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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Who Did It Better? Could It Be Magic

Who Did It Better? 
Could It Be Magic

This one is going to require some patience kids. First off, we have a very unique situation here, where the same artist took three (actually four) different swings at this particular ball. Then there is a matter of length... this is a long ass song. But couple that with a disco version? And you know it's going be a matter of time and patience. Fortunately, we are mostly dealing with edited versions, trimmed to fit the 45 format. 

But, I think it's worth it. I adore these two performers and I adore this song. And the song's history is a rather interesting one. 

Could It Be Magic was inspired by Frédéric Chopin's Prelude in C minor, Opus 28, Number 20. Written by Barry Manilow and Adrienne Anderson, it was initially released by Bell Records  in 1971 under the name Featherbed; a group of session musicians that included Manilow. The first version was produced and re-written by Tony Orlando (Knock Three Times, Tie A Yellow Ribbon). At the time, Orlando was vice president of Columbia/CBS Music. He'd caught Manilow's opening act for Bette Midler, who Manilow was accompanying at that time, and signed him to Bell Records which had been newly acquired by Columbia/CBS. 

Orlando took Manilow under his wing and began producing a number of tracks for him, under the aegis of Featherhead. Up to this point, the only thing Manilow had arranged was a series of commercial jingles, so Orlando did all the arrangements. Orlando liked Could It Be Magic, but felt it needed some tweaking and should be an up-tempo song, complete with cow bells, new lyrics and a 1970's bubblegum, feelgood pop beat. 

Manilow hated the results and was grateful when the single went nowhere. Only recently has he had a change of heart, calling Orlando's take "kind of catchy". 

After Featherbed failed to catch fire, Manilow and Ron Dante took the helm for his next stab at the song. Reinstating the original lyrics and slowing the tempo considerably, version two would appear on Manilow's 1973 debut album on Bell Records. This version would run a whopping 7:17, quite a difference when you consider that the Orlando produced version came in at 2:12. 

But then everything went pineapple upside down for Bell Records when it was acquired by Clive Davis and his label, Arista. Most of the artists on the label were jettisoned. Among the exceptions? Manilow and Melissa Manchester. Clive saw potential in both. (By the way, the line: "Sweet Melissa, angel of my lifetime..."? Yep, that's an ode to Manilow's labelmate.) 

Manilow's 1973 version, released on Bell Records had garnered enough heat and attention that Clive Davis deemed it worthy of one more swing.  In 1974, Manilow's debut album would get a makeover. Remixed and sweetened, Could It Be Magic was re-released, in an edited version, as a single a full two years after it had been originally recorded. At this point, Manilow had broken big with Mandy and Clive wanted to keep the hits coming. 

The gamble paid off handsomely, as the newly refurbished version snagged the #6 spot on Billboard's Hot 100. In 1978 it would also reach #25 in the UK. 

One would think that Manilow was all done tinkering with this particular song, but oh, no. When it came time to include it on his Greatest Hits: The Platinum Collection, the song was handed over to Trevor Horn (Owner Of A Lonely Heart, Relax) who re-edited it, piled on atmospherics, new backing vocals, a drum machine, and new vocals by Manilow (listen to his vowel sounds and how they have changed). I've included it here for a listen. My eyes just kept getting bigger and bigger the more I listened. 

But, back to 1975...

Seven months after Manilow's version was released for the third time, dance queen Donna Summer covered the song as part of her A Love Trilogy album. Her version, made for the dancefloor, would reach the #3 spot on Billboard's Dance chart in 1976. It would also manage to hit #52 on the Hot 100 in the US and #40 in the UK. 

And there you have the full story...

Now? On to the competition!

The Song: Could It Be Magic
The Competitors: Featherbed vs. Manilow vs. Manilow vs. Summer

Could It Be Magic (1971) - Featherbed

Could It Be Magic (1973)- Barry Manilow

Could It Be Magic (1975) - Barry Manilow

Could It Be Magic - Donna Summer

That intro is nothing I expected. Those are some perky strings and horns. And all at once! Oh, my. Well, early 70's AM Radio was not exactly subtle. So, this? This got my attention... like one of those glitzy variety shows. We settle down a bit, but not for long. Do you hear that bass accent? It's only really apparent after those strings stop screaming. Interesting choice for a vamp. Okay... Barry's vocals are more over-processed than my niece Shantell's hair! Man, is this peppy. By the second verse, those strings are swamping this thing, getting in the way of Manilow's vocals. I dislike it when an arrangement competes with the melody this much.  

The chorus certainly has some punch. Those signature backing vocals are there, but overwhelmed by the horns. That instrumental bridge that follows the chorus sounds like it was lifted from something else, but I can't place it. Oh, maybe: "Sooner or later, love is gonna get ya..."? The Grassroots? And that bass vamp? I know what that brings to mind; The Bee Gees would use a similar vamp on Tragedy (years later). 

