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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Who Did It Better? Just An Old Fashioned Love Song

Who Did It Better? 
Just An Old Fashioned Love Song

Today's Who Did It Better takes a look at an oldie, but a goodie, with an interesting background story. For this one? We have to travel all the way back to 1971. So, climb aboard the memory machine and let's take a look at a sweet slice of classic pop music which totally defines its time.

Ah, the background story... the stuff singer/songwriters rely on to eat up a bit of time in every set. It's a great way to get a bit of a breather between songs. Given that, it's also a great way to learn about the birth of a given song and the songwriter's process. 

By the middle of 1971, singer/songwriter Paul Williams was riding high, having previously scored three major hit compositions: In The Country by Three Dog Night and We've Only Just Begun by The Carpenters in August of 1970 and Rainy Days and Mondays in April of 1971, again by The Carpenters.
So, he was on the look out for his next big hit and, as the best songs do, it came out of the blue one night. As Williams tells it:
"I had a date one night with a young lady named Patti Dahlstrom. She was a songwriter. We were going to go out and have dinner. And right before I left for the date I had gotten a phone call that I had a gold record. And I walked into her house, and I said, 'Well, got a gold record for such-and-such, it just went gold. Kid did it again with another old fashioned love song.' It just came out of me. I went, 'Wait a minute.' I went over to her piano and I sat down, and it's the quickest I ever had a song come out of me. And it sounds like it. It's a really simple song, I wrote it in like 20 minutes."

Thus, An Old Fashioned Love Song came to be. Now, when he wrote it, he immediately had a particular singer in mind - Karen Carpenter. Williams felt it would be a great song for the duo because it perfectly captured what the brother/sister team were all about - old fashioned love songs.   

"You know, I wrote the song thinking it was perfect for The Carpenters. It was money in the bank with them, I thought. A nice fit, kind of a throwback song with a rinky-dink sound to it and all. Richard Carpenter, I don't think made it through the first verse before he picked up the needle off of the (acetate). Richard didn't love it." 

But Williams was not without options. 

You see, at the same time this was happening, Three Dog Night was busy cobbling together their seventh album, Harmony and, as it turned out, they were a few songs short. Williams enlisted the help of Chuck Kaye, the head of publishing at A&M Records (the label to which both The Carpenters and Williams were signed) to shop the song around a bit. Kay sent it to Three Dog Night's producer Richi Podolor, along with another Williams composition, The Family of Man. 

The band had enjoyed a #15 hit with Williams' In The Country, but it had been a hard sell. A last minute addition to the album, the band was not initially in favor of recording the song. However, producer Podolor loved the song and insisted that not only they record it, but it be released as a single, as well. 

Well, you know what they say... history? It has a way of repeating itself. 

When presented with the two new compositions, Richie Podolor was totally on-board. He thought they were perfect for the band and just what the album needed. The band? Not so much. But once again, Podolor prevailed. With Chuck Negron performing the lead vocals, An Old Fashioned Love Song ended up being the first single to be released from Harmony

But not so fast! Dunhill Records, the group's label, felt that the single needed a little something extra, so a bit of instrumental fill was inserted at the 2:45 mark on the 45 release, adding 17 seconds to the recording. This would prove to be a rare case where the single version of a song (clocking in at 3:38) was longer than the album version, (which clocked in at 3:21.)

Released in November of 1971, the song flew up the US charts, peaking at #4 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart on December 31st. It also hit #2 in Canada, #3 in New Zealand and #16 in Australia. 

Incidentally, Williams' compositions would continue to prove successful for Three Dog Night. The Family of Man, that other song they didn't exactly love? It would peak at #12 on the Hot 100 in the US and #5 in Canada in March of 1972. 

Paul Williams would record his own version of An Old Fashioned Love Song for his December 1971 album of the same name; his third album and first for his new label A&M. The song was made available as a single in the UK and Japan in 1972, but there's no evidence that it charted -  however, the album did: at #141 in the US and #22 in Australia.

Williams would later perform the song on an episode of The Odd Couple in 1974 and episode 108 of The Muppet Show in 1976. On The Muppet Show, he would be joined by two Paul Williams Muppets, Jerry, and the the Gogolala Jubilee Jugband.

The Sandpipers, an American easy-listening trio who'd carved a niche during the sixties folk/rock movement with their innovative vocals and arrangements, are best remembered for their cover version of  Guantanamera, which became a transatlantic Top 10 hit in 1966, and their US Top 20 hit Come Saturday Morning from the soundtrack of the film The Sterile Cuckoo in 1970. Another A&M Records act, they would also record a version of An Old Fashioned Love Song in 1971, releasing it as a single in Germany. 

As for The Carpenters? Well, they would end up singing the song, too... with Carol Burnett on The Carol Burnett Show, in an episode that aired on September 22, 1971; three weeks before Three Dog Night's version was released as a single!

And that's the whole story.

Now? On to the competition.

