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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Who Did It Better? Jesse

Who Did It Better? 

Today, we will continue to take a look at songs written by one recording artist, but made popular by a different recording artist.  

In 1973, Janis Ian was an artist adrift without a record label. To say she'd peaked early would be an understatement; at the ripe old age of 15, she'd had a major hit with Society's Child, a song that dealt with an interracial relationship. The song seemed destined to expire uncelebrated, except it caught the ear of  Leonard Bernstein, who featured Ian on one of his television specials. The song set off bells and alarms, and quickly began to climb the charts. The public reaction? Divided to say the least. One radio station was actually burned to the ground for playing it. Ian became a cause célèbre, making numerous television appearances. 

Until the day... she wasn't.

Her follow-up albums failed to catch fire. She was dropped by Verve and picked-up by Capitol, who issued a single, under-promoted album before saying good-bye.

Ian, who had given away most of her money to causes and friends, chose to concentrate on her songwriting. 

And it paid off.

Jesse, a song Ian had been working on for some time, was chosen by Roberta Flack and producer Joel Dorn for Flack's 18 months in-the-making, Killing Me Softly album. The song was track two and chosen as the second single. 

In Ian's own words:

"I was 14 or 15 when I started (writing) that song, Originally, Jesse was going to be about a Vietnam War vet coming home. But then that was limiting." And, given that she would later in life, come out as a lesbian, Ian clarified the intended gender of the song's subject, adding, "Jesse was always male. Jesse with an 'e' has traditionally been male. It's the 'ie' Jessies that are female." 

Flack's album, Killing Me Softly, was finally released on August 1, 1973, with Jesse being released as a single on November 8th of that same year. It would reach #30 on Billboard's Hot 100, #19 R&B, and #3 A/C.

All this renewed attention got Ian a record deal. Signed to Columbia Records, she went into the studio in the summer of 1973 with producer Brooks Arthur (Carole Bayer-Sager, Bernadette Peters, Peter Allen) to record Stars, an album released in February of 1974.  Stars contained Ian's own version of Jesse, which would be released as the B-side of her single, The Man You Are In Me (Billboard #104, A/C #33).

On January 15th, 2020, Ann Powers of NPR featured the song on the stations' One Hit Wonders/Second-Best Songs segment.

"Janis Ian wrote Jesse from the perspective of the loved one of a Vietnam veteran, and we don't really know whether the soldier is still at war or if maybe he's come back or she's come back and is struggling. It's mysterious, but at the center of the song is incredible ache; this loneliness that you know will never be resolved. It's so clean and clear and sad, and this is what Janis Ian is so good at: she writes character studies, she confronts societal issues, but in a very personal and relatable way. It's just one of many that Janis Ian wrote and gave us, and I hope people explore her catalog."

In 1975, the song would also be covered by Shirley Bassey and Joan Baez. 

Well, that's the story behind the song.

Now, let's get to it...

The Song: Jesse
The Competitors: Flack vs. Ian

Jesse (Live) - Robert Flack
Note: As per usual, there exists a video featuring the album version of the song, but Blogger will not allow me to upload it here. So, to listen to that version, go here.
That will be the version I will be critiquing.

Jesse - Janis Ian

Roberta Flack
I love Roberta Flack. Her voice rolls over any song like a languid fog bank, stilling the moment while creating as intimate an environment as possible. Listening to her, you're either charmed, lulled or bored. Yes, I confess, getting though First Time Ever I Saw Your Face? Laborious. A bit of chore, a bit of a snore. (Such blasphemy!). I like her best when she is upbeat (her duets with Donny Hathaway always seemed to bring out the best in her) and focused. This song suits her style, to a 'T'. I like the intro... much better than what Flack plays live. As a vocalist, the woman's holding so much back in the opening she barely shows up at all. Her diction is excellent and I adore her overall tone. It is a bit sleepy. When she opens up, "keeping the light on the stairs", you can hear where this could lead, but her voice is like a rose bud that never quite opens all the way. 

I find the tempo to be a bit plodding. It brings to mind Flack's version of All The Sad Young Men - a case where, love the song, but could you pick it up just the tiniest bit? I am not sure why Flack sings this so reverently when a bit more honest passion would go a long way. 

I like the arrangement , again, very reminiscent of other things she has done. The restrained strings? Lovely. She opens up a bit more going into verse two... love those big round vowel sounds. Her voice breaking on the word "place", actually helpful. She's human. However, I think her phrasing may be at fault here. She keeps pulling her words which mucks up the 3/4 time signature.

Back to those strings? Oh, dear. Third verse: they go where no strings should ever go unless it's the soundtrack for a 1970's made-for-TV movie. There are several points where they clash with the vocals and it is not pleasant. Fortunately they fade before they do any more damage. This just feel ponderous. Overwrought, minus an emotional commitment. I love Roberta Flack - sometimes. This? I am amazed it got to #30 or any radio play. It's way too subdued and dull for me.

