Life Sentences, Day 113, Sally and Those Roses

January 22nd, 2011

How do you explain a singularity?

I don’t mean the Big Bang — a point in spacetime at which matter attains infinite density and zero volume, and some sort of massive kerflooey is imminent.

What I’m thinking about is a creative singularity — something close to perfect that happens once, often created by someone who never lives up to it again, and doesn’t inspire a lot of imitation.

One example, for those whose musical interests stretch back far enough: Don MacLean.  Whether you like “American Pie” or not, there’s no denying it was a full-scale phenomenon, one of the signature songs of the 1970s.  He had another hit in “Vincent,” which is gooey conventional pop to me, but that little spurt of creativity was it, apparently.  He got hit by lightning, produced something sui generis, and since then he’s been singing a 40-year-old song.

I’m not just talking about one-hit wonders, because most of them probably didn’t deserve a second hit. I’m just as happy not to have heard from Right Said Fred again after “I’m Too Sexy,” and it’s not hard to believe that Toni Basil used it all up on “Mickey.”

No, I’m talking about a one-time talent burst.

Randall Jarrell, an American poet, wrote (for me) a perfect novel, Pictures from An Institution, and then never wrote another.  Joseph Heller kept writing after Catch-22 but never got back into the neighborhood.  Salinger never wrote another novel after Catcher.  Truman Capote invented a whole genre with In Cold Blood and never published another book.

But all these writers had demonstrable talent and kept producing after their creative supernova was left behind.

What about this?  From 1963, the incomparably weird, incomparably beautiful, totally mysterious “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses?”  Listen to it, if you’ve got a moment or three.  It’ll make your day better.

Sally Go ’round The Roses

Okay, finished?  Here are the members of the Jaynetts, who made that record:  Yvonne Bushnell, Ethel Davis (aka Vernell Hill), Ada Ray Kelly, and Johnnie Louise Richardson.  Additionally, the session that produced the record apparently stretched on for a week in the Bronx studio being used by producer Abner Spector, and anyone who wandered in got drafted.  There are probably as many as twenty voices on the record.  The song was written by Spector’s wife, Lona Stevens, and a Bronx music figure named Zell Sanders, who helped assemble the singers for the session.

Here’s how important the Jaynetts were in the scheme of things.  The B-side was the instrumental track, entitled, “Sing Along Without the Jaynetts.”  Their follow-up record was “Snowman, Snowman, Sweet Potato Nose.”  Lightning did not strike twice.

I hear a movie in this song.  I see a garden in the grimy city at dusk, with a lone girl in it. I see sidewalks beneath neon. I hear heartbreak and healing and courage — and NONE OF THOSE THINGS is in the song.  “Saddest thing in the whole wide world/Is to see your baby with another girl.”  I mean, how commonplace can you get?

So, three questions:  (1) Is this a great record, or have I spent my whole life on my knees to something worthless?  Let me rephrase that.  (1) Is this a great record, or is it just me?  (2) If it is a great record, what makes it great?  (3) How does something like this leak into the world via a group of people who will probably not ultimately be classed with Mozart and Shakespeare — apparently ordinary people just getting together to make a record?

And fourth, are there any singularities you’d like to bring to the table?

Listen to it again. You know you want to.

6 Responses to “Life Sentences, Day 113, Sally and Those Roses”

  1. suzanna Says:

    Tatum O’Neal won an Academy Award at age 10 for PAPER MOON. Can anyone name a single film that she’s appeared in since that was as great as that?

    Townes Van Zandt wrote some of the best country songs ever recorded but they were covered by other artists and Townes never had a hit of his own. Two of my favorites: PONCHO AND LEFTY and IF I NEEDED YOU.

    Both of these artists have struggled with substance abuse issues. Who knows what they may have accomplished if they were able to get the right help?

  2. EverettK Says:

    I would say that Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird qualifies.

  3. Beth Says:

    I forgot about that song. As soon as it started I remembered the lyrics.

    I thought of Harper Lee, too, Everett.

    Those who have seen the movie “Capote” with Philip Seymour Hoffman, will recall Harper Lee and Capote were close friends. She traveled with him to Kansas when he interviewed Perry Smith and Richard Hickock and she helped interview some of the people in the town.

    In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (generally considered to be autobiographical), Scout and Jem befriend a little boy who comes to town every summer. Dill is based on Capote who spent summers in the house next door to Harper Lee.

    I don’t think this qualifies as a singularity but it is more than a little interesting that they were friends for most of their lives and each created one work that was perfect.

    What is a singularity, from my perspective, is that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, published in 1960, still leaves a class of tenth graders moved by the honor and compassion of Atticus and indignant at the outcome of the trial. When the book is finished, the kids see the movie. No one sleeps through it. And, in the scene at the end of the trial, when the children are in the balcony, a man tells Scout she must stand up because her father is passing, there are always a few tears.

  4. Debbi Says:

    Sloan Wilson and The Man the Gray Flannel Suit? Not his only novel, but probably his best.

  5. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    You all have jogged my memory. One of my favorite books in the sixties was The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. It was one of my first forays into Asia. He did not have a happy end. I like the song. It’s not about the lyrics, but that wonderful urban bayou blues beat. IMHO

  6. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Great suggestions, all. MOCKINGBIRD is a classic. By the way, many people in the publishing profession assume that there are about a dozen “second books” by Harper Lee, forgeries that will “come to light” in the months immediately following her death.

    It’ll be interesting to watch.

    Sally, don’t you go
    Don’t you go downtown

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