The Song: An Old Fashioned Love Song
The Competitors: Three Dog Night vs. Paul Williams vs. The Sandpipers

An Old Fashioned Love Song - Three Dog Night

An Old Fashioned Love Song - Paul Williams

An Old Fashioned Love Song - Paul Williams

Three Dog Night

That organ opening is super creepy, as in Hammer Films horror-scary - and there's a harpsicord sound in there, too. Love Chuck Negron's vocal entrance; smooth as velvet, incredibly intimate. There's a rain-drop effect to the accompaniment that suits this song; haunting, yet soothing. Interesting keyboard sounds abound. At the 30 second mark the drums kick in. That bass is wired tight and high. And ten seconds later the electric guitar announces its arrival broadly.

The multi-layered vocals that begin the chorus - interesting. Weirdly closed-off/hooded, but super tight. That's a clever vocal arrangement - where the chorus ends and becomes atmospherics as the soloist retakes focus. Second verse, same as the first; still super effective; sounds like a ghost in a wishing well. And the bridge is also the same... same dynamics employed. Well, if it ain't broke, right? 

As we repeat the chorus for a third time in a row, there's a guitar solo playing counter point to the melody, along with a crooned back-up vocal mimicking a part that might have been played by a string section. As it draws to a close that reverb goes into overkill. It's a tad messy, not that we linger long. 

The next take on the chorus kicks in and it's carnival barker time. That's a very Three Dog Night thing... they seemed drawn to carousels and side show circus elements. But that was also the times. In three years time they would realize that vision fully when covering Leo Sayer's The Show Must Go On. So, staggering the vocal on the offbeat is combined with the regular melody, creating a bit of aural confusion - like a hall of mirrors. 

Then we hit the 17 minutes of added... nonsense? Babble? Whistling. All that 's missing is a chicken clucking. Huh. That's only ten seconds long. Another weird thing... if  you look at the label on the 45, it lists the running time as 4:21 - which is the original, album length. But this version is definitely running longer. 

By the 3:15 mark, everything is getting murky, as they test the waters to see how things play on top of one another. And the fuzz of the guitar takes over... as it swirls downward, as if down a drain, turning a bit ambient near the end. It does, indeed, run 3:38. I'm not sure if it should have. Sort of chorus overkill, don't you think? 

Still, earns high marks for Negron's solo vocals. Crisp, moody, intimate. And the instrumentation for that first half works well. It's not until the break down at the 2:45 mark that things... well, sort of start to break down. Very good, overall. 

Paul Williams

Did you know Paul Williams was sort of a movie star? Well, Hollywood tried. He had an interesting run, that's for sure. 

As for his singing voice? I've always had issues with his clipped delivery. He's a bit mumbly-mouthed for my taste - in fact, it is his mouth that bothers me. It's so small. His voice is also pitched far too nasally - which is really the only color he ever seems to capable of adding, vocally. That? Does not great interpretation make. 

The mushy horn makes me think of Chuck Mangione. I really try not to. Ever. The guitar is very Jim Croce, as are some of the vocal mannerisms. Weird how he breaks up 'radio', like it's a question? His vibrato is so tightly wound. You know... considering what he has to work with, he does alright. The piano enters, adding something bordering on a baroque quality. Then it melds straight into Beatles territory with that multi-layered vocal on the bridge. Oh, dear... he starts to pull his notes so much he sounds a wee bit Scottish. Or like a leprechaun.

Oh, my... it's ragtime, folks. To be fair, he warned us... remember how he pitched it to Richard Carpenter? "...kind of a throwback song with a rinky-dink sound to it." Well, here's your rinky dink. Maybe more New Orleans jazz than ragtime? Okay, that clarinet just gave me chills... and not the good kind. 

Another vocalist his delivery reminds me of is Al Stewart. But Al Stewart sounds that way because of his accent. Williams? Not sure what his excuse is. 

Ick. I do not like the second verse. That muted trumpet is mixed too high and is annoying as hell. That bridge with its nod to the Beatles? That's the best part of this song.  Yeah the chorus goes full on Mardi Gras the second time around. I have a feeling we have a jazzy snare drum break coming our way. Huh... just the foot pedal on the bass drum (which sounds like it has a good rip in it) - like slapping paper. 


Something tells me a number of the villagers chased this little leprechaun down Bourbon street holding this album aloft, threatening to bludgeon him to death with it. 

For the second time this week, I get to use the phrase: crimes against nature. I'm pretty sure the kazoo, if not at the top of the list, is very close to being so. 

I know there's a lot going on here, but do you hear those backing vocals? Now, I know this is going to sound redundant, but don't they strike you as a bit tone deaf? Okay, so I don't mind that fuzzy sax in there. (I have to find something to like.) 

Sorry. This is a pass. I like hokey sometimes, but this? Well, this is probably the reason The Muppets wanted him to host their show. The one nice thing about all that Bourbon Street hoopla? It sure distracts us from his vocals. 

