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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Who Did It Better? I’m Coming Home Again

Who Did It Better?
I’m Coming Home Again

Today we take a look at one of my all-time favorite songs (I can say that about so many!) A real gem written by a pair of my favorite MOR songwriters. Despite interest from a number of well-established recording artists, the song never realized it's true potential.

Was it circumstances or changing tastes which prevented this one from becoming a part of the American Songbook? Let's dive in and find out...

I'm Coming Home Again is a ballad written by Bruce Roberts and Carole Bayer Sager.

Roberts was the first to record it in 1977, as part of his self-named debut album on Elektra Records.

Interestingly, the song pricked up the ears of Clive Davis and Barry Manilow. Manilow, who was in the midst of sessions for his fifth album, Even Now, recorded a version of the song in 1977 at A&M Studios. Sadly, the song didn't make the cut and the recording remained buried in the vaults, unfinished until May 9th, 2006, when it was included as a bonus track (still unfinished) for the 2006 Remastered CD version of the album. I've included it as part of this competition as a kind of 'what if' scenario.

The song's other co-writer, Caroled Bayer Sager, would include her take on it as part of her second album on Elektra in 1978, entitled Too

Buddha Records, who'd enjoyed a string of hits with Gladys Knight and The Pips throughout the early and mid-seventies, were eager to launch Knight as a solo artist in 1978. Her solo debut, Miss Gladys Knight would include a version of I'm Coming Home Again and it would receive a big push as the album's lead single. However, the single failed to catch fire, with its only chart showing being #54 on the R&B chart.

Another artist who gave the song the big push? Dusty Springfield. She included a version on her 1979  United Artists/Mercury album, Living Without Your Love. Recorded in the summer of 1978 and released in January of 1979, the album, a big no-expense-spared Los Angeles production, was meant to be a sort of comeback for the veteran singer who had been living in the United States for a number of years. She was especially eager to reignite her fan base in the UK.

The track chosen to promote the album in the UK was the ballad I'm Coming Home Again, a choice that seemed most apt. The single was released simultaneously with the announcement that Springfield was going to embark on a month-long tour of the UK - her first live dates in Britain in more than six years.

When she arrived in the UK, however, she was met with news that the single had failed to chart and all her concerts in the provinces had been cancelled due to poor ticket sales. Springfield subsequently made an appearance on UK TV's Saturday Night At The Mill wearing a black veil, jokingly saying she was "in mourning because all my dates have been cancelled." She then proceeded to perform the song I'm Coming Home Again, with the comment that the lyrics perhaps weren't as relevant any longer.

After a performance at Albert Hall that resulted in a royal apology, Springfield returned to Los Angeles, where she would remain for the next ten years. 

The reason for her failure in the UK at this time? It could have had something to do with her gradual coming out as a lesbian. The controversy which erupted due to the Albert Hall performance had to do with a joke Springfield made to acknowledge the number of drag queens in the audience. The UK's indifference may also have had to do with a sense of nationalism; some felt that Springfield had turned her back on the country which had help make her a star. No matter the reason, Springfield's association with I'm Coming Home remains a bittersweet moment in her canon. 

In addition, the song was recorded for albums by Florence Henderson and Joey Travolta (1979) and jazz vocalist, Carmen McRae (1980,) I would have included all three in the competition, but neither Henderson or Travolta have the song on YouTube and McRae's version, stylistically, simply didn't work for this competition.

In the end? The song would never become a hit, although it has become something of a staple on the cabaret circuit.

And that's the whole story.

Now? On to the competition!

The Song: I'm Coming Home Again
The Competition: Roberts vs. Manilow vs. Bayer Sager vs. Knight vs. Springfield
I'm Comin' Home Again - Bruce Roberts

I'm Coming Home Again - Barry Manilow

I'm Coming Home Again - Carole Bayer Sager

I'm Coming Home Again - Gladys Knight

I'm Coming Home Again - Dusty Springfield

Bruce Roberts

A non-intro. Very dramatic. I would have pulled the strings back a bit. They're a bit intrusive this early and a bit of subtlety would seem in order given the grave tone. Roberts voice is lovely, though he seems to be pushing the beat. But then, that helps create an energy/momentum so the piece doesn't get mired down in its own preponderance. 

