Sunday, June 5, 2011

June 5: The Platters, "The Great Pretender"

Artist: The Platters
Song: "The Great Pretender"
Album: The Great Pretender (single)
Year: 1955

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Though many have tried in a number of different ways over the decades, the fact remains that there is simply no replacement for raw talent.  Whether it be an exceptional ability on a given instrument or a voice that simply knows no equal, when one experiences a truly great performer, it quickly puts all other music into the proper perspective.  While in the modern music scene, technology has made it possible for those without such talent to appear as if they are skilled, in the early days of recording, it is almost impossible to find any sub-par song.  This makes it a bit more difficult to pick out the "best of the best," but there are a handful of voices and performances that remain as potent as the day they were released.  Though there were countless great vocal groups throughout the 1940's and 1950's, few were able to change their style as much as The Platters, and it is often the way in which their performances sound so effortless that has enabled them to become one of the most recognized groups in all of music history.  Though in many ways, they did not fit with the "normal" form for similar vocal groups, it was their powerful and heartfelt approach to every song that gave The Platters a handful of hit singles, and while their name may have been somewhat forgotten, their performance still rank among the greatest in history.  Though they scored a few hits both before and after, there is no better definition of the sound and style that makes The Platters so fantastic than what one can experience within their unforgettable 1955 single, "The Great Pretender."

As "The Great Pretender" opens, it quickly establishes itself with as classic a sound as one can find anywhere, and the strolling piano progression instantly transports the listener back to the era during which the song was first released.  There is a smooth, yet soaring quality to this element of the song, and one can easily understand how it would have brought entire dance halls onto the floor.  The swing that comes forth from the piano is matched perfectly by the lone saxophone, and the combination of these two sounds is the ideal representation of the classic 1950's sound, seamlessly blending together soul, r&b, and blues.  Yet the saxophone also presents a fantastic sonic contrast to the piano, as it brings a more sultry, almost sharp sound, and it is through this instrument that "The Great Pretender" gains most of its mood.  While the rhythm section is certainly necessary to the overall song, perhaps moreso than any other song of the period, the bass on "The Great Pretender" is almost impossible to hear, and the drums are mixed quite far back in the mix.  It is their placement, combined with the exceptionally sparse arrangement of their sound that enables the piano and saxophone to serve the rhythm role, and this in itself would become a norm soon after.  Regardless of how they are arranged, "The Great Pretender" features one of the most memorable musical progressions in history, and even after countless listenings, it is almost impossible to not get caught up in the mood.

However, while the music on "The Great Pretender" cannot be overlooked, as is the case with nearly every song from The Platters, it is their breathtaking vocal performance that retains the focus for the entire song.  While the group harmonies are nothing short of phenomenal, there is no question that it is the lead vocal of Tony Williams that truly pushes "The Great Pretender" to the exceptional level that it has attained.  Much like the entire catalog of the band, it is the way in which the vocal work of Williams seems so at ease and effortless that makes it so stunning, as his voice brings with it a power and a presence that is rarely found elsewhere.  Easily working the entire vocal scale, there is  classic tone when he pushes to the higher notes, and yet the fact that he is able to deliver such a performance, with as contrasting emotions as he brings is nothing short of spectacular.  Throughout the entire song, Williams perfectly embodies the lyrics penned by Buck Ram, as one can detect the pain in his heart, even has he sings lines like, "...just laughing and gay like a clown, I seem to be what I'm not you see..."  The entire lyric to "The Great Pretender" remains one of the most universally understandable in all of music history, and there are few lines more painfully beautiful than when Williams sings, "...too real when I feel what my heart can't conceal, oh yes I am the great pretender..."

Almost immediately after its release in 1955, "The Great Pretender" shot into the top five in the UK, and topped the charts in the US, knocking out one of Dean Martin's biggest hits.  As only their second single, "The Great Pretender" set a very high bar for the group to meet with later songs, and though they would find great success with later singles, none brought quite the emotional impact as "The Great Pretender."  Furthermore, the lasting relevance of their performance can be heard within the wide range of cover versions that emerged over the decades, the most powerful of which was the 1987 version which was released by the great Freddie Mercury.  Other artists ranging from Pat Boone to Roy Orbison to Dolly Parton have recorded their own takes on the songs, yet none even come remotely close to the power and emotion that can be felt on The Platters' original.  It is the way in which the other four members of the group are able to delicately work behind Tony Williams' phenomenal lead performance that offers an unmatched vocal balance, and one cannot help but get caught up in his singing.  The contrast provided by the backing instrumentation is the ideal representation of the "classic" r&b sound, and while other groups attempted such musical equality, none come close to that found on the absolutely heart-wrenching 1955 performance on The Platters', "The Great Pretender."

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