07 November 2006

That brownstone house where my baby lives...

At the risk of this becoming Oboe: The Blog, I must mention another oboe-enriched delight that leapt out at me from a Gene Pitney compilation at the weekend: that strange and unique 1963 hit Mecca.

As with my first post on the oboe, I was a bit tentative about identifying the instrument in Mecca as an oboe. True, that does seem to be a flute in the instrumental break but Ted Swedenburg, over at hawgblawg, is with me in also hearing an oboe. It appears first in the the introduction, then throughout the song, embellishing a smashing rhythmic arrangement.
[Listen to excerpts: intro; instro break.]

Ted played Mecca on his radio show on KXUA last year, and I recommend the appreciation and commentary he posted about this weird song (Ted's word):

It opens with a vaguely Eastern sounding oboe, playing a riff that sounds like what passed for snake charmer music in all the cartoons I saw growing up in the ‘50s.

Ted confirms what I suspected, that little seems to be known about the writers, Neval Nader and John Gluck Jr. As my friend Phil commented, Mecca proves that all songwriters have at least one great song in them.

There is something unusual about Mecca. It's hard to say whether the colloquial use of 'Mecca' stood out at the time, or whether it only does that in our time, when such religious references are used less lightly.

The lyrics go beyond the secular use of 'Mecca' as a metaphor, though, by including its religious origins, and that is unusual in a romantic pop song. There's a Romeo and Juliet thing going on here, East side of the street versus West side of the street (get it?), and the guy 'worships at her shrine':

Each morning I face her window,
And pray that our love can be,

'Cause that brownstone house where my baby lives

Is Mecca, Mecca to me

Ted points out the faux-Eastern elements of the arrangement, which do conjure up a caricature of the Middle East. To my ears, it's only a side-step away from the slapstick desert scenario of Ray Stephens' Ahab the Arab (1962).

It's not surprising that Gene Pitney's repertoire could accommodate such a quirky masterpiece as Mecca. His repertoire was wonderful and wide, so wide that his list of hits in one place won't always match his list of hits in another.

In Australia, for example, Billy You're My Friend (1968) charted in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane but not in Sydney; Hawaii (1964, the B-side of It Hurts To Be In Love) charted in its own right in Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane but not in Melbourne. Neither of those songs was a Top 40 hit in the US or Britain (although Hawaii's A-side was).

Pitney told his Australian audiences that he started including Who Needs It (1964) in his Australian sets because he noticed Aussies calling out, 'Who needs it?' and realised they weren't heckling him but were asking him to sing his Australian hit, a B-side elsewhere, a song that he'd all but forgotten.

This is why a Gene Pitney Best Of... with 18 tracks is never going to please every fan in every town in the world.

Even Mecca, a #12 in the USA that was popular in Australia (#4 Adelaide #5 Brisbane #7 Sydney & Melbourne) didn't make the Top 40 in Britain.

The first of three times I saw Pitney in concert over the past fifteen years or so, it was in a licensed cabaret in our provincial Australian city. All night a drunk in the audience kept yelling out, 'Do Mecca, Gene!' and, 'Gene, when are ya gonna do Mecca?' but Gene (quite rightly) declined to notice him, and he never did do Mecca, not that night or on his two later visits to our town, when he performed in an old but newly refurbished concert theatre where he clearly felt more at home.

On the third occasion, Jamie came too, and you can read his tribute to Pitney over at his blog. Nothing I can add to that, really, except that we wish there could have been a fourth time.

Brownstone house image from www.BrownstonesDirect.com.

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