Those strings are awfully busy. Fortunately, Roberts' vocals are solid and on top of the mix. It's a gambit that pays off because, to my ears, there's an interesting interplay happening between Roberts and those strings.

When he gets to the chorus, Roberts resists the temptation to overplay the title, bringing to it instead a sort of lilt. This is an incredibly plaintive piece and he's wise to bide his time; starting too emotively big, one ends up with nowhere to go. He still seems to be pushing the beat, rather than residing in the arrangement. The strings in the chorus are quite lovely, mixed too high, but a lovely arrangement.

I can see why this song failed to take. The lyrics are a bit complex, requiring some dissection on the listener's part. I don't think AM Radio was the place for this. FM Radio? This lacks the urban sophistication which fueled FM Radio at the time. It's a very beautifully written performance piece; a musical moment filled with deep thoughts requiring contemplation. Neil Diamond's is filled with such works.

The strings and the piano finally find a nice balance in the second verse. The actually co-exist now. Roberts is an excellent pianist, a deft touch. He also seems more at home in the piece now. With the second chorus, Roberts' opens up and goes for it, soaring, with just the slightest strain. He uses his vibrato quite effectively. 

"Time has a way of always..." Listen to the flex he employs on "always." Pure gold. I dislike the key change/transition into the final chorus. It feels rushed. Roberts is also pushing his performance again. His final note is lovely. 

Barry Manilow

So, this was released 'unfinished,' meaning there were probably a wealth of overdubs to be done and the arrangement wasn't quite completed. Manilow had something of a formula to adhere to by this point in his career and all the bells and whistles haven't been put in place on this recording. For my taste? I don't think that's a bad thing. I always like Manilow as unadulterated as possible. His very first album remains one of my personal favorites.

Wow. Ka-boom. Very cavalier. Very lounge singer. Manilow is another excellent pianist. He's apparently decided to dispense with the pensive dramatics of Roberts interp. Catch the self-deprecating laugh tossed off - nice. Is that a guitar? It's like Hawaiian. Very odd. For being 'unfinished', this arrangement is pretty fleshed out, if a bit complicated. Manilow's vocals are untreated and very real. I'm sure, if they had completed work on this, there would have been overdubs done - "my own existence" being a prime example. 

Is it a steel guitar? I don't like it. It sounds Hawaiian and very out of place. Intrusive, even. I hate the downbeat on the chorus. Terrible idea, Barry. I know the mix was not finalized, but this arrangement is garbage. Smarmy. Manilow's vocals are also problematic. "The poets cry for dreams..." What is he doing with "cry?" Just odd. And, yes, it would have been fixed in post-production.

I really dislike what he's done with the chorus. His dumb downbeat and choice to add a syncopation on the title is an odd idea that doesn't work. And the drums on the second chorus are absolute trash. So phoned in. I do like the big dramatic piano work, though a bit overwrought for this song. 

The oddest thing? From the point the piano gets goes all Rachmaninoff to the end? I like it. That's Barry Manilow. That's a Manilow ending. The rest? It's a mess. It's a good thing this stayed in the vault. The singer clearly didn't know what to he wanted to do with this. 

Carole Bayer Sager
I need to remind you that Bayer Sager had a #1 hit in Australia. Like it was song of the year, there. She also managed a Top 40 hit in the US with the help of future husband (and then, future ex-husband) Burt Bachrach. Here, the production work is handled by Brooks Arthur, who worked so successfully with Janis Ian and also helmed Bayer Sager's first album.

