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The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of May 2

Updated on December 8, 2012

Introduction: Top 5 Finalists Sing Songs from the 1960s and Songs Recorded by British Artists

Presumably in the search for a theme that would well suit a Top Five split between specialists in R&B and rock, the producers made another wise decision.For the night of May 2, 2012, Idol focused on the 1960s, a decade when both genres blossomed, and the music of the U.K., where those styles continue to be appreciated far more widely than in their native U.S.The mentoring sessions were odd ducks, often more punctuated by good friends Jimmy Iovine and Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt’s lighthearted sparring than by useful advice, but several contestants ended up switching songs on the mentors’ suggestion and wound up with decent results.Skylar was entertaining, though not spectacular.Jessica and Phillip each had one incredible performance balanced out by a less impressive one.On the other hand, Hollie and Joshua both delivered consistently and gave a preview of some incredible records they could make once the season’s over.

Toss-Ups:

Jessica Sánchez – “Proud Mary” (Creedence Clearwater Revival) – Advanced

“Proud Mary” helped make one of folk-rock’s most representative groups a household name, only to be eclipsed by a cover that has been imitated but never duplicated by cruise-ship performers and other wannabes for decades. John Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s creative lead singer-songwriter, had been kicking around several song ideas for a long time before they coalesced into “Proud Mary.” The main one was from the perspective of one of Fogerty’s many distinctive working-class protagonists, in this case a domestic worker comparing her dogged determination to the dependability of the titular steamship. By setting his blues lyric to a sly midtempo beat and the killer guitar riffs CCR made famous, Fogerty crafted a single that would help make the 1969 album Bayou Country the band’s real breakthrough as a source of original music (the earlier albums mainly consisted of covers). In 1971, however, Ike and Tina Turner reworked the song for Workin’ Together, one of the last albums they recorded together before their 1976 separation and later divorce on account of Ike’s alleged domestic abuse. The latter events cast a macabre pall on the central gimmick of the Ike and Tina cover, their biggest hit together, in which the mood switches from a “nice and easy” slow soul croon to a “nice and rough” funk workout. Musically, though, the song was a perfect example of both Ike’s considerable guitar skills and Tina’s dynamo pipes and limitless physical energy (when dancing live). Ever since then, the song has been associated for many with the soul duo’s cover, creating the cliché in which an aspiring female performer, wanting to establish herself as a soul performer fit for the showy sensibilities of Las Vegas, would gyrate wildly and sing in a studied imitation of Tina, giving an exact replica of her delivery and quickening tempo. Hence, Jimmy and Little Steven were right to be concerned when Jessica insisted she would perform the song for 1960s week. Sure enough, her performance does essentially qualify as the archetypal “Tina Turner impression,” but with the caveat of featuring a vocalist who has established genuine talent instead of a delusional poseur. She goes through the motions, starting with the ballad intro and going right on schedule to the rapid-fire half seemingly calculated to rebuff judges’ allegations that she has a bland stage presence. Just once, I would like to see a performer sing “Proud Mary” in one tempo all the way through, as CCR did, or at least something other than a retread of the cover that never, as Randy wisely pointed out, can imitate that penultimate moment in the career of a tragically fated duo.

Jessica Sánchez – “You Are So Beautiful” (Billy Preston via Joe Cocker)

“You Are So Beautiful” was originally drawn from The Kids and Me, a hit 1974 album from one of R&B’s most talented instrumentalist-singers, organist Billy Preston. Preston had been more or less discovered by the Beatles in the late 1960s and featured on records such as “Get Back” and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album. However, he really hit his stride as a soloist when he joined Herb Alpert’s easy listening Mecca A&M Records as part of the latter’s effort to diversify their portfolio of styles in the 1970s, a challenging time for indie labels in the U.S. Preston delivered with albums that, typically with the assistance of lyricist Bruce Fisher, tended to be stronger in terms of their keyboards than in terms of Preston’s average vocals. The public responded as well, however, to sung singles such as “Will It Go Round in Circles?” and “Nothing from Nothing,” as they did to instrumentals like “Space Race” and “Outer Space.” “You Are So Beautiful” had an easygoing, almost slow reggae tempo punctuated by Preston’s fine organ and quality backup singers, but Fisher’s lyrics were a sentimental, simple affair, consisting almost exclusively of the title phrase appended with “to me” (sometimes with “can’t you see” added on) except for the bridge. The song lacked the novelty appeal of “Nothing from Nothing” and so remained buried. Joe Cocker’s producer Jim Price, however, saw potential in the song, and indeed his piano-and-strings production complemented Cocker’s gruff yet sensitive voice quite nicely. Of course, “You Are So Beautiful” has gained a reputation as mush over the years, partly from its heavy use by film and TV soundtrack gurus as a humorous all-purpose symbol for hopeless crushes, so it’s no surprise that the Idol mentors warn Jessica to steer clear of this evergreen’s “Muzak” reputation. And steer clear she does. By singing with genuine emotion and occasionally ornamenting the sparse melody, Jessica finds genuine musicality in the admittedly syrupy source material. Many have attempted to merely cover “You Are So Beautiful,” but after years of damage from ridiculous media use, Jessica goes above and beyond the call of duty and repairs it.

