Sarah Vaughan

‘A Taste of honey’ Doctor Pablo & Dub Syndicate (North of the River Thames, ON-U, 1984) plus P. Desmond, S. Vaughan, C. Baker and others

Originally my intention was to write something extremely simple and short about this silvery-delicate cover by an English melodica player who took on the name Doctor Pablo when fronting the great Dub Syndicate on this 1984 ON-U release.

A release that is considered to be a kind of oddity in the Dub Syndicate catalogue, as Rick Anderson writes in his AllMusic review 

"This is one of the more curious entries in the always interesting On-U Sound catalog. Doctor Pablo is Pete Stroud, a British melodica player who fell in love with the "Far East" sound of pioneering melodica virtuoso Augustus Pablo and hooked up with label head Adrian Sherwood and his house band, the Dub Syndicate, to record an album of languid reggae instrumentals in a style closely based on that of his namesake. (Even the album title is a tribute: It's a parody on the title of Augustus Pablo's classic album East of the River Nile.)

What gives this album an added whimsical twist is the fact that two of the tracks are covers of popular British tunes -- there's an arrangement of the popular TV theme song "Man of Mystery" and a setting of the "Dr. Who?" theme. Others are more simply standard-issue instrumental reggae with featured melodica. The Dub Syndicate plays things a bit more restrained than usual, but its mighty rhythm section is as powerful as always, especially on the album's stand out track, a long and eerie Stroud composition entitled "Red Sea" (which would later be appropriated by Singers & Players as the rhythm for their equally powerful song "Moses"). Fans of the On-U label's signature sound should consider this a strongly recommended purchase, but newcomers may do better starting out with one of the Dub Syndicate albums or one of the compilations in the Pay It All Back series."

This piece of writing on 'A Taste of Honey' dub-version was going to be a quick continuation of my earlier ‘theme’ (see here) about explosions in 80s music; notice the classic, essential dub-explosion just before 1’40” (x2). Then to complicate things, all or some of my other favourites intruded in on it, forcing themselves to be included or at least heard. Sorry too for the sudden ending of the upload: pretty unfortunate.

Another writer with a different kind of mind might usefully tackle the question as to why pop music now is so concerned with originality - despite it being an era of sample-based recycling and reinvention and while there is a kind of relative stasis or lack of confidence about the act of creating music in itself. Never before has popular music been so self-aware and “complicated” in the French sense. Still, it would be unthinkable for a stream of artists to cover one song as was the case with “A Taste of Honey” through the 60s and into the 70s.

Dub artists always covered pop/soul songs, either in their entirety or splicing them up. And yet, returning to “A Taste of Honey” decades after its moment is kind of strange, but touching too. A vast contingent of popular singers covered the song in a relatively short period of time in the 60s: Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams, Julie London, Bobby Darin, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass among many many others.   

Three highlights though, Paul Desmond in 1965 and Sarah Vaughan

who does all kinds of unexpected things with her phrasing – unexpected that is for a typical singer, not for her such experimentation is an essential part of her gift.

And Chet Baker on his 1965 album Baby Breeze. Some criticise the version for the so-called “honky tonk piano” in the background that’s considered to be too loud and out of place, but I think it makes it, roughing up Baker’s early dulcet singing style. Another point of interest: how Baker slows the song right down, making it simpler and foundational like a folk song. It's really wonderful, I think.

To read more on Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan, jazz and dub, follow the tags. 

'The Man I Love' Sarah Vaughan (EmArcy Records 1957)

Producers talk about the rich sound quality captured in recordings from earlier eras, the warmth of the sound that now seems lost in the digital files, keeping this in mind take a minute to listen to this jazz standard, notice the openness of the sound, the way it begins.

(This music makes me nostalgic for a Sunday night double-bill at the Astor theatre in Melbourne, where I would watch films from the 1950s, in black & white, sometimes falling asleep to be jolted awake at certain moments, as a tattooed Robert Mitchum, or a dewy-eyed starlet forced us to recognise the purity of their craft).

What I love, and I really do, about Vaughan's delivery is the way she plays with contrasts: the way her singing has both the distinctive wavering vowel sounds that she made her own ('playing with the melody') and then how she brutally cuts words short, so abruptly. There's a majesty to Vaughan's performance, where she plays with our desire to hear the sound, being played out/extended and then refuses us. And yet, despite the genius of her technique, Vaughan allows a definite feeling to come though - a kind of sweet-hearted yearning that never ceases to affect me.

All of this reminds me of this piece of music and performance that also touches me (just listen to that amazing beginning) :

Compare the Sarah Vaughan version with the rendition by Billie Holiday 

what you sense with Holiday's version is that she is telling a story - describing something logical - in contrast, when Sarah Vaughan sings it is as if she is embodying the feeling, she has become the emotion.

Vaughan runs the words together unexpectedly, without caring about making it something we can understand (all those things the man she loves will do for her, or with her: 

He'll build a little home
Just meant for two
From which I'll never roam
Who would? Would you?

are only symbols in her imagination) but we can feel her longing. This makes the music so touching, but also so sad as if the entire song is little more than an expression of her imagination, 'one day he'll come along ...' 

This song could be the final whisper of a woman in a shelter: 

And when he comes my way
I'll do my best to make him stay

And when he comes along ...

He'll look at me and smile
I'll understand
And in a little while
He'll take my hand
And though it seems absurd
I know we both won't say a word

Vaughan's ability to express strong feeling, or break it down to its purest form - to the level of sound rather than narrative - is what impresses me so much, alongside that velvety cadence of hers that breaks my heart each time I hear this music.

Here's another version with a kind of nursery rhyme beginning:


(From 1938)