Her voice is so slight. Interesting intro... slide guitar? Allowed. The piano entrance is dramatic. She brings an urgency to her delivery. I rather like the tiny breaks in her voice. It's endearing. When dealing with such a delicate singer, it's wise to keep the accompaniment to a minimum, which Arthur does here. The piano is a bit didactic at times, but overall, I find the arrangement to be rather creative. Sadly, given Bayer Sager's limited range, the arrangement is left to become the focus of the piece. To be honest? Her vocals are little better than spoken word, which isn't necessarily a bad thing; spoken word can be very effective.

The instrumental bridge into the second verse? Very rote. I have to say, in every one of these versions, so far, that is my least favorite part of these takes - none of them work and all feel unnecessary. Check out that pseudo-harp pluck. Interesting detail. That electric piano is a classic Fender Rhoades - nothing else produces that bed of warmth. Works well with those swelling strings. Huh. I love the interplay between the acoustic and the electric pianos. That harp sound... there's not one credited on the album, so I am thinking that is an acoustic guitar plucked up high on the fret board? The sound sort of mirrors Bayer Sager's vocal quality. 

I have to hand it to Arthur and Dick Hazard, who is responsible for the orchestration. They know when to pull back. It's very subtly cinematic and helps out Bayer Sager tremendously. This is some empathetic work on display, when a producer/arranger takes into account the qualities of the vocalist they're working with. This was not a matter of a bunch of session musicians coming in and reading a score. This recording was created with a great deal of sensitivity and time. 

Is that a zylophone? There is a percussionist on board, though his prescience has not been detected until now. The second instrumental break is a bit better. I would have pulled back those strings, though. Oh, that is some odd choices instrumentally for the bridge. A very different texture, like a vibraphone. Definitely an acoustic guitar. Ew. Clarinet? A very Karen Carpenter move. I wonder if that's an uncredited Marvin Hamlisch - they were a couple during this time. He appears on the album elsewhere and co-wrote a number of the songs. Their relationship would be immortalized in the Neil Simon (book) musical They're Playing Our Song. Lucy Arnaz would play Bayer Sager with Robert Klein as Hamlisch. 

Bayer Sager sounds like an old woman near the end. She was actually only 31 years old at the time. 

You know... the arrangement keeps my interest. So do her achy-breaky vocals. It's a lovely reading. Top 40 material? Oh, hell no. But from a cabaret perspective, very sweet. 

Gladys Knight

Interesting intro. Lots of outer space sounds. Is that supposed to be reminiscent of a clock? This is very straightforward MOR. Not a bad thing. Knight's vocals are lovely, as always. I think she always brings a certain warmth and professionalism to everything she touches. She goes pretty strong right from the beginning... curious if she's leaving herself somewhere to go. 

The strings on the chorus are a bit much, but nothing Knight can't handle. All her typical vocal mannerisms and tics are on display. There's no mistaking who's singing. Her lower register is pretty impressive. Using it so much? Risky. It doesn't read well on the radio. I love that down-the-scale keyboard as a bridge into verse two. 

Oh, don't like the Ben-like strings on verse two. Remember? Michael Jackson's love song to a rat? That violin is so Italian I'm looking for the white taper stuck in an old chianti bottle. Knight's vocals are inspired. Oh, dear... a heavenly choir? Overkill. 

Okay, so emotionally, this one is all tapped out at the 2:30 mark. Where does she go from here? 

Oh. I like the way her vocals envelope with the orchestration into the bridge. And now, we go a little R&B. It feels very 'house band,' but let's see where it goes. The backing vocals are nice, here. Appropriate. This is an interesting choice. It reveals a different side to both the song and the singer. This is very 'Gladys.' But then it goes all Las Vegas on us. Boo. Huh... this ending is more 'Manilow' than Manilow's version. I can totally picture Lady Flash working in the background here. 

Well, go big, or go home, huh?

Dusty Springfield

This intro reminds me of David Shire (It Goes Like It Goes.) I'm okay with folks 'borrowing' from the greats. It definitely sets a mood. That plodding piano doesn't give Springfield much room to play. Still, there's that knowing ache to her voice. This is a case of singer finding a song that perfectly suits them at a certain time in their career. She's sounding a bit fragile in her upper range, but it works. 

