Almost 10 years ago, I put up a post headlined, “Top 12 Songs I Either Missed Entirely, or Didn’t Fully Appreciate at the Time.” I enjoyed looking back at it just now, although it filled me again with regret for the decades during which I had missed some amazing music.
This happened to me again the other day. I was looking for something else on YouTube, and it suggested I might want to watch the above video of The Moody Blues playing “Go Now.” I immediately remembered it was a great song and wanted to hear it, although I hadn’t known, or had forgotten, that it was by The Moody Blues. Another one of those bands I had been aware of but not really followed in the ’60s. And when I say “aware of,” I mean just barely. I immediately thought something along the lines of “oh, that artsy band with one of those two songs with ‘white’ in the title.”
Yes, to embarrass myself further, I can’t ever remember which is which between “Nights in White Satin” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” not for sure, until it gets going good — maybe not until I actually hear the title in the song. (Which means I recognize the Moody Blues song more quickly.) And I know even less about Procol Harum than about The Moody Blues. (But gimme a break on my confusion — don’t both songs have a similar atmosphere about them? They’re in a category together in my head.)
Anyway, once I know who it is, I can tell, and think, Yeah, this is what the “Nights in White Satin” group would have sounded like three years earlier, at the height of the British Invasion. (For you kids just joining us, in the 1960s, music and fashion changed so quickly, everybody went through an eon or two of cultural evolution each year. Today, everybody dresses and looks the same as they did 30 years ago.)
Oh, and speaking of the fact that this was 1964, I’ve thought of an excuse for why “Go Now” was dim in my memory — I didn’t hear it until a long time later. I was living in Ecuador at the time (from November 1962 to April 1965), and missed a lot of stuff. The Beatles had filtered down to us, and to some extent The Beach Boys, but that was about it.
Anyway, as I learned the other day, the song is more wonderful than I had dimly remembered from having heard in on oldie stations over the years. In fact, the thing that makes it so wonderful is that series of piano chords you hear over and over, so I’m hoping Phillip Bush will read this and explain to me the spell those chords cast.
The closest I come to having any musical insight into it is to recognize that it’s in a minor key. And I may be wrong about that. I think it’s F minor, but I got that specific detail from Googling, and there were dissenting opinions (don’t go trying to tell me about the “wisdom of the crowd”). But Phillip will know. I was just going by it having a minor-key feel.
But the story gets more interesting. I was so into in the song as I listened that I started reading about it online, and found that unlike “Nights in White Satin,” this was not originally a Moody Blues song.
You know the old story of pop music — of white guys making it big with black folks’ music? This is kinda one of those stories.
It was written by an American R&B man named Larry Banks. It was first recorded by his estranged wife Bessie Banks. She thought it was going to make her career, because it was getting some airplay. Then the Moody Blues released it, that that was pretty much it for major stardom for her. There’s this quote from her on Wikipedia:
I remember 1963 Kennedy was assassinated; it was announced over the radio. At the time, I was rehearsing in the office of Leiber and Stoller. We called it a day. Everyone was in tears. “Come back next week and we will be ready to record ‘Go Now'”; and we did so. I was happy and excited that maybe this time I’ll make it. ‘Go Now’ was released in January 1964, and right away it was chosen Pick Hit of the Week on W.I.N.S. Radio. That means your record is played for seven days. Four days went by, I was so thrilled. On day five, when I heard the first line, I thought it was me, but all of a sudden, I realized it wasn’t. At the end of the song it was announced, “The Moody Blues singing ‘Go Now’.” I was too out-done. This was the time of the English Invasion and the end of Bessie Banks’ career, so I thought. America’s DJs had stopped promoting American artists.
Wikipedia sort of questions her details because the Moody Blues’ version didn’t come out until a year after hers. But, when it happened, I don’t doubt a bit that it was a moment of deep dismay for her. She and Larry were splitting up at the time, near as I can make out from looking it up. I sure hope she got some of the money. Come to think of it, I hope Larry got some money from the deal.
I don’t blame the Moody Blues for this at all. They heard a song that sounded good, covered it, and got rich and famous. It launched them to stardom. Although they didn’t do much to “make it theirs.” It’s very much the same as hers, down to those piano chords. They may have speeded it up slightly, à la “That Thing You Do.” But that’s about it.
For that matter, going to the larger historical trend, I don’t blame Elvis, either. Elvis was making the music that welled up out of him. He couldn’t help it that Sam Phillips saw him as the “white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel” he’d been looking for….
You want to blame somebody? Blame the white fans. (But don’t blame me on “Go Now;” I was in Ecuador.) But I do feel bad for Bessie Banks. Her version was great as it was. In both cases, though, I think the piano was a big part of what made it so…