACT 2:  The likely reason that R.B. Greaves sounds a bit like Sam Cooke is that Cooke is his uncle.
BONUS FACT 3:  While Sandie Shaw's version of the song was a smash in the UK but fell outside of the top-50 in the US, Naked Eyes' version hit number 8 in the US but only made #59 in the UK.  Go figure.  
BONUS FACT 4:  I am ashamed that I did not know that ex-Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers member and "yacht rock" legend Michael McDonald was from my hometown of St. Louis.  More specifically, he grew up in Ferguson, where for a time he was raised by a single mother in an apartment complex near where Michael Brown (who made Ferguson famous for more sobering reasons) lived.  McDonald released a thoughtful statement in the wake of the shooting mourning the event.  
BONUS FACT 5:  Naked Eyes got their name during contract negotiation sessions with the label, but might have suffered a worse fate if the label guys got their way.  According to a 1997 interview with founding member Pete Byrne, "[w]e were looking for a name that suggested 'two,' and 'Naked Eyes' just popped into my head. I thought it was a great name, but the Record Label thought otherwise. I remember one meeting with about ten people, and they were asking everyone what they thought. Some of the ideas were truly awful...I suggested, as a joke, we call ourselves 'Boulevard Credibility.' One of the Marketing people leapt to his feet in agreement..."

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