Thursday, April 28, 2011

April 28: Jackie Wilson, "Lonely Teardrops"

Artist: Jackie Wilson
Song: "Lonely Teardrops"
Album: Lonely Teardrops (single)
Year: 1958

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Though it has become a "thing of the past" due to the massive changes in "what" the mainstream public seek in their top musical performers, there was a time when almost every hit maker could be quickly identified by some aspect of their sound.  Whether it was a certain tone in their guitar, a speed with which they played, or the sound of their voice, the amount of diversity one finds in music seems to get greater as one goes back in time.  Then of course, there are the handful of performers that served as the "transitions" from one style to another, and these few musicians remain the most iconic and influential artists of all time.  Though a majority of their names are well known, there are a few of these greats that have somewhat slipped from the public consciousness, and strangely enough, some of these "lost" names are amongst the most important to the development in music.  Case in point: there is perhaps no other singer than was more pivotal to the move from r&b to soul than one finds in the solo catalog of the great Jackie Wilson.  Boasting a seemingly limitless vocal range, along with what may very well be the most outright powerful voice in history, there is simply no comparison to his sound.  Though he had a number of hits as part of The Dominoes, there is no song that better defines the greatness and lasting impact of Jackie Wilson than one finds in his unforgettable 1958 single, "Lonely Teardrops."

Within seconds of the opening on "Lonely Teardrops," it is apparent that this song is quite different from other singles of the time in a number of ways.  Not only is the overall sound a bit more aggressive and loud than most, but one can also hear the tone and mood that would serve as the blueprint for the core of the "Motown sound" within these opening notes.  However, "Lonely Teardrops" also manages to keep a foot firmly planted in the current r&b sound of the time, and the sway and stutter to the rhythm is as good as any other song of the era.  It is this rhythm that becomes the most distinctive aspect of the song, as every element, both instrumental and vocal, seem to work their way into the rhythm is some way.  The sound of the guitar is completely unique, and it injects an almost island feel into the song, also giving a slight nod to what would become known as "surf rock."  The raw sounds of hand claps and the echoing tambourine make the cadence of the song even more significant, and it is all kept in place by the winding, almost walking bassline that persists throughout the entire song.  It is this rather sparse, yet somehow deep musical arrangement that sets "Lonely Teardrops" so far apart from the other songs of the era, and it is similarly the reason why the song remains widely regarded as one of the truly great songs during this "golden age" of musical recording.

Yet even with this completely unique musical arrangement, the focus of the song never moves from the blistering performance of Jackie Wilson's voice.  He quickly makes a vocal statement that he is like no other crooner, as there is an unrestrained power within his voice that often pushes to the recording to an almost distorted level.  This completely raw and unguarded approach would become the model for countless later artists, and it is in this almost screaming, pained sound where the roots of the soul sound can be found.  Furthermore, the fact that Wilson seems to have no limits as to how high or low he can sing only adds to the overall impact of his vocal performance, and it is the way in which this wide range of notes blend with the overall intensity of his voice that push "Lonely Teardrops" to the level of a truly timeless song.  All of the emotion and power of the song are pushed to their fullest extent by the fact that the lyrics to the song are as perfect and universal as any other song in history, and this is the final key that turned it into an absolute classic.  While the mid-to-late 1950's were certainly "the" time for songs of love and loss, "Lonely Teardrops" stands among the best, as the imagery of tear-stained pillows and deep longing have rarely been better captured.  It is the way in which Jackie Wilson takes this idea to its fullest by his unwavering, almost screaming cry for help, and it is no surprise that the song was such a success with the youth of the time.

Due to both the exceptional musical performances, as well as the spot-on accuracy of the emotions that are conveyed, "Lonely Teardrops" shot all the way to the top of the r&b charts, making the first in a number of such hits for Jackie Wilson.  Yet the aspect of the song that may be the most intriguing is perhaps the fact that the song was penned by none other than a young Berry Gordy.  Truth be told, it was the profits from the success of "Lonely Teardrops" that Gordy used to found and fund the initial recordings for Motown Records.  Due to this connection alone, the proximity in sound between "Lonely Teardrops" and the "Motown Sound" makes far more sense, and yet one can argue that no Motown vocalist, or any vocalist for that matter, ever reached the same heights as one can experience within the voice of Jackie Wilson.  At times, the force with which he sings is almost unsettling, and one cannot help but be drawn into the feelings of heartbreak which he conveys with every line.  It is this straightforward, blunt approach that remains the core form for a number of different musical genres, and nearly every one can be directly lined back to Wilson's sound.  His voice never wavers, and the stark contrast between his singing and the almost monotone cadence of the instrumentation remains one of the most uniquely brilliant moments in all of music history.  Though it is sometimes lost in the shuffle of the other groundbreaking songs of the era, there is simply no getting past the monumental and pivotal sound that Jackie Wilson achieved on his timeless 1958 single, "Lonely Teardrops."

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