Posts Tagged ‘Chiffons’

‘My Sweet Lord’ vs. ‘He’s So Fine’

Tuesday, August 31st, 2021

As I sometimes do, I was browsing through the old posts here yesterday when I came across one that wandered from the Beatles’ last years as a group into George Harrison’s massive 1970 album All Things Must Pass,

The post mentioned Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and the resulting suit brought by the copyright owners of “He’s So Fine,” a hit for the Chiffons in 1963. And when iTunes offered me “He’s So Fine” this morning as I pondered the empty space here, I wondered two things: First, how did things in that lawsuit actually resolve? And second, was I right in thinking that the Chiffons did a cover version of “My Sweet Lord”?

I dug into the tale of the U.S. suit at Wikipedia and read, as I recalled, that Harrison was in fact found, in 1976, to have plagiarized the melody of “He’s So Fine,” written by one Ronnie Mack, who had died in 1963. The financial verdict against Harrison, says Wikipedia, was startlingly large: He was to pay Bright Tunes Music – holder of the “He’s So Fine” copyright – $1.6 million, which amounted to three quarters of the sales of the single in the U.S. and a significant amount of the proceeds from the sales of All Things Must Pass.

And then, Wikipedia tells us, we find the dirty hands of Allen Klein, one-time manager of the Beatles (over the protests of Paul McCartney). After Harrison, John Lennon and Ringo Starr severed their business relationship with Klein in 1973 – a move that led to protracted litigation itself – Klein began providing inside information to Bright about, if I read things rightly, Harrison’s legal strategy. Eventually, Klein’s ABCKO Industries purchased from Bright the rights to “He’s So Fine” and the rights to any settlement; that cost Klein $587,000, and he then proceeded to open negotiations with Harrison for the rights to the song.

In February 1981 – more than ten years after the release of the single “My Sweet Lord” and All Things Must Pass – the New York court ruled that because of Klein’s duplicity and interference, Harrison would pay Klein $587,000 for the rights to “He’s So Fine” and would retain the rights to “My Sweet Lord.”

Okay, that’s how that turned out. But what about the Chiffons covering “My Sweet Lord”? Well, that happened, too. In 1975, the Chiffons released their version of the song with the aim, Wikipedia says, of drawing attention to the languishing court proceedings. I suppose that sounded like a good idea, but I think the result is a little tepid. Here it is:

Saturday Single No. 241

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

It’s the eleventh day of the month again in a year that ends with an eleven, and as I frequently do when I am bereft of ideas, I’m going to play with numbers: In search of a Saturday Single, I’m going to take a look at the No. 11 record on June 11 in six selected years, starting in 1981. I suppose it’s possible that all six records we look at will be so lame that they limp, but those are the kinds of chances we take here at Echoes In The Wind. We’ll start in 1981 and work our way back, five years at a time.

A fine saxophone player, Grover Washington, Jr., had released a dozen respected albums – seven of them had hit the Top 40 album chart – by the time he released Winelight in mid-1980. Within the next year, a single from Winelight brought Washington his first Top Ten hit. That hit, “Just The Two Of Us,” – with a smoky vocal from Bill Withers – was sitting at No. 11 in the Billboard Hot 100 released on June 13, 1981 and was moving back down the chart after spending three weeks at No. 2. (It was Withers’ fourth and last Top Ten hit.) After that, Washington continued to tap the same formula, pairing his sax with others’ vocals. That brought him some success on the R&B chart, as his efforts with Grady Tate, Patti LaBelle, Phyllis Hyman and Lala Hathaway brought him Top 40 hits there. But none of those efforts came near the Top 40 on the pop chart, much less anywhere near the success of his collaboration with Withers.

I’ve written before about Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac and her Rhiannon persona, noting that sometimes it works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. Well, in 1976, thirty-five years ago this week, it was working for almost anybody who was listening to pop radio: “Rhiannon (Will You Ever Win)” was at No. 11, giving the new California-style edition of Fleetwood Mac its second Top 20 hit. Many more would follow in the next few years as the Mac claimed the unofficial title of World’s Most Popular Band for at least a while. Nine of the group’s singles would reach the Top Ten, the last in 1987 (“Little Lies”), but I think it was “Rhiannon” and Nicks that gave the band the visual and sonic hook it needed to dominate the airwaves and pop culture the way Fleetwood Mac did for a few years.

