Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Hard wired

Memory is a funny thing. Why is it that some experiences fail to register and reappear whereas others, however inconsequentail, end up hard wired? I can never listen to Natalie Cole’s "Annie Mae" without the opening bars of Level 42’s "Weave Your Spell" popping into my head. Why? Well I guess because on one of my mix tapes for the car that I put together in the ‘80s the Level 42 track immediately followed "Annie Mae". It has to be said it wasn’t one of my better efforts in terms of sequencing. Anyway "Annie" got a lot of repeat plays and so by sort of default Level 42 did too. So it seems the two songs are indelibly etched into the ipod in my memory with no shuffle feature available. Maddening in it’s own little way for me but I don’t let it detract from the brilliance of "Annie Mae", and don’t worry I haven’t posted Level 42 here too. (Don’t misunderstand me, I was/am partial to some of the output of The Isle of Widget’s finest, but "Weave Your Spell" can in no way hold a candle to "Annie Mae", although it is a pretty apt description of the effect "Annie Mae" has on me).

Natalie Cole was born in 1950 to a very famous father – Nat ‘King’ Cole. Has that helped or hindered her career? Both at certain points I am sure. In any event she is clearly a very talented lady. Before embarking on her recording career she gained a degree in child psychology. She was 25 before music became her chosen path. Commercial soul was the focus from 1975 to 1983. Then after two spells in rehab to kick drink and drug habits her career took off again through into the early 90s with what really can be described as pure pop music. Then another change of musical direction in the 90s saw her move into more of a mor/jazz groove. In all she has, to date, amassed eight Grammy awards. She has more recently turned her hand to acting too - in film, stage and television – and this year has appeared in the currently running Grey’s Anatomy. When you analyse it she has clearly had a long and successful career although this may not be that obvious as it seems she has never been a particularly hip name to drop.

As I said, Natalie’s recording career started in 1975, by which time many would say the sun had set on the golden age of soul. Her career has traced a different arc from soul divas that had gone before, and, it seems, has formed a template for many that have followed – Whitney Houston comes immediately to mind, and even a repackaged Aretha Franklin as far as the musical content is concerned. By 1975 the big record companies had well developed commercial muscle and were big business. Capitol, her first recording label, probably saw her as product to sell first, and soul singer second. So from the outset her output seemed primarily commercially driven. Most of Natalie’s releases made it on the pop charts (and how!) and I’m not sure you could say they crossed over from R&B because, although there was a dose of soul in the mix, I think they were fairly and squarely aimed at the mainstream – lush or glitzy arrangements, positive themes, radio friendly. “Annie Mae” was, however, something of an exception in that it made no significant impact on the pop charts, although it reached #6 in the US R&B charts in 1978.
Clearly not as commercial as her other output the lyrics were written by Natalie and I believe concerned someone she knew who was possibly a runaway but was certainly “growing up much too fast”. Richard Evans is credited as co-arranger so you kind of know you’re going to be in for a treat. “Annie Mae” sweeps you along with a simple piano chart and guitar down in the mix, stabbing horns and an irresistible string arrangement. Natalie’s vocals seem effortless as she swoops and soars. The tempo is upbeat but is very much a song not a dancer. It has a couple of beautiful pauses for breath in the middle and a great fade. Altogether an outstanding track and much too good for a high pop chart placing (or is that just me being a soul snob).

I have to say that most of Natalie’s output is not really to my taste, being too commercial for my liking, but “Annie Mae” is a stand out, and the 1977 album that it appears on – “Thankful” - together with the singles “Sophisticated Lady”/ “Good Morning Heartache”, “This Will Be” and “Inseparable” - all early career output – are also worth seeking out.

Natalie Cole – Annie Mae (gone)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, you opened something in my own souvenirs.