I like that, so far, the arrangement is allowing Springfield to carry the day. That well-played, simple piano accompaniment allow Springfield to do the work. We have the swell into the chorus and a full band enters the fold. That tick-tock percussion? Meh. This is very by the book stuff. 

So, I would have treated her vocals with a little reverb to take a bit of the sharpness out of her sound. I also would have kept the accompaniment in check - its competing a bit much for my taste. A very Anne Murray sounding instrumental bridge into the second verse.   

The harpsicord introduced with the second verse is a little heavy handed - like an ABC-TV Movie of The Week. "Though my answers still are undefined..." - that's some classic Dusty on display there. Very strong. Again, a little reverb would have helped. Also... the strings and such are simply competing way too hard with the singer. She's not elevated by the accompaniment, she is trying to succeed despite it.

I love that piano run played as counter melody in the chorus. Nice. A bit showy, but nice. We're going big here. She doesn't quite land what she's aiming for with that close on the the second chorus. Her phrasing is a tad undercooked. But she's back immediately... aiming for the backrow. 

Oh, what a lovely ending. Springfield was going for a big moment. Did she pull it off? 

The Verdict

This is a tough call.

First off, I must say... I adore this song. So, I don't care who sings it, as long as it is sung. I have been struggling to 'find' a version that works for me on the piano for the past two months. Oh, I have sheet music, but I don't like the key and the arrangement is too jazzy for my rather dull, plain style. The chorus is a breeze, but all the key changes within the verses make for some very problematic transposing. I'll keep at it. That said...

Manilow is a definite no. Unfinished? Perhaps. Definitely not well thought out. I think his approach is all wrong. This isn't a pop ballad in the traditional 1970's sense and he tried to treat it as one.

Bayer Sager is simply to slight a vocalist to consider. I like her arrangement and she does deliver a certain kind of emotive performance, however... I think the song is worthy of more and has more potential. 

Knight's vocals are amazing, however, the whole thing feels too compact - she's not allowed any room to breath. It starts big and just get bigger and bigger until it's Las Vegas ridiculous. A shame. That R&B bridge? An interesting road not explored completely. 

So, that leaves Roberts and Springfield. 

I have issues with both and their intentions with the song are very different; Roberts presents it as a contemplative declaration, while Springfield presents it as a straight forward pop ballad. Given her career at the time she released it, her version also carries a certain emotional heft. 

I prefer Roberts version. I like all the air and space the arrangement allows. Yes, he pushes that beat a bit, but when does relax, the song absolutely soars, delivering it's emotional promise. 

However, I can definitely see how people might prefer Springfield's more direct approach. Hers is a lovely, knowing performance, undermined on occasion by an overzealous arrangement.

I could also make an argument for Knight's version. Her vocals are so powerful. Had the arrangement been less schizophrenic, I think her version would have brought this one home on the radio. 

For me? Bruce Roberts realizes this songs full potential. 

--- ---

And that's my two cents worth... well, more like a nickel's worth.

Okay. Your turn. Leave your thoughts in the comments section. I love to hear from you. I have a feeling there are going to be a lot of different opinions on this one. Also... some of you may not care for the song that much - it is a very hefty piece of songwriting. 

Let me know what you think. 

That's all for now. 

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

I'm Coming Home Again - Dusty Springfield
Saturday Night At The Mill - 1979  

I'm Coming Home Again - Dusty Springfield


Mistress Maddie said...

Never heard the song before, but after listening to snippets, Dusty is always going to win with me. There is just something about her voice so soothing for me..I swear she could sing a menu and it would be lovely.

I have never been a Manilow fan for some reason.

whkattk said...

Dusty gets it for me.

Sixpence Notthewiser said...

It's very torch-y, no? I have never heard it before. I like Dusty's version. The story behind the song is heartbreaking. Her coming out probably had to do with the poor tix sales, tbh. I need to find out more about the Albert Hall controversy.

Joey Travolta? Really?