Monday, 12 February 2018

Songbook - A Taste Of Honey - PLUS SPOTIFY PLAYLIST!

(This first appeared in issue #68 of Shindig! magazine.)

How kitchen sink realism met Broadway theatre, sparked a Grammy-winning evergreen and inspired The Fabs. Duncan Fletcher investigates.

Ken Kesey's counter-cultural bus trips in the sixties were inspired in part by the Beat Generation writers of the previous decade. Jack Kerouac's On The Road being perhaps the biggest influence. Over on the British Isles, our own magical mystery tours and revolutions of the head had their seeds in an altogether different literary style.

The Angry Young Men and kitchen sink realists that had come to prominence in the late fifties had ushered in a new age of anti-establishment literature and film that gave a voice and confidence to post-war youth, especially out in the provinces. Regional accents became accepted, fashionable even. The northern working class were now represented in books, plays and films. Shelagh Delaney's 1958 play, A Taste Of Honey, may have been at the gentler end of this movement but with its themes of class, race and sexuality it was still subversive enough to help usher in new freedoms, and new ways of being and seeing...

(Click over the jump to continue reading and for the specially compiled Spotify playlist.)

When the play was exported to America, composer Bobby Scott was commissioned to compose a theme tune for its opening run on Broadway. Born in Mount Pleasant, New York in 1937, Scott was a gifted multi-instrumentalist who began working professionally at the age of 11. By fifteen he was touring with Louis Prima and would go on to work with Gene Krupa, Lester Young and Tony Scott. In 1956 he won a gold record for 'Chain Gang' (not the Sam Cooke song) before working as a bandleader and developing a teaching career.

To help him write the play's theme he enlisted friend and former pupil Ric Marlow. Marlow had worked in a series of manual jobs before landing a singing spot at New York's Basin Street. His chiseled good looks brought him to the attention of the city's casting directors and he gradually drifted into acting. "I ran over and Bobby and I put this song together in five minutes and rushed it to the theatre" Ric later reflected, "I never guessed it would become such a hit." A hit it was, winning the pair a Grammy in 1963 for Best Instrumental Theme.

Bobby Scott would go on to further chart success, co-writing 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' with Bob Russell, which became a worldwide hit for The Hollies in 1969. Scott died in 1990 from lung cancer. Ric Marlow returned to acting, appearing regularly in Bonanza, Hawaii 5-0 and Magnum P.I. Sadly Marlow died in February this year at the age of 91.

The original recorded versions of the song appeared on Scott's 1960 album, also titled A Taste of Honey. Billy Dee Williams, the actor in the US stage show also cut a sparse, haunting version, though it would be Lenny Welch's 1962 recording that provided the template copied by The Beatles. They stuck largely to Welch's backing and arrangement, adding a couple of tweaks to the lyrics in the chorus, and released the track on their Please Please Me LP in March 1963.

Acker Bilk's instrumental was in the charts when they recorded their debut LP, and they can't failed to have missed the British film version of A Taste Of Honey. The screenplay's down-to-earth dialogue resonated with Paul McCartney who would continue to romanticise working class life throughout his career, be it with 'Penny Lane', his film score for The Family Way, or even on his 1999 orchestral LP Working Classical.

The band had road-tested the song around Liverpool and on their Hamburg trips. McCartney had been keen to include show tunes in their live set, as a way of broadening the band's musicality beyond three-chord rock and roll. It was initially met with resistance from John Lennon who eventually came round to the idea thanks to McCartney's perseverance. "'A Taste Of Honey' was one of my big numbers in Hamburg - a bit of a ballad. It was different, but it used to get requested a lot. We sang close harmonies on the little echo mikes, and we made a fairly good job of it. It used to sound pretty good, actually" he'd later recall on the Anthology series.

He was encouraged to record the song by Brian Epstein and George Martin, both men keen to have some sophistication in the band's repertoire. Legend has it that at their lunchtime Cavern gigs they would play around with the song, leaving increasingly longer gaps between the "I'll come back" ... "He'll come back" vocal lines. Popularised by the success of The Beatles, the song would go on to become a standard over the next few years recorded by a succession of acts. Notable versions include Chet Baker's, included on his 1964 LP Baby Breeze, and the sublime proto-acid-folk single by Esther Ofarim the following year.

Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass recorded the most popular instrumental version of the song on their 1965 album, Whipped Cream & Other Delights, which went on to win Record of the Year at the Grammys in 1966. By 1968 the song had earned its own parody with comedian Allen Sherman covering the song as 'A Waste Of Money'. Other artists who've recorded the song include Brenda Lee, Barbra Streisand, Paul Desmond, The Hollies, and more recently The Shins. The song has also been responsible for some overly literal cover art. Check out the sleeve of Morgana King's 1971 LP, or the back sleeve of The Beatles 1986 Russian-only release. Lovers of exotica will also no doubt appreciate the electronic version by Martin Denny on his 1969 LP Exotic Moog.
It's The Fabs' version however which remains the best known and most fondly remembered. Curiously McCartney would go on to use a line of dialogue from Delaney's play as the title of a later song – 'Your Mother Should Know', which eventually surfaced for the Magical Mystery Tour Boxing Day TV-special in 1967. By that time the seeds of youthful uprising had grown into flower power and student demonstrations. As for McCartney, his knack for writing classic evergreen songs had, by then, equalled his ability to recognise them.

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