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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Who Did It Better? Alfie

Who Did It Better?

When our friend Jimmy suggested this old chestnut, I thought... huh, not much of a story. 

Boy, was I wrong.

Imagine being the song nobody was that excited to write and nobody wanted to sing? Then imagine going on to win the hearts and ears of the world! That's the story of Alfie.

Burt Bacharach and Hal David were established songwriters with a number of hits under their belt by the time they were offered the opportunity to write the theme song for Paramount Pictures very British film, Alfie. Approached with the offer by Ed Wolpin of the Composers' Guild, Hal David felt the title character's name to be, well... a bit lame. "Writing a song about a man called 'Alfie' didn't seem too exciting at the time."

The two took on the task, agreeing to submit something only of if the song was completed in three weeks time. Bacharach was in California, while David was living in Long Island. In order to capture what the film was about, Bacharach insisted David write the lyrics first. "With Alfie," he said, "the lyric had to come first because it had to say what that movie was all about".

David received the film's script and immediately seized on one of the title character's lines (as played by Michael Caine): "What's it all about?", and the rest all fell into place. 

Dionne Warwick had tremendous success with a number the duo's compositions, so she was their first choice for vocalist. However, given that it was a very British film, the powers that be at Paramount felt the song should be recorded by a singer from the UK. Sandie Shaw, who had enjoyed a #1 hit in the UK with Bacharach/David's (There's) Always Something There To Remind Me was the first to be approached. She declined, without explanation. It was then offered to Cilla Black, who'd also had a UK #1 with a Bacharach/David composition, Anyone Who Had A Heart

Black recalls receiving a letter stating that the song had been written specifically for her. Her manager, Brian Epstein (The Beatles) had a demo of the song delivered to his client. The demo was performed by a 22-year old singer named Kenny Karen, who was accompanied by Bacharach on piano and a small string ensemble. Black disliked the demo "of some fella singing Alfie. I actually said to Brian 'I can't do this.' For a start - Alfie? You call your dog Alfie! (Couldn't) it be Tarquin or something like that?"  

Rather than decline outright, Black decided instead to set ever increasing conditions: "I said I'd only do it if Burt Bacharach himself did the arrangement, never thinking for one moment that he would. The reply came back from America that he'd be happy to, I said I would only do it if Burt came over to London for the recording session. 'Yes,' came the reply. Next I said that as well as the arrangements and coming over, he had to play (piano) on the session. To my astonishment it was agreed that Burt would do all three. So by this time, coward that I was, I really couldn't back out."

Bacharach and Black, along with famed producer George Martin, a 48-piece orchestra, and a group of backing vocalists known as The Breakaways entered the legendary Studio One at Abbey Road in the fall of 1965. Black claims she had to do eighteen takes (although Bacharach says is was more like "twenty-eight or twenty-nine") to get it right. According to Bacharach, "I kept going. Can we get it a little better? Just some magic? Cilla was great and wound up delivering a killer vocal, as she did on so many of my songs."

Released in January of 1966, four months prior to the opening of the film, it was Paramount's hopes that the song would help call attention to the film. The idea that it would become a bona fide hit never occurred to them. However, by April of 1966, it did just that, reaching the #9 position on the UK charts, #22 in Australia and #20 in New Zealand. State side, Black's version failed to make much of an impact, dying on the charts at #95. This occurred due to the film's delayed release in the US and was thought to be due to the number of easy listening cover versions that were released at the same time.

While Black's version did serve as a promotional tool for the film, it did not end up as the official theme song. Director Lewis Gilbert felt the song's pop leanings would distract from the jazz score created by Sonny Rollins. The compromise? The song would play only over the closing credits and no where in the actual film. It was also not included on the UK version of the  Original Soundtrack Recording for the film. However, that would change once the film was released state side. 

For the  US version of the OCR, it was decided that a new version of the song would be created. Enter Cher. With Sonny behind the board, the song was recorded in a style similar to Phil Spector's signature 'Wall of Sound'. In the fall of 1966, serving as the follow-up to Cher's #2 solo outing, Bang, Bang, her version of Alfie was something of a disappointment, only reaching #32 in the US and #36 in Canada. The song was included on Cher's album Chér, released in October 1966.

Despite failing to become bona fide hits in their own right, the two versions created enough of a stir in the industry to attract a number of established artists, each of whom cut their own version. Both Jerry Butler and Dee Dee Warwick would take a stab at the song, though neither version was released as a single and by the time the film opened in NYC on August 25, 1966 - a total of eight different versions of the song were floating about the airwaves. Vikki Carr, Jack Jones, Tony Martin, Carmen McRae, Joanie Sommers and Billy Vaughn all recorded and helped promote the song with the hopes of garnering a spot on Billboard's Easy Listening chart. Only Sommers and McRae achieved this; hitting #9 and #29, respectively. 

It would take the power and grace of Dionne Warwick, Bacharach's original choice to record the song, to make it a bona fide hit. 

And it almost never happened! 

