Saturday, January 10, 2009

Don't Leave Me This Way: Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes vs. Thelma Houston

So here's what you do the next time you have ten minutes to spare and a desire to further your musical edumacation, or just groove for a while. You dial this up on your youtube, and then this.

"Don't Leave Me This Way" is a classic Gamble and Huff record: their composition, their production. Performed by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, included on their last album with Teddy Pendergrass, 1975's Wake Up Everybody. It wasn't released as a single in the US, if you can believe that; maybe that's why this original version is somewhat less known now than Thelma Houston's cover.

But the Blue Notes' version is epic. Let's go through it. It starts off calm, with a soft electric piano (Fender Rhodes?) build-up, given a gentle tension by the congas. The rhythm guitar starts to add a few subtle licks, Teddy starts to hum over the top, then a couple of cymbal strokes bring in the groove, and just like that we're into the verse. Easy but insistent. The horns, the strings, all the hallmarks of a glossy, classy Philadelphia International production.

Then everybody comes together: big vamp, big fills, and boom, big loud chorus. "Don't leave me this way," and we sink back listlessly into the verse. Again to appreciate all the hallmarks of the Gamble and Huff approach: you could follow any one of the instrumental elements separately and have a satisfying listening experience, as each part builds and evolves on its own.

Each part tells its own story. That's what's going on with this record. Teddy, the Rhodes, the strings, the horns, and the Blue Notes are telling the story of why he doesn't want you to leave him this way. When they finally climax into the long vocal jam, listen to how everybody contributes a little detail to Teddy's plea. It's a fantasia on not wanting you leave him this way. Finally they break it down to just bass, congas, and Pendergrass. The Rhodes comes back in and boogies a bit in the spotlight, and Teddy says "you. can't. go." Are you gonna try and tell him otherwise?

Yes, this record is funky, yes it's danceable. It's a disco landmark, but at the same time it's both more and less than that. Because most of all it's soul: everything contributes to this total exploration of the emotions of the singer and the song, and that's why the narrative is important. It all brings you right back home to the humanity of the thing.

Thelma Houston's version was released as a single on Tamla in December of 1976, and I'm tempted to say it's a typical Motown thing, but I'm not as familiar with '70s Motown as I should be, so I'll refrain. (And I must apologize for the fact that the youtube version is truncated: it's the only fragment I could find of the single version on youtube, though, and besides, you've heard this record a million times.) What it is, is a typical disco record.

It keeps a lot of the elements of the Blue Notes version. That mellow beginning; here it's all mellow, though (besides the startling string glissando that cues Thelma's moaning), because the conga is absent. Electric piano, strings, and a gentle bass. But then, right away, things start to thump. The disco beat comes in. The arrangement is drastically stripped down and powered up compared to the Blue Notes': fewer musical elements here, and they're all subordinated to the groove, that drum and bass line.

They do the same sort of turnaround as they go into the chorus, but once they get there, it's all bass, that funky onetwothree-four-five figure that ends every line. And during the closing vamp, it's not the vocal but the bass that takes over, joined by a wicked little clavinet and the Motown tambourine.

Thelma's there, and she sings it magnificently, but her role is different from Teddy's. She's not there to tell you a story: she's there to serve the groove. Which is not to say there's no emotion in disco. But it's different from soul in that the emotion is not the focal point, it's another element in the groove. It's a mood-setter, basically.

This to me is the essence of disco, a ruthless concentration on getting your butt onto the dancefloor. This is where you get the secret connection between disco and its contemporary, punk: that merciless efficiency, getting straight to the point, no fluff, no nonsense. There's a kind of nihilism in disco, just as there is in punk. The difference is, the punks said, what is man that you should be mindful of him, so let's break stuff. Disco says, what is man that you should be mindful of him, so let's dance. I like them both, but I know which I prefer.

So who wins, Teddy Pendergrass or Thelma Houston? The Tanuki categorically rejects such false choices: it's a world of wonders, baby, not the least of which is the fact that we can have both versions. We don't have to choose, and don't trust anybody who tells you otherwise.

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