Sometime between June 1969 and February 1970, after thirteen Top 40 hits, the group Paul Revere & The Raiders became simply the Raiders in what All-Music Guide says was “a quest to shed their ’60s image.” A year later, with the J.D. Loudermilk song “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian),” the Raiders reached the top of the pop chart. Forty years ago this week, in the Billboard Hot 100 of June 12, 1971, “Indian Reservation” was at No. 11 and was climbing toward its date with No. 1. It was the Raiders’ next-to-last Top 40 hit, and I’ve always thought there was a huge dose of cognitive dissonance in the group’s choice of the song for a single: These are the guys who dressed up in Revolutionary War/colonial costumes, and now they’re singing about the plight of the Native Americans who were inevitably displaced by colonizing the continent? It was jarring when I was seventeen, and forty years later, it’s still jarring.

Maybe it was different when it was happening, but as I learned about the Brill Building era long after it had passed – having been ten years old when the Beatles arrived in the U.S. and altered the foundations of pop music – I’ve always felt that the Chiffons were a lot better than their chart numbers show. Joel Whitburn’s various reference books show only five Top 40 hits to their credit, and the first few times I noticed that, I blinked in surprise. Given their sound and the sense of the tunes I heard long after the fact, it just felt as if they should have done better. Of course, five Top 40 hits is not a bad body of work, especially when three of them reached the Top Ten. Two of those three were the luminous 1963 hits “He’s So Fine” (No. 1) and “One Fine Day” (No. 5). The third of those hits was “Sweet Talkin’ Guy,” which was at No. 11 forty-five years ago today – June 11, 1966 – and would move up one more spot two weeks later.

Short shelf life for a single is nothing new, of course. Records come and records go, and only real classics (or real annoyances like “Macarena”) stay current for very long before being dumped in the big bin labeled “Oldies.” But it’s still kind of weird, from the perspective of fifty years later, to hear Little Caesar & The Romans singing in 1961 about “the songs of the past” as they make their way through “Those Oldies But Goodies (Remind Me Of You).” Then I remind myself that from the age of twenty-one it will always feel like a long time since sixteen, much longer than, say, forty will seem from thirty-five. So the record – which was at No. 11 during this week in 1961 and on its way to No. 9 – isn’t so incomprehensible. But even if I understand it, I find the vocal pinched and nasal, and I’ve never much liked the record.

It wasn’t inevitable, but it feels like it: When you tap into the rock ’n’ roll era of the mid- to late 1950s, you’re going to run into Elvis Presley. Fifty-five years ago this week, Elvis was at No. 11 with “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” a record that was on its way to being his second No. 1 hit. (“Heartbreak Hotel” had spent eight weeks at No. 1 earlier in 1956.) I’ve written before about my general indifference to Elvis’ 1950s work: I understand its importance in the universe of popular music, but not much of it is very important to me. And, for whatever reason, I find “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” to be one of the least important of those efforts. I understand its virtues, one of which is a strong yet delicate vocal (which must have been even more startling in 1956, when Elvis’ talents were still being discovered by the public at large). But it doesn’t move me.

My hope when I do these posts is that the six records unearthed provide an interesting cross-section of the years under consideration, in this case, the period from 1956 to 1981. I think these records do that. And two of the four call out strongly for me to highlight this morning: “Two of Us” and “Sweet Talkin’ Guy.” Why those two? Well, beyond the fact that they’re good records, I have a sense that nearly everyone who’s interested in music – and perhaps many who aren’t – can sing “Rhiannon” in his or her sleep. And the other three records just don’t interest me that much. Beyond that, it’s a tough choice. But I’ll go Brill Building this morning, and make “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” this week’s Saturday Single.