Phillip Phillips – “The Letter” (The Box Tops) – Advanced

“The Letter” became a 1967 chart-topper through utter serendipity. Dan Penn was producing overflow from hot Memphian Chips Moman’s studio and settled for a local group Moman considered lightweights. Penn insisted on recording a song by a struggling songwriter named Wayne Carson Thompson, later well-known for “Always on My Mind” and innumerable country smashes, and had an absurd fight with Moman over including an airplane noise on the record. Box Top Alex Chilton’s vocal proved just to Penn’s liking, and the group went on to enjoy a solid, if generally downward, career (including two more Carson hits, “Neon Rainbow” and “Soul Deep”) as what was then called a blue-eyed soul group, white guys singing R&B in an earnest, if not wildly groundbreaking manner. “The Letter” was a simple enough saga of a guy returning to an erstwhile lover, and it became a hit at the tail end of the Summer of Love in a rock market still dominated by British acts and glutted with the synthetic appeal of the Monkees. Phillip is one of many to remake the song over the years, and his individual take is as distinctive as any regular Idol viewer in 2012 would expect. He slows the tempo down and wrangles extra meaning out of every syllable in the self-explanatory lyric, making sure to give extra breathing room to both his own guitar track and the many musicians who clearly look forward to performing with him each week. Jam bands are a fixture of the American music scene, but to see someone make the concept work as a solo act and give it sex appeal, the way Phillip does, is quite an accomplishment. It certainly deviates from the pop-star mentality people often associate with American Idol.

Phillip Phillips – “Time of the Season” (The Zombies)

“Time of the Season” was a hit in 1969, the last of three U.S. hits for Chris White and Rod Argent’s group the Zombies (the other two, from 1964 and 1965, respectively, were the melodic “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No”). 1968’s Odessey and Oracle was the last hurrah of a disintegrating group. Only after several flop singles did Columbia Records in the U.S. finally release “Time of the Season” for a slow but successful finish, after the band had already called it quits. Like many of the group’s best-known songs, Argent’s composition has a very pretty melodic sheen akin to Paul’s Beatles cuts, often suggesting a hint of doo-wop amidst the sophisticated rock delivery. The lyric had lustful, almost predatory connotations, quite suggestive of a sleazy womanizer’s indecent proposal. Like “You Are So Beautiful,” it developed its own patina of soundtrack associations, in this case often revolving around drug-fueled orgies taking place sometime between 1965 and 1975. To the surprise and mock fear of Jennifer, Phillip decides to actually sing the song relatively close to the way Argent did, adding in little more than a mildly interesting guitar solo to make it his own. The lyrics’ slight creepiness was supposed to add a bit of an edge to Phillip’s growing appeal among the camera phone set, but his inner lothario is curiously kept in check by his straining to deal with the band’s insistence on playing in the original key, which is far above Phillip’s own vocal register. The net effect of Phil’s voice cracking on the final “lov-ing” at the high end of the chorus clashes with the song’s sexual tension, making even the artistic seduction a bit incomplete despite the verses’ suitability in atmosphere for his style.

Skylar Laine – “Fortunate Son” (Creedence Clearwater Revival) – Eliminated

By the time Creedence released Willy and the Poor Boys in late 1969, the group was one of the hottest in the country. Feeling confident, lead singer John Fogerty decided to write a song fit for America’s greatest controversy of the day. A decade well-known for its protest movements was naturally a golden age for protest songs, and at the tail end of the 1960s, CCR made their contribution to the genre with “Fortunate Son.” Inspired by the 1968 marriage of presidential offspring Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower and the classic complaint of “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,” Fogerty delivered a catchy salvo from the perspective of the unlucky draftee sent to possibly die for weaponized patriotism. Like most of Fogerty’s melodies, that of “Fortunate Son” was rather minimalist, centering on the classic descending guitar staccato that kicks off the song. Dissuaded by the mentors from singing Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” which I frankly think she might have done quite well with some rehearsal polishing, Skylar takes up their suggestion to perform a song that tests the boundaries of her all-American musical roots. Although she seems physically incapable of sounding subdued on a rocker, she doesn’t seem as full of conviction on “Fortunate Son” as she has on less politically salient music, making me wonder if Skylar didn’t find the sentiments a little contrary to her own values. Whether or not she has any opinion on the matters at hand, her performance has enough character to carry her through, even when it doesn’t just pop the way some of her previous ones have.

