Saturday, May 21, 2011

May 21: The Ink Spots, "If I Didn't Care"

Artist: The Ink Spots
Song: "If I Didn't Care
Album: If I Didn't Care (single)
Year: 1939

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While one can easily trace the roots of almost every rock-based genre back to the blues, it can often be a bit confusing to try and find the origins of the "simple" pop songs that have been present within music almost since the beginning of the "recording era."  Though a number of pop hits can be linked back into the rock genre after awhile, there remains a large group of songs that are "only" pop, and one must go back quite a long time to find the source of this style.  It was during the transition from the 1930's to the 1940's where one can find the beginning of the "pop era," and though the time period is best known for the rise of both jazz and folk, it is also responsible for one of the most important singles in the history of music.  The group in question were a vocal quartet that had been trying to break through called The Ink Spots, and though their name may not be instantly recognizable to many, their contributions continue to impact modern music nearly a century after their seminal recording.  Having been given a song that was penned by the legendary hand of Jack Lawrence, the group actually recorded the song in question before Lawrence had completed it, and there was supposed to be a different ending, but by the time this information was passed along, The Ink Spots had already made a massive hit out of their timeless 1939 single, "If I Didn't Care."

The opening notes of "If I Didn't Care" can quickly confuse the listener into thinking that the song is a country ballad, as the acoustic guitar from Charlie Fuqua has a meandering, soft tone.  Yet there is also something completely inviting about the progression he plays here, and one cannot help but smile at the simple beauty within.  The way in which the piano and bass from Hoppy Jones manage to perfect fuse together with the guitar instantly transports the listener back in time, and the fact that this arrangement remains as captivating now as it did in 1939 is proof of the songs' timeless appeal.  The three instruments work lightly behind the vocals, and the overall delicate nature of the song is made obvious by the fact that there are no drums anywhere on the track.  This also enables "If I Didn't Care" to lock into a smooth sway that persists throughout the entire song.  However, it is in the final bars of the song where the "mistake" ending occurs, and yet one can look at this instance as proof of the true power of a brilliant recording.  If one listens closely, the ending of the song is actually performed in a different key than the rest, and this was due to a mistake by Jack Lawrence.  Though he did write a second ending, The Ink Spots had already recorded the original, and as one can clearly hear, it is this "mistake" that enables "If I Didn't Care" to have one of the most uniquely perfect endings in music history.

Due to the rather subdued and sparse nature of the musical arrangement, the focus of the song is on the vocals from the group, and this works to the pleasure of anyone who listens to the song.  On "If I Didn't Care," The Ink Spots quickly prove the value of "real" musical talent, and there are few recordings from any point in history that can boast as beautiful a vocal performance.  Whether it is during the solos on the verses, or the absolutely mesmerizing harmonies, "If I Didn't Care" is as close to vocal perfection as one will find anywhere, and the talent and allure of their voices are able to easily have as much impact today as they did in 1939.  One can also point to their performance here as the source of the "doo wop" sound, as well as the blueprint for the modern pop vocal.  Within the singing, one can hear influences of everything from gospel to jazz to blues, and it is the way in which The Ink Spots combine these elements into something new that makes "If I Didn't Care" so magnificent.  Whether it is the high-toned, almost gentle singing of Bill Kenny or the unforgettable, trend-setting, deep speaking from Hoppy Jones, one can find nearly every aspect of modern, popular vocals within "If I Didn't Care."  It is also the way in which the group presents this lyric of longing and hope that makes the song so amazing, and again, it is the direct, simple words which make it rise so far above other such songs.

Truth be told, it is almost impossible to cite all of the influence that "If I Didn't Care" has had over the decades, as there are few, if any songs that can boast as much impact.  While it can almost be assumed that there have been a number of covers over the years, one must look to other forms of media to completely understand just how significant a song The Ink Spots recorded.  From the hit TV show Sanford And Son to the Oscar-winning film The Shawshank Redemption, the song seems to never have been out of the ear of popular culture for very long, and it made a bit of a comeback when it was featured in the most unlikely of places: the "shoot 'em up" horror video game, BioShock.  Though it is likely that most were not aware of the piece of music history which they were experiencing, the fact that so many people still choose to feature the song is a testament to the lasting power and beauty one can find within the recording.  Furthermore, "If I Didn't Care" holds a very unique place in history, as it is one of only twenty-six singles to have sold in excess of ten million copies.  Modern estimates claim the single to have sold nearly twice that number, that that fact alone should be enough to prove the songs' lasting impact and worth.  These realities make it rather confusing that The Ink Spots are often overlooked for this massive achievement, yet after only one listen, one can quickly understand the significance and unrivaled beauty within their groundbreaking 1939 single, "If I Didn't Care."

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