Posts Tagged ‘Manfred Mann Chapter Three’

‘Mister, You’re A Better Man . . .’

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Sometime last week, as I was sifting through the Billboard Hot 100 for April 16, 1966, the title of the last record on the chart caught my eye: Nestling at the bottom of the Bubbling Under section, at No. 125, was “Better Man Than I” by Terry Knight and The Pack.

The title rang bells, so I did a quick YouTube search, and as I checked the rest of my files for other versions of the song, here’s what I heard:

Already sitting in the RealPlayer were two other versions of the tune: The version by the Paragons features a vocal that can only be descried as “uncertain.” It came out on the Bobbi label in 1967. The other version in my files was by a group called the Growing Concern, which released the tune as a decent album track on its 1968 self-titled album. But something was nagging at me. The song was vaguely familiar, but only vaguely. After some digging, I found out why that was.

The song is a cautionary call for personal tolerance, written around 1965, I’m going to guess, by Brian and Mike Hugg, who were members of Manfred Mann:

Can you judge a man
By the way he wears his hair?
Can you read his mind
By the clothes that he wears?
Can you see a bad man
By the pattern on his tie?

Well then, mister, you’re a better man than I.
Yeah, mister, you’re a better man than I.
Oh, mister, you’re a better man than I.
Yeah, mister, you’re a better man than I.

Could you tell a wise man
By the way he speaks or spells?
Is this more important
Than the stories that he tells?
And call a man a fool
If for wealth he doesn’t strive?

Well then, mister, you’re a better man than I.
Yeah, mister, you’re a better man than I.

And what was nagging at my brain, of course, was that the song had been recorded by the Yardbirds at about the time it was written. In the U.S., it was released as a track on the 1965 album Having a Rave Up. In Britain, however, the track went on the B-side of the “Shapes of Things” single. The Yardbirds’ version is pretty straight-forward, made more interesting by a snarling guitar solo from, I believe, Jeff Beck.

 Finding the tune listed as a 1965 album track in the Yardbirds’ discography explained why my internal files were pretty empty when I thought about the song. It came from my own pre-pop/rock era. Through osmosis, simply by hearing what others kids were listening to on the radio, I knew the Yardbirds’ hits of 1965 – “Heart Full Of Soul,” “For Your Love,” “I’m A Man” – but not the group’s album tracks. And despite my relentless digging into the music of the 1960s during years since, I’ve not dipped too far into the Yardbirds’ body of work.

Of course, having found what seems to be the original version of the tune, I then felt obligated to dig for other cover versions. The search was complicated by the title: Some groups called the tune simply “A Better Man Than I.” Some dropped the “A” from that. Others called it “Mister, You’re A Better Man Than I.” And some dropped the comma after the word “Mister.” That made hunting difficult.

But I found a few. The New Colony Six, a Chicago-based group, recorded the song twice, putting together a pop-rock version on its 1966 album, Breakthrough and then putting together a longer and trippier take a year later on Colonization. Both of those were pretty good. On the other hand, I didn’t care much for the version put forward by the Shadows – without Cliff Richard – on their 1967 album From Hank, Bruce, Brian And John.

The British band Sham 69 – whose music is tagged as punk/new wave by All-Music Guide – released a cover of the tune in 1979 on its The Adventures of the Hersham Boys. That version, however, sounds nothing like 1979; complete with Beckian guitar solo, it sounds much more like 1967.

But the most interesting version – not necessarily the best, but most interesting – of the tune came from a later version of Manfred Mann, called on its records Manfred Mann Chapter Three. The group, with Mike Hugg taking the vocal (but with his brother Brian evidently absent), put together a jazzy version of “Mister, You’re A Better Man Than I” on the 1969 album Chapter Three, Vol. 1.

Just to tie up loose ends, after the week of April 16, 1966, Terry Knight & The Pack’s version of “Better Man Than I” fell out of the Bubbling Under section for a week, then popped back in during the week of April 30, sitting at No. 133. After being gone for another week, the record made its last appearance during the week of May 14, sitting once more at No. 125 before fading from the charts entirely. It seems to have been the only version of the song to even get near the Billboard Hot 100.