Skylar Laine – “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” (Dusty Springfield)

“You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” popularized by a Briton with a solid country-singing background and a soulful voice, consisted of an English lyric grafted onto an Italian pop song. Translations such as these were commonplace in mainstream pop for the first three or so decades after World War II, as publishers both inside and outside of the Anglophone world took advantage of greater international ties to find ready-made melodies for easy songwriting. Pino Donaggio, a classically trained violinist who became a singer-songwriter when Paul Anka hit Italian shores in 1959, premiered “Io che non vivo (Senza te)” (“I, Who Can’t Live [Without You]”) at 1965’s San Remo festival. San Remo was the local equivalent of the Pan-European Eurovision contest, assigning singers both foreign and domestic to sing new compositions from local tunesmiths, and it produced many overseas smashes with a lightweight pop flavor, including “Volare” and “Al di lá.” Donaggio’s song, co-written with lyricist Vito Pallavicini, was a whiny plea to stay, gussied up with the sort of melodramatic arc and soaring tune that drove continental audiences nuts and earned it a number one finish on the Italian record charts despite a seventh-place standing at the festival. Dusty Springfield, singing a rival number at San Remo, cried after hearing Donaggio’s rendition and asked for an English lyric from Vicki Wickham, a close confidante who had made a name for herself in the man’s world of British show-biz as producer of Ready Steady Go! Wickham and her preferred collaborator, arranger-manager Simon Napier-Bell, captured the desperation of the original quite well considering that they didn’t know a word of Italian, and Dusty made a global impression with her plaintive version, later covered by Elvis and further translated into Finnish in the wake of her 1966 smash. Dusty added R&B to the elegant schmaltz, and now Skylar aims to add country as well. Does she succeed? She certainly tries her best. The countrypolitan arrangements in the Tammy Wynette tradition, complete with keyboards dressed up like slide guitars and an excess of strings, don’t hurt the proceedings one bit. This is Skylar attempting to tell a story, and while she doesn’t necessarily do that as well as she conveys the more primal emotional core and rhythmic feel of a song, she certainly appears to have more faith in her song choice than she did in her first. That said, Italian key changes don’t necessarily “countrify” as well as blues chords and arena rock, but the experiment is never jarring or unpleasant, so it’s an effort worth the listening.

Successful Covers/Re-Interpretations:

Hollie Cavanagh – “River Deep, Mountain High” (Ike and Tina Turner) – Advanced

Phil Spector intended “River Deep, Mountain High” to be his magnum opus. Disappointment with the song’s relative lack of commercial success plunged him into a self-imposed two-year retirement from which he would never quite recover, either artistically, commercially, or personally. Before the erratic and sometimes criminal behavior toward colleagues and dates that would tarnish his reputation in later years, Spector had been renowned in the industry as the creator of the “Wall of Sound,” mid-1960s America’s hippest pop creation that combined the giddy, youthful excitement of rock and roll with the intricate aural web of the Romantic symphony. All the ingredients for a hit were there, including the inimitable Tina’s voice, the most overworked echo chamber and session band on Earth, and the writing talent of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, the husband-and-wife masterminds of earlier Spector hits such as the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me,” the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love.” Lyricist Greenwich’s protagonist had the almost cartoonish loyalty of a “ragdoll” or “dog,” but the insistence of Tina’s vocal gave the song more punch than the premise might suggest, combined with the usual Spector magic on the multiple layers of background track. However, listeners’ tastes were becoming more experimental in 1966, including those on R&B radio that found the song disappointingly pop-flavored compared to Ike and Tina’s earlier releases. Consequently, the song stalled in the lower rungs of the U.S. charts despite a good U.K. showing. Hollie brings the song to life in all its “shoulda been a hit” glory, in the process proving that she can handle vibrant, dynamic songs as well as any of her supposedly more energetic rivals. Hollie finally doesn’t lose the notes as she moves around the stage, even while delivering with gusto a song that uses all her obvious technical power to maximum advantage.

