Sunday, October 30, 2011

October 30: The Drifters, "Up On The Roof"

Artist: The Drifters
Song: "Up On The Roof"
Album: Up On The Roof (single)
Year: 1962

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During the late 1950's and the first half of the 1960's, there were a massive number of groups that were perfecting the combined sound of the "doo-wop" vocal arrangement with a more pop-based r&b vocal.  All across this era, many of the most memorable songs in the entire history of music were recorded, and there were few groups that had a larger catalog of such hits than one finds in the songs of The Drifters.  Though the group were peers of many of the great vocal groups of the era, there is no question that they were far above almost any other collection of singers, and in many ways, it is the recordings of The Drifters that shaped the entire face of popular music for the entire second half of the century.  In both their exceptional vocal abilities, as well as the level of feeling and emotion that they injected into every one of their recordings, the collected work of The Drifters is as close to "pop bliss" as one can find anywhere, and nearly every one of their songs remains just as fresh and powerful today as it was when it was first released.  Due to their phenomenal level of talent, as well as the staggering number of songs they recorded that have since become "standards," it is impossible to cite a single recording as their finest or most representative.  However, while other songs they recorded may have fared better commercially, it is hard to argue that in terms of historical significance, as well as defining the groups' sound, one would be hard pressed to find a finer work than The Drifters' 1962 single, "Up On The Roof."

As soon as "Up On The Roof" begins, it is clear that on many levels, this is as "classic" sounding a song as one can find, as the piano progression stands as one of the most irresistible and catchy in all of music history.  Working in its own rhythm, the piano is in many ways playing a song all its own, and it gives "Up On The Roof" a far more unique dance appeal than almost any other song in history.  This can also be seen as one of the most important "bridges" between older music and the new style of popular music, and it enables "Up On The Roof" to continue to have a rather wide appeal to this day.  However, it is also the way that the guitars work into the mix that makes this such a uniquely important moment in music history.  The guitars play lightly near the back of the overall sound, and yet they present an alternative rhythm on the song, as well as bringing a bit of a rockabilly tone to the soundscape.  It is also the way that the guitar both contrasts and compliments the string section which turns "Up On The Roof" into such a completely mesmerizing musical achievement, lending an even wider appeal to the song.  Rounded out by perfectly placed punctuation by the horn section, and one would be hard pressed to find a song with more musical diversity, and yet it is the fact that each instrument works so seamlessly with the others that gives "Up On The Roof" an appeal and impact that has simply never been matched.

However, while there is no question that the musical arrangement found here would become a vital part in the development of pop music, there is no getting around the fact that the vocals found on "Up On The Roof" are were the true brilliance of the recording resides.  Though the entire group sounds fantastic throughout, it is the lead vocal performed by Rudy Lewis that shines not only on this recording, but stands today as one of the greatest single vocal tracks in the entire history of music.  Not only is he easily able to work all across the entire musical spectrum, but the level of emotion with which he delivers each word is rarely anything short of breathtaking, and it is in this complete commitment to every line where he separates himself from every one of his peers.  The way that Lewis is able to capture the somewhat dejected, almost exhausted feeling of the lyrics, yet never indicates as if he is anything less than completely hopeful is where the genius of his performance lives, and when he lets his voice oar without restraint, "Up On The Roof" takes on an almost religious feeling.  It is this unbroken spirit in the face of the grimy, clearly tough environment in which he lives that even more than four decades later, remains just as inspiring and can easily be applied to living situations within the modern day.  Though the sentiments of which he sings may still be applicable, there is no question that the way he delivers each line remains absolutely unmatched, and even after hearing the song countless times, the beauty and power are never lessened in the least.

Truth be told, "Up On The Roof" was actually penned by singer-songwriter Carole King, and the version she would record almost a decade later sheds a very different mood and light on the song than what one finds on The Drifters' recording.  Along with King's own take, "Up On The Roof" has been re-recorded by a wide range of artists over the years, and yet none even come close to the sound and mood that can be found on The Drifers' take.  There is a sense of authenticity within the singing and how Rudy Lewis seems to relate to the words that pushes it far beyond other versions, and it is this purity and proximity to the song itself that transports the listener to a stairwell deep in New York City.  This is somewhat understandable, as many see the song as directly referencing the legendary Brill Building, which has played a vital role in the music industry since the early 1930's.  Yet even without this secondary knowledge, the reality is that "Up On The Roof" remains one of the most musically powerful recordings in history, and on every level, it is absolutely perfect.  From the way that the array of instruments seem to melt into one another, creating a magnificent atmosphere, to the stunning vocal work from Lewis, to the simple, yet powerful lyrics, it would be this track that served as the blueprint for the new sound of popular music; and for this combination of reasons, there is no other song that can measure up to the impact and importance of The Drifters' magnificent 1962 single, "Up On The Roof."

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