Sunday, September 21, 2008

Battle of the Decades

The Beatles won the last BOTD convincingly, but hardly unanimously. Chuck Berry got strong support, and both Mariah Carey and Benny Goodman got well-deserved votes. Nothing for Barbra Streisand, though she was worthy too.

Well, they can't all be choices among songs and artists of this level, and I'm afraid this one is not. But here goes:

THE 40s
Margaret Whiting o/Paul Weston
It Might As Well Be Spring

THE 50s
Johnnie Ray with The Four Lads

THE 60s
Ray Charles Singers
Love Me With All Your Heart

THE 70s
Lee Michaels
Do You Know What I Mean

THE 80s
Madonna -- True Blue

THE 90s
Shiny Happy People

It could be worse. As I was copying and pasting this, some of the songs turned over, and we had Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes), Disco Duck, and the Ames Brothers.

For you whippersnappers, the Ray Charles Singers are not Ray Charles, and in spite of the psychedelic video, they ain't psychedelic either.

And I can get rid of Lee Michaels almost as easily. He was the harbinger of the new spirit of FM radio, which was that it was starting to get a little boring. This isn't the worst song ever recorded, but who wouldn't change the station when it came on?

You might not turn off Johnny Ray quite so quickly (or you might turn him off more quickly). He was kind of horrible, kind of mesmerizing. He was sui generis, and also almost totally deaf, which may or may not explain his singing. Anyway, "Cry" was his ur-song, and it became famous for its naked display of emotion by a male singer -- was he unmanly? Was he the new man? This YouTube video also has his version of "Just Walking in the Rain," originally recorded by the Prisonaires, who were maybe the original gangstas, in that they were real prisoners, let out on a work-release program to record a handful of great songs at Sun studios. You can sample them here;

This brings us to the two whippersnapper numbers, probably destined to be the big vote-getters this time around. Did Madonna ever make a bad video? If she did, it wasn't this time around, especially the booty-shaking trio at the beginning. She didn't make many bad records, either. However, I think I'd give REM, and their strange take on the world -- David Byrne meets the Marshall Tucker Band -- the nod here.

But I have to go with my dear friend Margaret Whiting. No one sang a pop song like she did, found the meaning in the words the way she did. When the Kool Jazz festival replaced Newport, and moved to New York, they called Margaret and asked her to appear in an evening of Tribute to the American Song. "But I'm not a jazz singer," she told them. "I only sing the melody."

"Exactly," they replied. "And do you know how hard it is these days to find someone who can do that?"

Margaret never stopped being herself, never stopped being true to the great songs of her father and her mentor Johnny Mercer, and was never a fogey, either. Her championing of the First Amendment rights of the erotic film industry led to meeting the love of her life, gay porn star Jack Wrangler. They've been together since 1976, married since 1994, and he's successfully produced shows for her and others.

A memory: when I started working with Margaret, I took Jon and Claudia to an upper West Side cabaret where she was featured. Somehow, the cabaret had neglected to provide an MC, and Margaret was stuck in the wings, waiting for someone to introduce her. Jon took the bull by the horns and introduced her from his seat at a table. She gratefully came out, graciously thanked him, and gave one of her always-great shows.

Here's my bio of her from The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture:

The YouTube video pairs her with George Shearing; has just a clip of "It Might as Well Be Spring."

My vote, and my heart, to Margaret Whiting.

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