“Thanks for the song, Mr Knight…”
Those are the words spoken by Leonard Cohen over the final notes of one of the tracks on his 1992 album, The Future, and they came to mind when I read something Sharon Robinson, Cohen’s songwriting and singing partner for the past three and a half decades, said during the course of an interview in last Saturday’s FT magazine.
The interviewer, Philippe Sands, reminded Robinson that she had joined Cohen’s band in 1979 “as a classically trained pianist (having studied at the California Institute of the Arts) with a serious interest in R&B and soul, the likes of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding”.
Her response was interesting. “He likes to bring that flavour into some of his music,” she said.
It reminded me of a track from The Future, one that has always been among my favourite Cohen recordings: a cover version of Frederick Knight’s “Be For Real”, a glorious, gospel-drenched deep soul ballad delivered with a very proper sense of how to treat such material: i.e. with the utmost respect.
Cohen doesn’t do many cover versions, and he knew that you don’t mess with a song like “Be For Real”. He used a great Los Angeles rhythm section — Greg Phillinganes on keys, Paul Jackson Jr on guitar, Freddie Washington on bass guitar, James Gadson on drums and Lennie Castro on percussion — and a warm but never overbearing arrangement for backing voices and strings by David Campbell. Everything about it, including the dead-slow tempo, serves the quality of the song.
It had been recorded once before, by Marlena Shaw in 1976 on a Blue Note album called Just a Matter of Time. Produced by Bert DeCoteaux and Tony Silvester, Shaw’s version is pretty good, although she twists the melody more than necessary in her efforts to be expressive. In 1996, unaccountably, it was absolutely murdered by the Afghan Whigs as part of the soundtrack to Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls, otherwise one of my favourite films. (It’s here, but I wouldn’t listen to it if I were you.) This is a song that is best left to sing itself, as I discovered when I heard Knight’s original demo a few years ago.
The composer’s version is hidden away on a four-CD compilation, not for sale to the general public, called East Memphis Music: The Hits, compiled and circulated inside the business in 1988 by the Stax publishing company’s then licensees, Irving Music and Rondor Music. Almost all of the 80 tracks are the well known versions of the songs from which the publishers were trying to extract additional life: Carla Thomas’s “B-A-B-Y”, Otis’s “Dock of the Day”, Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming”, the Staple Singers “Respect Yourself”, and so on. Frederick Knight’s “Be For Real” is the exception that, from my point of view, makes the whole exercise worthwhile.
You might remember Knight from his days as a Stax artist, a period which yielded his big hit with “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long” in 1972 and the not quite as successful “I Betcha Didn’t Know That” three years later. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1944, and after Stax fell apart his only real claim to fame came when he wrote “Ring My Bell” for Anita Ward in 1979, at the height of the disco boom.
His version of “Be For Real” is clearly a demo, and that’s part of its charm. A piano that hasn’t been tuned lately, a Hammond B3 dialled into a deep church setting, a bass guitar, a drummer who seems to have left everything except his basic snare and kick drum combo at home, and falsetto backing vocals that could well be Knight himself overdubbed a handful of times, every voice and instrument performing — and recorded — with the maximum of restraint and no tricks: that’s all it takes to render the classic version of this glorious, timeless song.
I’m sorry I can’t give a link to it. As far as I know (and I hope someone will pop up to prove me wrong), it has never been commercially available. It’s not on either of the two Knight albums that go for exotic prices on Amazon. But there’s a copy of East Memphis Music: The Hits for sale here at http://www.discogs.com at what seems to me to be a reasonable price; if I were you, I wouldn’t hesitate, even if the package as a whole contains dozens of tracks you already possess. And if anyone reading this is in a position to put forward material for Aretha Franklin’s next album, then her version, appropriately produced, is the only one I can think of that might live on equal terms with the original.