Putting finishing touches on her next album, Here, There and Everywhere, in December of 1966, things had gone so well that there remained a number of hours of studio time left to fill. Scepter Records, Warwick's label had an A&R man on staff, Steve Tyrell, who suggested to Bacharach that he fill the time by having Warwick record a version of Alfie. Warwick initially balked at the idea; at the time there were 42 other recorded versions of the song and she couldn't see the sense of her adding to the pile. But Tyrell and Bacharach persisted and Warwick was eventually persuaded to cut a single take of the song.

With the album's release in January of 1967, Warwick's version of Alfie immediately began generating airplay, so much so, that by March of that year, Specter Records felt it in their best interest to release it as a single, but both Warwick and Bacharach thought this a mistake, much preferring the disc's The Beginning of Loneliness. A compromise was reached with Alfie serving as that song's B-side. DJ's throughout the US immediately flipped the 45, and began playing the B-side as the A-side and by April the track began it's ascent on Billboard's Hot 100. To promote the song, Warwick - not Black, not Cher - was tapped to perform the song at the 39th Academy Awards ceremony, where the song and film had garnered a number of nominations. Thanks to all this, by the spring and summer of 1967, Warwick's version would hit #15 on Billboard's Hot 100 and #5 on the R&B chart. It would also peak at #10 in Canada. 

Warwick's Alfie would end up as the #44 song of the year and in 2008, it would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Other versions of note:

Eivets Rednow (Stevie Wonder) released an instrumental version featuring his virtuoso harmonica playing in 1968. It peaked at #66 on Billboard's Hot 100 and became a Top 20 Easy Listening hit. 

Legendary producer, Thom Bell would help The Delfonics record their version. It would end up as the B-side for their hit Break Your Promise in 1968. However, in 1973, it would be released as an A-side, generating some heat on the R&B chart with a peak at #88.

Barbra Streisand would record the song for her 1969 What About Today? album.

And there you have it... the whole story!

Now? On to the competition.

The Song: Alfie
The Competitors: Black vs. Cher vs. Warwick

Alfie - Cilla Black

Alfie - Cher (Mono)

Alfie - Dionne Warwick (Mono)

Cilla Black
Love the strings. Hate her entrance. Oh, my... that is so perky and quick. That is not the Alfie I know. She sounds like a demented puppet. And then she screams? WTF? (Can you tell I have never heard her version before?) I do not like that forced vibrato. When people sing that big it usually flattens out a vibrato, not enhance it. 

Oh, Bacharach magic on the piano. That lovely counter line at the beginning of verse two. Scrumptious. "And when LIFE BElongs..." Seriously? They did 28 takes and THIS is what they thought would do? It's like a Joanne Worley parody. When she sings the second syllable of 'Alfie' - she pushes the vibrato exactly the way Ethel Merman did - it is not pretty. 

Oh, dear, as we go into the small bridge, the orchestra absolutely swamps her and she's singing like a tin mouse. That is one major storm of sound. A messy murky arrangement. My major issue at this juncture? There is no interp. There is brashness. There is 'worble'. There is a bit of humility. There is no self-reflection. That is what this song, for me is about. And I think that's the point of the film and the point of the lyrics... one must live an examined life. Black's choices throughout this seem to be more about - 'look what I can do' - than - 'listen to what I have to share'. 

She is chewing these lyrics like Merman chewed scenery. I absolutely despise all the punctuations she is adding as a vocalist. This song has an absolutely sumptuous melody and she is hacking away at it like it's a dead cow. 

The one line she does deliver well? 'I believe in love...' And that is the tone and thought that should have colored this entire recording. 

The back-up singers? Meh. Why bother. The orchestra? Too much. The arrangement? Over the top dramatics. 

The ending is effective. Would it have been as effective without all the faux fireworks that preceded it? We'll never know.  

While researching this song, when I read that they were going to look for a UK singer to introduce the song, I thought of two other singers who I think would have proven much better choices... Lulu (although To Sir, With Love didn't happen until 1967, so that's daft on my part) and Petula Clark (and she would have been available).

This is not the Alfie I know and love. 

Interesting opening. Flute, clarinet with accents of a strummed guitar and harpsichord. Certainly captures the mood of the song. 

I can't believe that's Cher. It's so... her delivery is so crisp, clear and free of her usual vocal tics. That is pretty! Yeah, the Cher we know and love shows up on the word 'kind' or, as she sings it 'Kah-hind'. 

Aww. Sonny. That junky, junky arrangement just ruined everything that the opening generated. Sigh. Those drums are TERRIBLE, Muriel. Oh, dear and then that rhythm guitar going into some kind of bolero inspired spasm. And then bells? Kitchen sink, anyone? Anyone?

This is too bad. Cher really had me there in the opening verse. She's never sounded so... pure. And I have a feeling she also had the chops to pull this one off... if Sonny's Phil Spector fetish hadn't gone into overdrive. Oh, dear... and the bad news is? We're only halfway through. 

I have to hand it to Cher. Her vocals are absolutely lovely. As we hit that third verse she's still holding it together - not resorting to tricks or eye rolls. I would love to hear this with her vocals isolated and then have someone who knew what they were doing come in and simply play piano for her. 

That sustained 'Alf-feeeee'. A little under the note and unconvincing. 