Manilow sure is a trooper. You have to keep in mind what a golden boy Orlando was considered at this time. He hadn't even hit the peak of his career, which is quite impressive considering his MOR leanings. So, I can see why Manilow hopped aboard this particular train. 

It is catchy. I would say slight, but not really... there's a lot going on there with the horns and vocals and strings and backing vocals. It definitely whips up something, but nothing that's going to stick.

Barry Manilow (1973)
I used to play this Chopin piece (and lapse into Manilow's version). It's so lovely. His choice of tempo is interesting, to me... but then, my piano teacher despised my interp. I played this as part of a recital when I was in 10th grade and I knew she loathed it - she told me repeatedly. 

I love the mix, even once the classical portion is done and we move into the pop song, the piano remains on top. Manilow's vocals: people tend to either love or hate them. He does have a tendency to go nasal and he also scoops to a note, not always getting there on time ("miii-iiind"). I love his gentle, matter-of-fact delivery of the first chorus. Not pushing at all. Very sweet. His "now, now" comes off a little whiny. But it's a small complaint. I have long thought Barry is best when it is simply his voice and a piano. 

Right into the C Section, huh? Very pretty. Is that a synth or a horn? Horn. Either way, lovely. This section? Very ABC TV Movie of the Week musically, but effective none the less. I do not like the flute as we begin the second verse. But three notes? Okay. That is some lovely use of an acoustic guitar there. So subtle. Also, great entrance for the bass guitar. Now we have some bottom. Sneaking in the backing ladies and the drums. Again, very subtle. Sadly, subtlety is something Manilow would become more and more unfamiliar with as his career progressed. 

His voice. This was early in his career and he had yet to develop a means of attacking those higher notes. Here, you can hear some vibrato and feel the stretch as he's reaching. It's very vulnerable. At about the 5:10 mark, this thing feels fully cooked, but we have another two minutes to go, so... let's see where he's taking us next. I have rather enjoyed the slow build of this piece, I disagree with where he's placed the C Section, but where he placed it does play in with his plan for one long build. 

And Barry has no place to go and drowns in a sea of horns, strings and background vocals. That trumpet? Over the top. Also, I do not care for the electric guitar solo, as it appears grounded, never taking flight.

Musical arrangement? It should also follow the Coco Chanel rule. Just before you record it? Take one item off. 

All that and we end where we started with a little unadulterated Chopin. Love it.

Barry Manilow (1975)
Right off the bat you will notice that this is an edited version of the composition. Chopping the classical opening to 12 seconds? Where radio is concerned, that only makes sense. So we cut 40 seconds off right there. As we launch toward the song, the mark tree chime is missing in action, so this is indeed a new arrangement. His vocals immediately resonate with more muscle tone going into this - not necessarily a good thing. But then, the goal was to get this played on AM radio. Barry's vowel sounds? Not open enough - he tends to move to the close of a word (in this case the 'n' in 'find' and 'mind') which causes his sound to stop resonating and become very nasal. 

His vocals are brought on top of the mix for this version. They sound more immediate, for sure, brighter. However, given the breadth of the song, there's a level of interpretation on the part of the singer that has been erased. His gradual build throughout has been replaced by more of a 'this is a pop song' approach; demonstrating that what may pay off  in sales sometimes comes at the sacrifice of intrinsic artistic vision.

I don't care for Manilow's vocals in the first chorus, or for what passes as one here. He sounds weak, where, in the 1973 version, he sounded gentle, fragile. In fact, everything about this version sounds more aggressive; the strings heavier, the piano pops notes. It's not unpleasant, merely different. The song itself remains just as lovely.

He slashes the instrumental bridge to bits. What was 55 seconds is now, 30 seconds - which is still quite a bit for an instrumental break. This sounds more like a flugelhorn. I think they used a French horn before. It was certainly more melded to the arrangement than this time around. Half the second verse is cut ("Lady take me, high upon a hillside, high up where the stallion meets the sun"). The reason Manilow was probably okay with this? He didn't write the lyrics, Adrienne Anderson did. Although, since getting this song to finally chart and sell some copies was the goal, Anderson was probably onboard as well. 

Another small thing that's getting lost in this mix? In the 1973 version it sounds like the piano is constantly replying to the vocal. Here, that conversation is lost, due to the drive and the vocals riding on top. There is something I very much remember about this version that did not occur with the 1973 version. I remember checking my turntable because it frequently sounded to my ear like the needle was wobbling, as if the record was warped. You can hear it on this YouTube version as well. It sounds flat or or wobbly in two places, due to the sustained strings. It has always bothered me. 