Hollie Cavanagh – “Bleeding Love” (Leona Lewis)

“Bleeding Love,” as Randy Jackson fondly pointed out, was written by OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder for the debut album of Simon Cowell’s 2007 discovery Leona Lewis. Spirit needed a killer hit, so Cowell, producing her after shepherding her rise on The X Factor, turned to Tedder and modestly successful R&B-pop singer Jesse McCartney. OneRepublic, a blue-eyed soul group, had enjoyed hits with “Apologize” and “Stop and Stare,” and they seemed poised to rival Maroon 5 in their market niche, so it was a decent choice. Tedder was early in his writing career, but had already penned our own Jennifer Lopez’s “Do It Well” and Natasha Bedingfield’s “Love Like This,” and he would go on to compose additional hits such as Beyoncé’s “Halo,” Jordin Sparks’s “Battlefield,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone.” As the above names indicate, Tedder has a long history with people in the Idol-X Factor orbit, and as the beginning of that relationship, “Bleeding Love” was quite auspicious. The hit combined a metaphorically masochistic breakup lyric with a series of some of Tedder’s most interesting pop hooks, and certainly among the least annoying. Naturally, his “label,” Disney’s Hollywood subsidiary, didn’t want it, so he submitted a demo to Cowell for the album. It was refreshing in the 2000s to actually see a song become a hit on the strength of a genuinely well-crafted verse, chorus, and bridge, all in the hands of a singer who recalled the skillful ornamentation and wide range of Mariah Carey. Hollie does not possess that range, but she is definitely tuneful enough to challenge Leona on this contemporary classic. The more intimate mood of Hollie’s version of “Bleeding Love” trades in the more operatic grandeur of the original for something poignantly vulnerable, partly on account of the reductions Idol’s arrangers had to make in the melody. This was the other side of the coin from “River Deep, Mountain High.” The two songs give a great impression of the variety of songs that Hollie would have to offer as a pop artist on record. She has successfully come back from her midseason slump and redeemed herself for good, and she might just get the title if she keeps improving at this rate.

Joshua Ledet – “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (The Temptations) – Advanced

“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” was a perfect encapsulation of the ambition that propelled Norman Whitfield into his position as producer of Motown’s top male vocal group. Company president Berry Gordy’s best friend Smokey Robinson had had the most luck with the group, enjoying hits with “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl,” among others, so by company fiat he was chief writer-producer on their songs in the mid-1960s. Whitfield, a three-year veteran at the label but no charter member like Robinson, was determined to take the perhaps overextended Robinson’s prize client, and so he called on Eddie Holland to write him a lyric for the job. Holland was part, along with his producer brother Brian and composer Lamont Dozier, of the Holland-Dozier-Holland collective, the crew that gave the label innumerable hits for the Supremes, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, and every other act imaginable on the label. For a while, Eddie Holland agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to collaborate with Whitfield. His first lyric to Whitfield’s melody, for “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” was oddly appropriate in mood for Whitfield’s gambit, though the object of the protagonist’s affection was trying to leave him rather than rejecting him to begin with. The melody had more of a jumpy horn-driven feel to it than Smokey’s string-laced Tempts hits, helping the Temptations and Motown compete with the rising popularity of Southern soul. Since the song outperformed Robinson’s classic “Get Ready” on the 1966 charts, Whitfield got the Temptations for the next eight years. The Rolling Stones were just one of the umpteen acts to cover the song, but Joshua is our interpreter for Idol. Joshua channels the original powerhouse lead of the late David Ruffin while never letting us forget that he is the one who can bring that style of singing back for the twenty-first century. There isn’t much I can say to convey the brilliance of Joshua’s choice and performance that isn’t captured in the video below, except that this is solid, authentic American music sung the way it was meant to be sung. Full stop.

Joshua Ledet – “To Love Somebody” (Bee Gees)

“To Love Somebody” was one of the early hits of the Bee Gees, three British-Australian brothers who, in Randy’s accurate estimation, were some of the most talented songwriters of their generation. Those who rejected them on account of their association with the much-maligned disco genre missed out not only on the Bee Gees’s genuine talent as manifested in the late 1970s, but also in their early years as a pop-rock group consciously, and at times controversially, setting out to unseat the Beatles from their throne. Barry’s quivering falsetto lead, long the group’s vocal trademark anchored a gorgeous soul melody and lovesick puppy love lyric tailor-made for its intended vocalist, Otis Redding. Unfortunately, Redding’s plane crash happened before he could record it, and the group’s own 1967 version wound up being their second major transatlantic hit during the Summer of Love. Acts from Hank Williams, Jr., to Nina Simone would cover it in later years. It’s a great move by Jimmy and Little Steven to suggest it in place of Ben E. King’s “Without Love (There Is Nothing)” (covered by Tom Jones) for Joshua’s British song. To say Joshua takes the last-minute change to a song he’d never heard before in stride is the understatement of the century. He makes the song his own and brings out the Southern R&B core the Bee Gees had always intended, all on the basis of an emphatic rearrangement he worked out in fifteen minutes. If this doesn’t prove that Joshua has the chops to make it in the fast-paced, highly competitive music business, I don’t know what does.

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