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“Thanks for the song, Mr Knight…”

Frederick KnightThose 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 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.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lovely piece on an often-overlooked gem. It’s touching that he directly thanks the songwriter – offhand I can’t think of anyone else doing that on an album. I wish Leonard would use those (or his touring band) musicians on some of his work. Songs like “The Darkness” from Old Ideas would surely have benefited from a ‘band in the room’ approach. I realise that his incremental working methods probably make that hard to do, but a boy can dream…

    August 13, 2013
    • Jason Clark #

      One of my favorite Johnny Cash tracks is “Grey Stone Chapel” is introduced by giving credit to the writer Glen Shirley; an inmate at Folsom Prison. Though already a beautiful song, the humility in Cash’s introduction makes the song profoundly significant to me.

      December 12, 2016
  2. Does this count? “I first heard this from Ric Von Schmidt… He lives in Cambridge… Ric’s a blues guitar player… I met him one day in the green pastures of Harvard University…” Bob Dylan’s intro to “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”, 1962.

    August 13, 2013
    • It does, absolutely. And you’ve reminded me of Junior Wells, on the version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” that he recorded with Buddy Guy in 1963: “I wanna do this number, it‘s not mines, but I wanna pay tribute to an old federal and nice outstandin’ musician, a tribute to him… this is a number that he made that I think that will linger in your hearts forever, it’s a crazy little thing, goes like this… Baby, you got to help me…” and then halfway through… ”I got one thing I wanna say, just before we go… I want Sonny Boy to know. I was one of his students, and he taught me well. I’m gonna sing this blues for you…”

      August 13, 2013
      • Pototop #

        Not in the same league, Marvin thatnks a whloe load of people on the outro of “My Love is Waiting”, incliding Larkin Arnolad and the song’s writer, musician, Gordon Banks. (I wonder if he ever played with Bobby Moore of “Call Me Your Anything Man”?)

        August 13, 2013
  3. WKB #

    This comes to mind re. name checking the songwriter:

    Leonard Cohen has always rather been off my radar, but, this has encouraged me to try again. “Be for Real” is a great “cut to the chase” song title and I love the Gamble & Huff track by Harold Melvin.

    August 13, 2013
    • How right you are about the Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes track: a great “message” rap from Teddy Pendergrass prefacing one of my favourite Philly Intl soul ballads, a short head behind the O’Jays’ “Stairway to Heaven” (the REAL “Stairway to Heaven”, of course…).

      August 13, 2013
      • WKB #

        For me, I think Eddie Levert’s finest performance is on the tragically truncated “What am I waiting for” from the “Survival” album. Rarely has domestic upheaval sounded more painful. 3′ 57″ is just not enough though.

        August 14, 2013
  4. Pototop: I was going to mention “My Love is Waiting”. It’s a great track, but the credits are the best bit: Marvin doesn’t forget to thank “our heavenly father” alongside his A&R man…

    August 13, 2013
  5. Would indeed be excellent if Aretha covered “Be For Real”. Her version of Knight and Bettye Crutcher’s “You Make My Life” on You is great. I’ve always thought that Aretha’s mid-70s records are somewhat overlooked. They would be career highlights for most artists.

    August 14, 2013
    • WKB #

      I agree. Give me “Angel” from ’73 and “I’m in Love” from ’74 before anything else she did.

      August 14, 2013

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