Tag Archives: April Stevens

Odds & Ends – ‘A Woman’s Story’

Time for another installment of the ‘Odds & Ends’ feature I introduced some months ago with a blog post about the Crystals version of ‘I Wonder’. 

You may remember that this feature was meant as a means for writing a bit more in depth about some of the obscure Spector productions out there. You know, those that always get lost in the shuffle among ‘Be my Baby’, ‘You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling’ and ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ in the general write-ups about Phil Spector’s achievements.

Today, I’d like to dwell on one of the three sides Spector recorded with his old session singer from the 60s, Cherilyn Sarkisian, – or Cher, as the record-buying public came to know her.

In the early 60s Cher sang background vocals on numerous classic Spector cuts. As ‘Bonnie Jo Mason’ she even debuted on one of Spector’s sub-labels with the Pete Anders & Vinni Poncia-produced Beatles-knock-off ‘Ringo, I Love You’. All this was down to her relationship with Spector flunky Sonny Bono – the pair was soon to re-invent themselves as Sonny & Cher and find tremendous success with a very close adaptation of the formula that had worked so well for Spector in Gold Star studios.

Darlene Love, Phil Spector and Cher at a 60s Gold Star studios session.
Darlene Love, Phil Spector and Cher at a 60s Gold Star studios session.
Come the mid-70s, Cher was shortly reunited with Spector as a result of a new label, Warner-Spector, that the Tycoon of Teen set up with Warner Bros. Records in 1974. Cher was a Warner artist at the time and so it was decided that her distinctive voice and Spector’s trademark Wall of Sound would make a winning combination. But if the head honchos at Warner Bros. Records had fantasized about energetic, booming drums and throbbing rhythms jumping out of speakers, they were sorely disappointed!

Instead, the three tracks Cher and Spector recorded were super-slow and heart-wrenching odes to love that some have described as more of a dirge of sound than the well-known Wall of Sound. The tempo on ‘Baby, I Love You’ is almost non-existent, a duet with Harry Nilsson on ‘A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Every Day)’ was only a tad faster and brighter and with a Nilsson vocal sounding like a punched-in afterthought. And then there was ‘A Woman’s Story’ – the only new song and a co-write between Spector and his longtime friends, siblings April Stevens and Nino Tempo.

chernilsson

Let me emphasize that I’m a big fan of Spector’s 70s productions – I find something interesting in all of them and to these ears the very best of the bunch are just as good as his iconic 60s hits. 

‘A Woman’s Story’ is one of those stellar 70s productions as far as I’m concerned. Dark, brooding and enveloped in an otherworldly chorus, the song almost comes across as a requiem if not for the chorus where Cher declares that she’s finally found light at the end of the tunnel; love.

cher ws

Rather unusually, the lyrics dramatically tell the story of an down-on-her-luck former prostitute who’s ‘seen every room with a bed inside it.’ The production is extremely powerful, almost strangely mesmerizing in all its slow grandeur no doubt due to the dramatic contrast between Cher’s low register vocals and the eerie ghost-like backing vocals. The backing track is almost overpowered by the mass of vocals floating in and out but if you listen past those there are lots of interesting things going on in the background. The three Cher productions definitely heralded a new sound that Spector would work to perfection on Dion’s soon-to-follow ‘Born to Be with You’ LP.

Dion-Born-to-Be-With-You

Alas, the interesting pairing of Cher and Spector went nowhere. Despite a respectable promotional push, ‘A Woman’s Story’ backed with ‘Baby, I Love You’ failed to chart. In their book ‘Collecting Phil Spector’ John Fitzpatrick and James Fogerty write about how a quarrel between Spector and record executive David Geffen, Cher’s then-boyfriend, may have played a part in the single’s failure. But honestly, as great as ‘A Woman’s Story’ is, it is so unusual and ‘un-hit-like’ that it’s lack of chart success comes as no surprise. The single was even re-released in 1976 but still to no avail.

Ad for the new Warner-Spector single with 'A Woman's Story' on the A-side.
Ad for the new Warner-Spector single with ‘A Woman’s Story’ on the A-side.
So let’s dust off this fantastic production and enjoy this rare, extended mix of ‘A Woman’s Story’ found on a US promo single:

As a postscript, what Cher and Spector couldn’t do in the 70s, UK singer Marc Almond of Soft Cell-fame did in 1986. That year he released a cover version that, lyrics untouched, finally made the charts. It reached #41 on the UK Top 100. Here’s Almond’s version:

The Wall that Never Was

The other day I was listening to the radio in the kitchen when a song came on that I hadn’t heard before. After a short while I stopped whatever I was doing and began to listen more closely as there was something about the structure and feel of the song that just screamed ‘get ready for bombast!’

As the song went on and on I waited for a Wall of Sound to wash over me. But it never came. Instead, the simple, piano-based song just sort of petered out. I was perplexed. What? All this build-up I sensed. For nothing? That had to be the ultimate ‘coitus interruptus’ of Spector sound.

