David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 171: Ray Charles & Willie Nelson (It Was A Very Good Year)

August 5, 2022

One of the challenges with this series is finding my angles. While I may not know which 364 artists eventually get featured, it isn't because I can't find songs for well more than 364 artists. As I come past 170 days of these, I frequently can't fathom how I will do another one without boring myself to death, let alone my few readers? So, I search for angles or tactics that at least provide a framework. One tactic has come from remembering the archaic ways I discovered some of these artists: K-Tel (The Raspberries); Specific Record Label Compilations (Sorrows); and Record Clubs (Nine Inch Nails) were all easy ones for me to remember.

Then recently I remembered I once bought a CD from Starbucks. I know, I hang my head in shame.

Remember when Starbucks sold CDs exclusive to them, staged alluringly along the front of the counter while you waited for your $8 cup of coffee?  Through a partnership with Concord Music, Starbucks had Hear Music, taglined as  "The Voice of Music at Starbucks." It was a fairly short-lived partnership, ending in 2008, maybe because the voice of music at Starbucks couldn't be heard over the voices of baristas yelling out the names of their complaining customers.

All I know is that I succumbed once to the CD promotion, Ray Charles' Genius Loves Company. Charles had recently died and this CD of duets seemed a fun way to honor his legacy. The CD featured duets with Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Norah Jones, Natalie Cole, B.B. King, James Taylor and Van Morrison among others. That's a lot of coolness to come from Starbucks, who I suppose was still relatively cool in 2004.

I hadn't thought much about this CD in years until I heard Frank Sinatra's "It Was A Very Good Year" in a drug store recently. I immediately struggled to remember a more modern version of that song that lingered around the peripheries of my brain. It took me a couple of days until I remembered that it was Charles' duet with Willie Nelson from Genius Loves Company. I quickly put it on and remembered the poignancy of their aging voices.

Revisiting the song almost twenty years later, I realized there are many things I should hate here: Starbucks on general principle; their "corporatization" of pop music through Hear Music; a song clearly from another time as popularized by a man long since dismantled as the paragon of male behavior; or that the song was also covered by William Shatner. (And maybe all of the above?)

Ultimately there is a male-piggishness to the lyrics that most bothers me (it was a famous Sinatra song, also covered by Shatner, so why was I surprised?): memories of girls "loved" at different ages of a man's life.  Why does that give me discomfort?  Is it because I have so fewer numbers of girls to romanticize nostalgically?  Is it the allusions to "perfumed hair" coming "undone" or later of "blue-blooded girls of independent means" with limousines and chauffeurs, leaving presumably time to mess around in the back seat? Does my discomfort come from the ascension of the narrator's life as compared to my more mundane-leveled one?

Ultimately, my unease came, until Willie and Ray sang it, from the fact that the voices behind it sounded inauthentic.

The songwriter, Erin Drake, was 42 when he wrote it, for The Kingston Trio, who were in their mid-30s when they recorded it, which prompted Sinatra, who was 50 to sing it, and basically popularize it. I am not sure any of them are in the "autumn" of their years, as captured in the final stanza.

Charles and Nelson were in the autumn of their lives and heading into their winters. Nelson was 71. Charles was 74. Charles would be dead within a year. Hearing two voices truly sounding like "vintage wine from fine old kegs" brings poignancy to what could be a hackneyed line. Interestingly, the musical arrangement is not too far from Sinatra's, unless you count just how dramatically the opening orchestration swoops you into the song. If you go back and listen to The Kingston Trio version, fueled only by guitars, you can definitely see how the full orchestra effect elevates the romantic remembrances at the core of the song. Will the Mafia be at my door when I say such musical arrangement demanded something more than Frank? Then, again, what do I understand about a life like Frank's?

So, thanks, Starbucks, for leading me to Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, and The Kingston Trio. That's a white whale sighting if there ever was one. 

Charles, Ray and Willie Nelson. "It Was A Very Good Year." Genius Loves Company. Concord/Hear, 2004. Link here.

Day 170: Rod Stewart "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy"

Day 172: Ben Folds Five "Song For The Dumped"

See complete list here.