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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"The Snake"

Al Wilson - "The Snake" (1968)

Aesops Fable, set to the sounds of Soul. Plus Hipsters.

Originally a jazzy bossa nova written and performed by Oscar Brown Jr., the song would get a number of covers during the 60s. In 1967 it was recorded by two different acts, and both of these previous performances would flavor the Al Wilson version the next year. Johnny Rivers released the song on a live album. Rivers smooth vocals were backed up by horns as well as guitars and bass, the bossa nova drum beat stayed the same. Rivers dropped the "evil" voice for the snake that Brown had used, but kept the higher pitched voice for the woman's part and added a sibilant hissing ssssss sound when the snake "sighs". Also in 1967 British beat group the Liverpool Five released the song. They used an organ instead of horns, and the bossa nova beat is more obvious in the organ part than the drums. Their sighing snake stuttered as it hissed.

Al Wilson's version takes everything from the previous versions and turns it up a notch. It starts with an almost duplicate guitar partto Rivers', then before we even get to the first word you can hear an organ, a full brass and sax horn section and a walking bass. Wilson doesn't use an evil snake voice, but he does pitch his voice up to play the woman much like the two 1967 versions. He does hiss like Rivers on the sighs, but he uses backing vocals like the Liverpool Five. As the song progresses we get a key change after the snake bite, and horns and bass and organ all building bigger and louder. Some of the credit needs to go to Wilson's big voice, but Marty Paich did the horn arraignment and it is that sound that really takes the song over the top. The producers of the song were sometime Motown producer Marc Gordon, and one of the previous performers of the song, Johnny Rivers. In fact, Soul City Records, which released the album, was Rivers' own label.

Just a little note on one of the tags I've given to the song: Northern Soul. It's called Northern because it comes from Northern England. So how does a musician from Meridian Mississippi get called Northern Soul? Northern Soul doesn't really classify as a genre, because no one performed Northern Soul. In the late 1960, peaking in the 70s, and continuing into the 80s there was a large group of people in Northern England who were interested in old fashioned soul music. As African American performers and audiences continued to progress and change into Funk, Disco and other genres, they wanted more soul. There were still people out there recording it, but not as many, and on much smaller labels. Northern Soul aficionados loved finding old records that other people didn't like and dancing to them. Motown was was too well known a label for them to enjoy, but Soul City was perfect. They were essentially early Hipsters. Nick Hornby actually talks about Northern Soul in his most recent book, 2009s Juliet, Naked; which I thought was great. So because this song is a great Soul tune on a small soul label by a minor artist and it didn't really burn up the charts, Northern Soul it is. It actually charted in the U.K. in 1975 (#41) showing just how long it can take to discover a hidden gem.

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