The song was ‘You Ruin Me’ by Aussie girl pop duo the Veronicas. Even their name is tailor-made for the full-on blast of Spector sound that they foolishly didn’t go for.

If you’ve followed my blog, you know it’s a sort of hobby of mine to dig up modern Spector soundalikes. Maybe that makes it all the more annoying for me when a song so seemingly perfect for a Spector tribute is left hang to dry in an unimaginative and tame sonic setting.

Make no mistake. I like the song and ‘You Ruin Me’ is pretty good as is in this stripped production. But oh man, had the Veronicas dared to go all the way and pile on instrument after instrument this could have become a monster record, all swirling strings, tinkling glockenspiels and swaths of strummed guitars.

Maybe I should devise a new moniker for these ‘could have been’ epics? ‘Potential modern Spector soundalikes’, perhaps? And this one must surely take the prize. If I knew how to play a dozen instruments I would waste no time and run to the nearest studio to overdub from here to eternity.

This is of course not a new phenomenon. You can find songs in any decade that are just begging to be dressed up by someone wanting to outdo the Tycoon of Teen. In one of my past blog posts, reader Ian Chapman posted an April Stevens song from the 70s , (Won’t You) Marry Me Again’, that also should have been elaborately produced.

http://clyp.it/pehejvgb

Oh well, we can dream can’t we? Always funny to compare notes so if there are any songs out there that has always left you hearing a full-blown but imagined Wall of Sound surrounding a tame production, I’d love to hear about them. I’ll finish off with two similar, recent examples.

The first one, ‘Dry your Eyes’ by Scottish group Texas on their most recent album, is a dead ringer for the kind of Spectoresque material Jackie De Shannon recorded in the 60s. But there are just too few Wall of Sound elements present for me to consider it as a modern Spector soundalike.

The second one is Jenny & Johnny’s ‘Swichblade’. Cool song with good lyrics and nice singing. And the strummed guitar chords have the potential for a track with a great sense of propulsion, like, say, ‘Keep On Dancing’ by the Ronettes. But it doesn’t go anywhere from there and could have been so much more in the hands of the right producer.

I know that ‘less is more’ and all that, and sometimes it really is. But other times, as I’ll venture is the case with the selections here there’s no reason at all to not go overboard and use everything but the kitchen sink. To my ears, that’s basically what these three lovely songs are cajoling you to do with their classic song structure. You can almost hear the Wall of Sound on there on some subliminal level.

Would-be Spectors # 1 – Nino Tempo

What I find truly fascinating about the Wall of Sound is that once you delve into the Phil Spector story, you realize how far-reaching his artistic vision was.

Spector’s inner circle and team of studio cats, subsequently dubbed the Wrecking Crew by legendary drummer Hal Blaine, included a lot of would-be Spectors. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. I’m just acknowledging the fact that over the years many of them spent time in studios across LA, trying to work out the basics of the formula that made Spector the arch-alchemyst of widescreen pop.

More often than not, they too created gold in Gold Star Studios and beyond. Their efforts proved that the Wall of Sound could be achieved if one had carefully, or even secretly, taken notes during the long hours serving in Spector’s legion of session men.

A particular favorite of mine is Nino Tempo [born Antonino LoTempio] – a sax player and singer who befriended Spector during the early 60s and soon found himself at top of the list whenever a session was called. He is probably the one who came closest to Spector on a personal level acting as much as a friend as his right-hand man and soundboard in the studio.

Engineer Larry Levine, Phil Spector and Nino Tempo in the booth during a Gold Star session.
Engineer Larry Levine, Phil Spector and Nino Tempo in the booth during a Gold Star session.

I think it’s fair to say, Nino had a better look into Spector’s thoughts on the Wall of Sound than most. I like him a lot due to his very smooth, crooning vocals that beautifully compliment the few Spectoresque songs he recorded with sister April Stevens or alone. He wasn’t as prolific as other would-be Spectors. But when he hit a homerun, the ball sure broke through the stadium wall! Case in point – check out this lip-synch performance of ‘All Strung Out’ with sister April on the Lloyd Thaxton Show in 1966.

‘All Strung Out’ is one of a handful of great Wall of Sound tracks Nino recorded with or without April. Most of them can be found on the duo’s ‘All Strung Out’ album which has been re-released on CD. ‘The Habit of Loving You Baby’ on that album is like a carbon-copy ‘All Strung Out’ – I can’t figure out which one I prefer.

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Songs to seek out:

Noreen Corcoran – ‘Love Kitten’ (1963) – a fun and fast tune typical of the lighter girl group fare.

Nino Tempo & April Stevens – ‘All Strung Out’ (1966) & ‘The Habit of Loving You Baby’ (1967) – both of these were clearly written with a Righteous Brothers blue-eyed soul feel in mind.

Nino Tempo – ‘Boys Town (Where my Broken Hearted Buddies Go)’ (1967) – a bit of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys thrown in for good measure.

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Let’s leave for now with Nino himself talking about his time with Phil in an excerpt from the 1980 ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ documentary. Take it away, Nino!