The Sandpipers

That beginning is a little 'Snidely Whiplash', but it's nice and clean. Very bright. The lead vocalist? Very nice. Again, very clean. Not a great deal of personality, but musically impeccable. That piano cadence brings to mind one of my favorite pop guilt pleasures - Cheryl Ladd's Think It Over

There's something very warm about the lead vocalist's sound. This arrangement is very simple, very clean, and his voice mixes in so nicely. So, they don't bother to make much of a statement with the bridge; it's pretty much the exact same thing they began with, although the dynamics increase in intensity. Funny, you don't really notice the horns in tandem with the bass until you hit the chorus. A rather clever ruse. I did think the bass was a bit heavy for the period, but the horn section explains it. Trombone and baritone? 

I like the bass line in this. That's what's driving it. The vocals are very crisp and clean. Lovely vowel sounds. It does lack a bit of a perspective; they don't seem very interested in putting much of a stamp on the song. Not a fan of that trumpet. 

Huh, they skipped the second verse and went back to the bridge. I dislike that trumpet part at the 1:29 mark. Blech. Very lazy. No spark. The additional backing vocals are nice. This is all very 'nice.' (Why is that a bad thing?) What is that percussive piece - sounds like a tamped cymbal or a giant single maraca. Do I find it annoying? 

Oh. A farting horn glissando. Blech. This just got boring. I do like the la-lahs. Oh, my, are they threatening me with a banjo?  That's what the percussion seems to be indicating... yes, that the shuffled rhythm piece. Ugh. A banjo. I think that is my least favorite instrument. It's never, ever resulted in something aurally pleasing. 

You know, with it's variety show aesthetics, this version really reveals how slight of a song this is. Of course, it could be because I've listened to it three times in a row... but it's a bit of a mind bend. Like a nightmare that doesn't end... that chorus, it just keeps repeating itself... 

The Verdict

Three Dog Night. Without a doubt. I can see why they went 'hall of mirrors' with the last 30 seconds of the song. I mean... talk about beating a dead horse. At least they tried to distract. 

Williams seemed content to simply realize his rather corny vision of the song. Rinky dink? Well, that's half right, Paul.

And The Sandpipers. To be honest, I had trepidations about including them in this. I mean, by this point in their career they were pretty much The Letterman or The Ray Conniff Singers.  I could see them performing this on an Andy Williams television special very easily. Still, once I discovered that they'd released it as a single? I felt I had to include them. And, I must say... I was very taken with the first minute or so of the song. The lead vocalist, while not Mr. Personality, certainly has great chops. The arrangement really doesn't bother me until that first trumpet line and then, sadly, it's all banjo and other nonsense, slagging us downhill. 

Three Dog Night got it right. Spooky. Theatrical. Very atmospheric. And the vocals are spot on. So I pick them. 

--- ---

Wow. That's another one. 

So much fun. The early seventies... pop music at it's most naïve. I think there's a purity there; a lack of manipulation, as it were.

What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section. You know how I like to hear from you. 

That's it for today. 

Thanks for reading... and listening! 

Just An Old Fashioned Love Song - 
The Carpenters and Carol Burnett

Just An Old Fashioned Love Song -
Paul Williams and The Muppets


whkattk said...

Three Dog Night wins this one - hands down.
I've always liked Williams as a writer. But also thought he never should've tried singing. Mush-mouth was the least of it for me. Even studio gadgets couldn't make his vocals sound better.

Mistress Maddie said...

I haven't heard this song in forever. And I agree, that Three Dog Night was the best version.

Jimmy said...

Paul Williams had such a tragic life going to the highest of fame and fortune to total ruin in a short time from booze and cocaine. I remember a fight he had on the Carson Show when a guest referred to him as "Little Man".
Three Dog Night's version was first to be played and that is my #1 choice. Those guys were so musical. #2 is Paul Williams. But I love how it was half spoken and sung. Very common for the era.

Anonymous said...

Paul Williams certainly has a voice that is not everybody's cup of tea - so to speak. But as a song writer he has had amazing success from MOR Carpenters to the great late David Bowie and everybody in between.

He did have a limited acting career playing an ape in one of the Planet of the Ape movies [even appearing on The Tonight Show in full costume to the bemusement of Johnny Carson] to the cult classic Phantom of the Paradise. And who could forget his turn as Little Enos in the Smokey and the Bandit movies. LOL

Sixpence Notthewiser said...

OMG that was Paul Williams? I think I saw him in the Phantom of the Paradise!
And I like the Paul Williams music (to me, that sounds very seventies) but the voice of Negron is fantastic. Three Dog Night it is.


Deedles said...

I hate this song no matter who sings it! That being said, Three Dog Night's version is the best of the bunch. I could be prejudiced since I love the band. Also, I couldn't get through Paul William's version. Mush mouth or not, my two little dogs started barking when he started to sing. And not in a good way. Had to turn it off to get a little peace around here.

Anonymous said...

Williams actually started out as an actor in 1965 The Loved One and 1966 The Chase. When that option dried up he turned to song writing. His wiki entry lists a pretty impressive career as an actor or voice actor in cartoons - mostly notable the Penguin in an animated Batman and Superman series. Not to mention all the movies he wrote the soundtracks for.

The 2011 doc Paul Williams Still Alive is informative for a man who never stops performing.