Also.. as we continue with the chorus, in order to keep the momentum of sound building, they're resorting to doubling Manilow's vocals every once in a while at first and then straight through (they did this on the 1973 version, too, but to a lesser extent and it escaped my ear).  By the 3:13 mark there's a lot going on, here. Everything struggling for attention. The cacophony quickly, artificially, subsides - undercut by the plaintive piano. It's sudden. The 1973 version allows a much more natural removal of Manilow from the mix, allowing the backing vocals and instrumentation to carry on. While this version feels cacophonous, the 1973 version feels less truncated, abrupt, and manipulated.  

The 1973 version sounds like something played live and recorded. The 1975 edit sounds like a product of studio engineering. 

Donna Summer
No classical pretentions here. This is for the dancefloor. Strings and horns color and drive it on top of a tight, pounding rhythm track. This is early enough in Summer's career where she hadn't quite come into her own vocally. She changes 'Melissa' to 'Peter' - which I always thought she was singing 'St. Peter', but no... Peter in this case refers to her boyfriend at the time, Peter Mühldorfer. Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte keep things percolating. Lots of busy stuff running in the background, though this all feels straightforward, full speed ahead. 

The thinnest of strings take the lead at the instrumental break... or do they? No, that honor goes to Summer reenacting and bringing to mind her biggest (and only) hit up to that point, her breakthrough Love To Love You Baby. Oh, dear... 'come into my life' (cringe). You know, spoken word... it either works or  feels as stapled on as the tail pinned to a donkey's ass. Guess which category this falls into? Yes, you can try too hard. But, hey, at least this isn't the 12" extended version. Something tells me she might go on for quite a while longer on that version. 

Given that this was only her second single, we'll have to give her a break. She'd been singing a long time by then, but when it came to disco? Nobody knew where to draw the line (except on a mirror or a glass coffee table). Excess was just part of its appeal. 

That hi-hat snaps us back into place. She sounds more confident, but those vocals? Still a tad thin. She only begins to bring out the big guns at the 2:30 mark. Listen to all that lovely color in her voice. So full. Aww, she just gets started and they pull the plug. 

Truthfully? Yeah, I would have danced the hell out this thing. A mirrored ball brings out all sorts of interesting perspectives. Good taste, not being one of them.

The Verdict
I really like Manilow's 1973 version best. 

I get that the 1975 version is the one that finally charted and am glad it was a hit. The 1973 version, while significantly longer, reveals the songs original character. It sounds so much more natural and the length allows us to hear the composer's intentions. 

Yes, issues with Manilow's vocals, but when wasn't that the case? 

I would love to hear Summers doing her version minus the orgasmic spoken word bit. Still... her vocals weren't exactly up to what would become her standard quality, so I guess it's a wash.

And Featherbed? The less said the better. Catchy? Yes, in a "happy and peppy and bursting with love" sort of way (bonus points if you can name that reference - without googling it). I guess if it was on The Hudson Brothers / Helen Reddy / Paul Lynde Power Hour Variety Show, then it might work.

--- ---

Well, those are my thoughts.

Your turn. Put on your listening ears and let me know what you think via the comments section. I love to hear your opinion. 

That's it for now...

As always, thanks for listening and reading. 

Oh - wait! Bonus. Here's Manilow's 1993 version produced by Trevor Horn. You know, the guy who throws in all sorts of kitchen sink like sounds in the background as percussion. Should be worth a fun listen. Enjoy!

(Oh, and there is a live version where Manilow and Summers do it as a duet... find it on YouTube. One guess as to who 'wins'.)

Could It Be Magic (1993) - Barry Manilow


anne marie in philly said...

73 barry - the full version.

Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Your story with the piano teacher? I loved it. I can imagine you smiling slyly as you slipped that section in. As for the song, I have that Donna album! Hers is the only version I'd heard, so listening to Barry's was illuminating.
I love how you tear apart these songs. The first version did sound like the beginning of the Love Boat, TBH. I agree with you the '73 version could be the best.
But I like Donna's so there's that.


whkattk said...

Well, I like Manilow's versions - all of them. In my mind, the arrangements fit the lyrics as a love song. But there's something about Summers' that feels...good; hopeful. The duet does that, too.

Mistress Maddie said...

I would love to say Donna Summer. Nope

But not a fan of the song and didn't even listen to Barry Manilow's. I can't not take him.

Im going with Featherbed.

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely not a "Fanilow". There's a certain formula that starts with over-production of vocals and always seems to end in a big overwrought crescendo. Predictable and boring.

I like the Donna Summer version but hadn't heard it for so long I had forgotten about the organism which seems to be her "Love to Love You Baby" moment in the song.

Jimmy said...

Manilow '73 by far. Keeping in mind John Denver was doing 'dreamy' type tunes then too. Donna Summer was club music and could have been sung by anyone as long as the beat was there.

Anonymous said...

My favorite Donna Summer song was actually her cover of "MacArthur's Park". Another over produced original but she could do no wrong with that amazing voice!!