Janis Ian
I love the opening strings. I love the fine 'pluck' of the guitar. And then... the whippoorwill? Whaaa? 

Ian's voice; mixed nicely, very alive. You hear that tiny ache in her voice instantly and it serves the song well, as does the choice of acoustic guitar over piano. Right away, this is a much livelier version, than Flack's. I feel like I am being told a story. I love how Ian flips mid-phrase between her throat and head voice - very effective. Strings come on a little too strong, too early, but thankfully pull back. Once they become plucked strings, it adds an interesting texture, a percussive feel. Ian has an interesting trill to some of her vowel sounds once she ups the volume and starts singing with something other than her lips. Granted, some of her vowel sounds (pictures, stairs) strike me as a bit odd. Oh, dear... the whippoorwill returns.  Oh, and then that big swell of strings during the musical break. Hmmm.

By the way, I appreciate that Ian allows a bit of air between verses. Flack's habit of pouncing into the next verse bothered me. Oh, relief! I was afraid the whippoorwill would be back. Instead, that melody is taken over by some kind of wind instrument(?) Very 70's, but nice. I like it better than Flack's string arrangement. Ian's has held up better. Love how in the third verse Ian really leans into all those long 'e' and 'u' vowels... that's an example of something a songwriter is intrinsically aware of and utilizes that a singer doing a cursory reading would never pick up on. And the big ending? It's a bit much, but I like it. 

(Oh, fun fact... see that photo of Ian on the Stars album cover? Well, the record was done and Columbia wanted to rush it out, but there was no cover art and no money for one. So Ian taped up a black garbage bag to her living room wall, combed her hair and had a friend take a couple of photos. And... that's what they got! Amazing, don't you think?)  

The Veridct
Going with Janis on this one. Flack misses the story by steadfastly remaining so ponderous. I don't know if Brooks Arthur's production job has aged all that well, but it beats Joel Dorn's. Sometimes you can overwork a song... and I think both producers are guilty of that here. Still, I give the nod to Ian; her vocals and tempo are so much more lively and she brings a drama to life that Flack's performance barely hints at.

--- ---

Those are my two cents. I know, I know... I must admit I have a bias here, as I am a big fan of Janis Ian's. Having heard her sing this live, accompanied with just an electric acoustic guitar? The song has held up well and that is the way it should be heard. Seventies' production techniques and musical arrangements? Fun? Or funny?

But what did you think? Let me know. Leave your thoughts in the comments section. I love hearing your opinions. 

And now, just for the fun of it... here's Shirley Bassey's and Joan Baez's versions. 

Jesse -Shirley Bassey

(So, another example where the version that I would like to post is not available on Blogger (happens a lot), so to hear the actual recorded version, go here.)

Shirley Bassey
I see why Miss Maddie is such a fan. Lovely voice; big and open tone. Rich. I actually like the way she sings to her consonants. A little cloying, but her overall tone is so pure she can pull it off.  This arrangement is much less treacly than I expected. It really puts Ms. Bassey front and center (where a diva belongs). Her tendency to rush the beat, bleeding words together is a little off-putting. Is that a  flugelhorn? Compliments Bassey's voice perfectly. I like that rough ache in the third verse and the airiness she allows every once and a while throughout. Her vibrato is unique as well... so controlled and battened down. I like. A little too adult contemporary/night club for me, but fairly clean and unfussy. So, bravo!

Jesse - Joan Baez

Joan Baez
This version can be found on Baez's truly amazing Diamond's and Rust album. She double times the song before reverting back to an almost leaden 3/4. It's an interesting gamble. To my ears? It doesn't pay off. It's a shame. I hear her voice and had she done the song as a steady waltz, I think I would have liked her version best. The simplicity of the guitar works, as does her voice; this song suits it well. The keyboard is a bit overworked (sounds like Music Box Dancer). The double-timing rushes everything... lending a sense of urgency not warranted. Her instrumental break is my least favorite of the three and, surprisingly, she lets it play her out. I get that she felt the need to differentiate herself from Janis Ian's take on the song - the two used to get mixed up quite frequently. Hmmm. Not a fan of this version. Diamond and Rust, on the other hand, is a great album.  

Thanks for reading!


Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I would also go with Ian's version. I have not listened to a lot of her records, TBH. Roberta Flack's version (the album, not the live one) is not as impactful to me. This is the first time I hear the song, BTW, so it's pretty much gut feeling and nothing else.
I loved Shirley Bassey, of course. I did not even listen to Joan Baez' version. There's something about her that I just cannot take. Am I wrong?


whkattk said...

Love Ian - but, I'm still giving this one to Flack. It's the tone of the voice that grabs me. It's a beautiful song. Didn't even know that Bassey and Baez covered it.

Mistress Maddie said...

I couldn't decide after you had to feature Dame Shirley! That is the only woman who can sing certain show and get me teary eyed because she sings it so meaningful...except of Billie Holiday.

I was never a huge Roberta Flack fan, so I would go with you on Ian.