I am a sucker for context. When I learn a new fact I need to know how it came about and what eventually became of it so that I can make sense of things. This is especially true with music. A particular recorded performance may be good to listen to on its own terms, but I crave the context – where did it come from and where did it go from there.
I recently came across a record that gave me a chance to make such a dive. It is difficult to stress how fabulous the modern internet can be when it comes to musical archaeology. There is a lot of bad in today’s social media landscape, but the breadth of obscure music available for just a click is not one of them.
The song that started me on this odyssey? Since I Fell For You – a song from the 40’s that made it big in the 60’s and remains in the go-to bag for performers looking for a bluesy ballad.
First, let’s start with the version most people are familiar with. Admittedly, this is both newer and of a different style than what I usually feature here. But starting with the familiar and working our way outwards from there is as good a way to attack this as any.
Lenny Welch is an interesting figure. He got signed by Decca Records in the late 1950s when he was still in his teens (which changed his name from Leon to Lenny), but his records didn’t go anywhere. Archie Bleyer signed him to his small Cadence Records label in 1960, undoubtedly hoping that Welch’s style (a crooner in the mold of Johnny Mathis, but with stronger pipes) might still have some potential.
It did – this late 1963 release of Since I Fell For You hit No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and sold over a million copies. It’s not hard to see why, as Welch’s smooth but strong voice over a lush arrangement that was not blues, not rock and not jazz (but maybe just a touch of each) was a winning combo that is still an easy listen. In a way, this record marks the end of that period before what became known in pop music as The British Invasion. Do you want to know what big hits took the 1 – 3 spots in the week of January 4, 1964? They were 1) There I’ve Said It Again (Bobby Vinton), 2) Louie Louie (The Kingsmen), and 3) Dominique (The Singing Nun). I’m not kidding. Yes, pop music had a lot more variation once upon a time.
The song was written by a “jump blues” piano-playing bandleader named Buddy Johnson in late 1945, with Johnson’s sister Ella Johnson handling the vocal on this debut recording of the song. The record percolated for awhile in Decca Records’ vault and was finally released by in January of 1947 as the B side of what would become one of Johnson’s biggest hits. Johnson’s band was not well known in mainstream circles and this tune went nowhere fast.
Which is not a mystery. While it is workmanlike for a big band arrangement at the tail end of that period, it is certainly not inspired and Ella Johnson’s vocal treatment was not the kind of thing that would do the song any great favors.
It was, however, much better known within the core market for what were then called “race records”. Mavis Staples (of the Staples Singers) recalled in her 2014 biography that she would hear it coming from a roadhouse jukebox as she walked to school. She also recalled getting a whuppin’ from her grandmother after singing the song in a grade school variety show. Buddy Johnson eventually became a talent scout for Chess Records (after trying to combine rock and roll with a big band) and remained active in the music business until his 1977 death at age 62.
A few months after that record was released, the owners of De Luxe Records, a small New Jersey record label that featured jump and blues tunes, took a trip to New Orleans on a search for some new talent. One of the first records that resulted from that trip was by Annie Laurie and the Paul Gayten Trio. Laurie (believed to have been born Annie Page in Georgia) had spent a bit of time with a couple of southern “territory bands” before relocating to The Big Easy, which turned out to be the right place at the right time.
Gayten, considered one of the earliest of the New Orleans-based R&B piano players, had only recently hired Laurie. This 1947 record took the song in an entirely different direction from the Buddy Johnson version. Laurie’s vocal work got mixed reviews – she was Dinah Washington’s favorite singer, but others were less impressed. Either way, this record was what the song seemed to crave, hitting No. 3 on Billboard Magazine’s early version of its R&B chart and even crossed over to hit No 20 on Billboard’s mainstream pop chart.
I find this version to be really compelling, though I remain undecided on Laurie’s vocal. Try to listen to this on some speakers that will show off the beautifully resonant low notes from Gayten’s piano (and try to get past how out-of-tune the piano was in the New Orleans recording studio.) Laurie’s career may have taken the most unexpected turn of anyone in this story when she left the music business in the 1970’s to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
With that one under our belts we can jump back to the modern era (OK, modern if you are my age) and Dinah Washington. Washington, another singer from the south, got her start in the 1940’s and by the late 50’s had become the most popular black female recording artist of that decade. She was fresh off a string of major commercial hits when she did this December, 1961 session backed by Quincy Jones’ big band. Both Washington and Jones were heavy hitters in the world of mainstream, polished jazz of that time and this record certainly delivers all of that.
As noted above, Washington was a fan of Annie Laurie, and would certainly have heard that 1947 record many times. In fact, a very young Dinah Washington recorded it herself that same year. It is also a safe bet that this 1961 version may have been the last major stab at the song recorded before the influence of the Lenny Welch record (the only one featured here with an introduction that was probably not part of Buddy Johnson’s original). Also, just like with Buddy Johnson, this one sat in the can for a year or more before being released on a 1963 album called This Is My Story.
Dinah Washington had a voice and style like nobody else, and this performance strikes me as a fusion of Johnson’s polished big band and Laurie/Gayton’s blues song treatment. This would have been released not long before Washington’s untimely death in December of 1963 at age 39. It is believed that she died in her sleep from an accidental combination of diet pills and sleeping pills which she took for insomnia.
As much as I love the symmetry of going from 1963 to 1947 and back again, I’m going to complete this tour with something just a few years newer, a record that fulfils the blues potential of this song like nothing before it.
Nina Simone was well established as both a singer and as a fiery civil rights activist by the time she recorded the album Nina Simone Sings The Blues in 1967.
I have not listened to a lot of Simone, but this may be my favorite treatment of all of them. OK, except for the overbearing drums at the conclusion of this track – but that may be unique to this online source. Isn’t everything better on the original disc?
I think the conclusion here is that Lenny Welch, the only male and only native northerner in this group, took this composition in a far different direction from all of the southern ladies who emphasized the blues contained in it. The song has been covered many other times by a variety of artists but I have yet to hear another that is as significant as these for marking the song’s evolution in the various directions it has gone. There are other versions on YouTube if you get the itch to explore – a duet by Natalie Cole and Reba McIntyre is not bad at all (but the 1950s Doo-Wop versions are not my thing). The song describes the misery of one who fell for something(one) in a way that was not good or healthy. But the song itself is something you can fall for and be much, much better off.
The first three recordings (Lenny Welch, Buddy Johnson and Annie Laurie) from the YouTube page of the78Prof (also known as the45Prof. Who, by the way, has a cool section of each page devoted to first known recordings of many popular songs.
Dinah Washington’s 1963 release from the YouTube page of gt gwbt
Nina Simone’s 1967 recording from from the YouTube page for Nina Simone
Featured image – 1963 record jacket from discogs.com
Lenny Welch publicity photo – from discogs.com
Lenny Welch publicity clipping from newspapers.com
Buddy Johnson publicity photo – wikimedia commons
Buddy Johnson big band photo – from bigbandspotlight.blogspot.com
Annie Laurie publicity photo – from spontaneouslunacy.com
Paul Gayten publicity photo – from discogs.com
c. 1962 Dinah Washington publicity photo – from wikimedia commons
1947 Mercury Records recording of Dinah Washington’s version of the song – from discogs.com
Nina Simone photo from wikimedia commons
1967 RCA Victor album cover for Nina Simone Sings the Blues – from discogs.com