Sunday, August 19, 2012

August 19: The Chordettes, "Mr. Sandman"

There are certainly pieces of music that as long as time goes on, they will persist due to the purity of sound and outright pivotal role they have played within the progression of all forms of music.  Strangely enough, while one might assume that any such song is easy to remember and constantly being referenced, there are a number of songs worthy of these accolades that have somehow managed to take a bit of a secondary role to other hits.  This is more persistent as one digs back further into music history, and yet it is impossible to deny the importance of the wide array of shifts that occurred in nearly every genre of music throughout the 1950's.  As the sounds of jazz branched off in countless directions and the early rumblings of rock and roll began to take hold, there was also a resurgence of great vocalists, and this was perhaps the only period in history where the power of a singers voice was commercially able to carry a song without any sort of backing.  That is to say, in the heyday of the "do wop" and a capella movements, there were a number of brilliant performers that found somewhat unexpected success in this instrument-less arrangement.  Among the finest of these groups were The Chordettes, and while their name may not be instantly recognizable, there has never been a version of the classic song "Mr. Sandman" that comes even close to their 1954 rendition.

While some may argue that this version of "Mr. Sandman" is not "completely" a capella, the fact of the matter is that the scarce instrumentation could easily have been removed without any problem, as it is the vocals that drive this track.  In fact, some have made the argument that on this recording, the instruments, particularly the soft horns actually get in the way more than they add to the mix.  Setting that aside, while some may claim that there is also percussion on the song, it is certainly not standard in any way, as though they sound like a soft snare and woodblock, it is in fact Cadence Records founder Archie Bleyer slapping his knees in rhythm alongside the snare.  It is also Bleyer who provides the response of "yes?" in the songs' third verse, and his contributions further the songs' overall sense of musical purity.  The only "real" instrument that makes itself somewhat persistent on the track is the piano from Moe Wechsler and a subtle string arrangement.  These instruments do well to stay far away from the vocalists within the overall mix, but there is one element other than the singing that cannot be overlooked.  While every song in history attempts to create some sense of individuality to perfectly capture the mood, few songs have succeeded in the manner that the eight-note vibraphone line does on "Mr. Sandman," and it has become as iconic as the song itself.

However, due to the nature of the song, as well as the direction of the arrangement, it goes without saying that it is the vocals from The Chordettes that truly vault "Mr. Sandman" to such heights.  The way that the voices of Jinny Osborn, Nancy Overton, Lynn Evans and Carol Buschmann compliment and contrast one another is the epitome of sonic beauty, and one can only listen in awe of the phenomenal vocal control they display all across "Mr. Sandman."  The harmonies found across every line they sing is something beyond the term "gorgeous," and you can hear the influence of this vocal arrangement across pop music to this day.  The ease with which the quartet slides between the notes is second to none, and there is also a certain sense of fun that one can detect within their singing.  Yet along with their blissful vocal performance, it is the way that The Chordettes manage to capture the soft, almost sleepy undertones of the lyrics, and it is the subtle, almost grinning thoughts of exactly "what" they were hoping "Mr. Sandman" would deliver that turns this track into such a timeless classic.  The combination of the purity of their singing, along with the outright strength and skill that all four vocalists show remains unparalleled to this day, and one can argue that modern singers could learn quite a bit from their work.

It almost goes without saying that over the decades, "Mr. Sandman" has become one of the most well-known and heavily covered songs in history.  Everyone from The Supremes and The Andrews Sisters to Emmylou Harris and Marvin Gaye have recorded versions of the song, yet none come close to the sheer perfection of The Chordettes recording.  But the fact of the matter is that this take actually set the standard for a number of different elements of music, from the soft, almost seductive sound of the "female vocal group" to the reminder that even with changes in mainstream appeal and technology, nothing can replace sheer talent.  It is largely due to the latter of these facts that the original recording by The Chordettes continues to be used all across popular culture more than half a century after it was first released, as the mood and sound is simply unbeatable, and though the group would go through lineup changes over the years, it is this combination of voices that remains without question their finest.  While other groups would record more commercially successful songs under the title of "do wop" and a capella, there remains an intangible appeal and allure behind The Chordettes' absolutely flawless 1954 recording of "Mr. Sandman."

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