Michael Brown and ‘Walk Away Renee’
Michael Brown died this week, aged 65. He was 16 when he wrote “Walk Away Renee” and recorded it with his group, the Left Banke. Countless hearts have been touched by it in the decades since its first appearance.
I love a song that begins with “And”. The listener is thrown straight into the middle of the singer’s emotions: “And when I see the signs that point one way / The lot we used to pass by every day…” So simple, so graphic, so universal. And there’s the sweet sadness of the last verse: “Your name and mine inside a heart on a wall / Still finds a way to haunt me though they’re so small…”
It seems that Brown wrote the song about the girlfriend of Tom Finn, the group’s bass-guitarist, and the quasi-baroque arrangement of the Left Banke’s version, featuring a string quartet with an alto flute solo, was like a protective screen for the teenage protagonist, whose tone of wounded introspection was perfectly located by the singer, Steve Martin. (Bob Calilli and Tony Sansone – neither of them members of the group — are always credited as co-composers, but since neither seems to have done much else in the way of writing hit songs, you have to wonder about that.) The style of the arrangement was also a reminder that Brown, who played harpsichord on the session, had received a classical training.
He was born Michael Lookofsky, the son of Harry Lookofsky, a noted New York session violinist who appeared on countless albums — including a featured appearance, playing tenor violin, on a great Gil Evans session from 1971. The father owned the studio where the Left Banke recorded their debut single, which was released on the Smash label and made the US top five in September 1966.
Just over a year later came the first great cover version, by the Four Tops, in which the composer-producer team of Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier showed their ability to react to new developments by applying their genius to someone else’s song. Brown’s composition inspires one of Levi Stubbs’s finest vocal performances, introduced by that riveting brass fanfare, supported by Eddie Willis’s loosely strummed rhythm guitar and swept along by Benny Benjamin’s finest snare-and-tom-tom fills. And what is that combination featured during the instrumental interlude: muted trumpet and cor anglais, maybe? The textures throughout, and the sense of aural perspective they convey, still inspire astonishment.
Rickie Lee Jones recorded the third great version on her 10-inch album Girl At Her Volcano in 1983. She changes the song’s gender (from “Renee” to “Rene”) and stretches its inbuilt pathos about as far as it will go without disintegrating. As the tempo comes and goes, the singer seems to be slipping in and out of a reverie. It’s one of her most inventive and touching recorded performances. And behind her lovely piano, even the ’80s-style synth washes sound fine.
For me, these are the three indelible versions of a much-covered song which seldom fails to bring the best out of those who take it on. Thank you for that, Michael Brown.
You should also listen to the Linda Ronstadt & Ann Savoy version which is stunning
I have, Chris. It’s lovely. As, in a different way, is Southside Johnny’s. Herman’s Hermits? Not so much.
Couldn’t agree more!
Beautifully written tribute. I am in 100% agreement. Four Tops and Rickie Lee. I had no idea he was so young when he wrote the song or that he was the harpsichordist. One of my favorite records. Thanks for the info and deep insight.
This has always been my favourite Motown song.
I know what you mean about “And”, having just watched Jennifer Holliday launch into “And I am telling you I’m not going” from Dreamgirls, the other day.
And thank you, Michael and Ian Lloyd, for Stories. I can’t imagine they were your cup of tea, Richard, but I adored their two (?) albums.
I was a kid listening to Don’t Walk Away Renee on WLS out of Chicago on AM radio and loved it as a 12 yo. Rickie Lee’s version made it sound grownup in the bittersweet-est way. Didn’t realize there were so many versions of it.
Well written Richard. You called it right with the Rickie Lee Jones version – I owned it but lost it many years ago but the memory of the sadness she expressed lives on…….I must buy it again.
Sixteen? Impressive. And I am definitely going to check out all those covers.
Richard, thanks for pointing out the sheer poetry and drama of beginning with ‘And’. So many great versions particularly of course Left Banke and the Four Tops. I know it’s heretical and the fault is probably in me but the Ricky Lee Jones leaves me cold.
“WAR” and “Pretty Ballerina”, two songs I’d never have heard were it not for Radio London. I think Kenny Everett liked them. And then I’d not have bought their first LP for 75p in a cut-out shop in Oxford Street (where, to my eternal regret, I passed on the mono Chappaqua Suite on CBS for the same price).
And on that LP were “Barterers and their Wives”, “Shadows Breaking Over My Head” and “She May Call You Up Tonight”, the latter a Fairport favourite with a truly great version by Ian Matthews.
WFMU DJ Bob Brainen about 5 years ago had a round-table with all 5 original members, and there was still some bitterness. IRL Renee was the pretty ballerina – Renee Fladen.
There’s a singer from Texas named Tommy Elskes who has one of my favorite versions of the song. Look for it, you won’t be disappointed.
I always thought that Billy Bragg’s “mash up” of the song was one of the most haunting things he ever did, but I realised that this might be a minority opinion: [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Am9s85pfH8I]
No – I enjoyed it then and still do now
Me too, though I know what you mean by suspecting it might be a ‘minority opinion’ . It’s on the 7″ single with Bragg’s great song ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and like the Tops’ superlative version detects something really dark and desolate in the song.
It’s funny but for a song I’ve heard so many times, I know barely any of the lyrics. I get transported by the wonderful melody before the words register.
How right you are re the ‘and’ Richard. Just inspired me to listen to my FT’s hits CD, and Walk Away Renee is the highlight. Also, Johnny Marr does a wonderful acoustic guitar arrangement behind Billy Bragg’s ‘spoken’ version.
Dawn Eden said, in 2003 before the big change – ” it never occurred to me that he was also thinking of a real sign that points one way.
It’s at the intersection of Falmouth Street and Hampton Avenue in Brooklyn.”
Just discovered this blog. My favourite version was by ‘The Truth’, a) because I loved the song, and b) because it had an amazing guitar solo that seemed to morph from mandolin to fuzz guitar. Probably Big Jim Sullivan, but we’ll probably never know. The Truth was a duo – Steven Gold and Frank Aiello – a short-lived career, I suspect.