Okay... a signature Cher-ism. The way she ghost the end of the word 'way' in 'let your heart lead the way'? That became one of her go to moves. 

The chimes? A little corny. Makes me think of Bewitched.

Weird vocal treatment on the final 'Alfie'. 

Wow. I like it better than I expected. I thought it would be vocally smarmy with Cher going through the motions. Not at all. Her vocals on this? Spot on. I am very impressed with her. I had no idea. 

But Sonny's junkyard esthetics put this one in the crapper - which is a shame. 

Someone really should isolate her vocals and reproduce this with a complimentary arrangement. I think Cher's vocals are that good that they deserve such an effort. 

P.S. I like mono. Who knew? I have shied away from it when looking for vids for these posts, but it sounds dynamite and of the era. Very lively. It's fun.

Dionne Warwick
Warwick's version begins pretty much as Black's. It's Warwick's tone and delivery that strike me immediately... there's a wisdom implied, something weathered, something lived-in about her sound. Her heels are not new... they've been walked in for awhile. She's seen things.

Wow, this is a lot like Black's arrangement. I am betting, given that they did this in one take, Bachrach just whipped out the old score and handed them out to everybody. I still don't like the background vocals. I still think the arrangement swamps the singer... although Warwick handles it a lot better than Black. Nobody puts Dionne Warwick in a corner! 

Weird. So the same dynamics are employed in both Black's and Warwick's versions of the song. Yet, Warwick fares so much better. Her attack, at times, is just as illogical, Broadway-bound and brassy as Black's, but because she's in the mix, where Black is sitting on top of it, Warwick seems less 'showy', more sincere, more in-tune with both song and the arrangement.

I have always love the ache in Warwick's voice. It's a dry throat, cutting sound (achieved with a jutting of her jaw or a quick tilt of her head as she clips a word - go... watch her perform) that reverberates and emotionally informs in an instant. She would always use it effectively throughout her career, as she does here.

That vibraphone is a new addition. Spooky, nice. 

Warwick breaks a heart with those final 'Alfie's. 

I simply cannot believe this was achieved in a single take. That's confidence. That's professionalism. 

That's... Dionne Warwick. 

The Verdict
Well, I kind of knew the answer going in. (I am very curious if Jimmy agrees.)

I will never understand why the Warwick/Bacharach/David magic ever had to end. No one ever brought to the table what Warwick did when it came to those compositions. That she could bring that to Alfie in one take? I am gobsmacked. 

Cher? A wonderful revelation. Beautiful vocals. Totally undone by Sonny and his stanky arrangement. Pity. She sounds wise beyond her years (she was 20 at the time) and her diction is perfection. 

Black? Oh, dear. I must say, I'm not very familiar with her catalogue, but... this can't be a defining moment for her. I, for one, don't think I can sit through it again. She's all kinds of brassy wrong throughout the whole thing. She has a couple of lovely moments but they are immediately tsunami-ed by a plethora of bad choices. 

All that said? I think there is probably an easy listening cover of this out there that I would truly find no fault in. One that truly digs into the lyrics. It's a beautiful song featuring one of Hal David's finest lyrics. 

I want to thank Jimmy for suggesting this. 

It's the kind of musical history lesson I adore.  

--- ---

Well, that's my two cents worth. What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section. I love hearing from you. 

That's all for now. 

And, as always, thanks for reading (and listening).

--- ---

Alfie - Eiverts Rednow

Alfie - The Delfonics

Alfie - Barbra Streisand


Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Now, THAT'S a story!
I could not believe that was Cher!! I should get some of her first records.
That Cilla Black version? Whoa. Demented rodent is right. I felt hyper just listening to it.
Dionne Warwick!!! I am totally committed to going out this weekend and getting the record where she's singing this. I have suddenly discovered I need more Dionne in my life.

Also, easy listening? Like Adult Contemporary?


P.S. of course Barbra did this, too.

Jimmy said...

Cilla Black is my favorite.
Cher promoted the song/movie with TV singing appearances.
Babs version to me was just a cover.

whkattk said...

Holy crap! Who knew?
I love the opening flute on Cher's, but that's about as far as it goes. I do like her tone in the opening bars, though. Cilia's just doesn't do it for me - at all.
I may be a humongous Babs fan...and she can tell a story through song. But...
Even I have to give this one to Dionne Warwick. The arrangement, her clear-bell tones, and the powerful delivery of the story all make it the best version.

anne marie in philly said...

dionne - so heartfelt.

SickoRicko said...

I will always love Barbra Streisand and whatever she does.

Mistress Maddie said...

My drag background has me liking the Cilla Black version the best, with it's pep.

I love Cher and couldn't believe that was her.

And Dionne Warwick? Never, ever, have been a fan of her. She seems to be another popular singer with many, and I seem to always go against the grain with. I find her to mopey.

justlikedads said...

I’m enjoying these comparisons very much. Great job making this happen.
One has to agree that Dionne made this song her own. I always enjoy the “wall of sound” Specter etc. but Sonny really fucked that concept up big, kitchen sink indeed.
Sorry I respond latish, I hope it doesn’t cause too much trouble.