Thursday, June 8, 2023

I'm a poor boy

"Man With Money" is one of the Everly Brothers' most powerful songs

By the mid-Sixties, the Everly Brothers were facing tough times commercially in their home country. Only two of their eight albums released in that decade sold in any measurable amounts, and after 1964 only two of the numerous singles they'd issue would hit the Billboard Top 40. In 1965, in the considerable wake of the Beat Group splash, they released a loosely-linked pair of albums, Rock'n Soul (March) and Beat & Soul (August), neither of which sold much, though "Love Is Strange" reached number 11 in the always-welcoming U.K. singles charts. With cultural tides rapidly changing, personal and health issues dogging them, and sales drooping, it's grimly apt that the Everly Brothers would be singing about cash.

In 1965 Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" was only six years old, but had already been covered, famously and obscurely, countless times, a staple in nearly every beat or garage band that was sent into spasms by the sublime groove and rockin' riff, not to mention the timeless cry in the title. The brothers (or their label) felt obligated to toss their version onto the pile, and it's a winner, muscled into ascension by a fantastic group of "Wrecking Crew" players gathered at United Recording Corporation Studios, in Hollywood. No less than James Burton, Glen Campbell, and Sonny Curtis played guitars on the sessions, with Larry Knechtel (bass) and Jim Gordon (drums) as the ace rhythm section, and Leon Russell and Billy Preston pitching in on piano. (Other sources suggest there were more musicians involved in the recordings. Oh but for someone to have wandered in to United with a Super 8mm film camera!) We lack specific details as to who played what on which cuts, but trust your ears; as arranged by Campbell and produced by Dick Glasser (The Ventures, Freddie Cannon, et al), these tracks really swing, and land plenty of punches, especially in the mono mix.

"Money," recently owned by the Beatles, the Sonics, and Jerry Lee Lewis, catches fire. The famous riff's decorously invited in by some acoustic strumming, and then pushes everything aside, the musicians hanging on for the ride. Yet, naturally, the song belongs to the brothers, ownership they assumed over many of their cover versions, especially in the way they sing the title phrase—they goof on it, wink with it, and smile through it, country twangin' all over the joint, and never lose sight of its claim on them. When the brothers get excited their close harmonies open outward, vibrantly, and they really belt it here, especially the backing vocals. I don't always feel the urge to crank the Everly Brothers, but I reach for the the volume knob here. I bet Lennon dug it, if he deigned to listen.


The startling "Man With Money" kicks off the second side of Beat & Soul. I'm fairly in awe of this song and performance, which adds dimension to the wailing "Money," contributing a darker, even more yearning voice. The lone Everlys' original on the album, "Man With Money" is obsessed and desperate, sung with urgency and played with the kind of defiance that hopes to bully away all of the song's problems. To wit: the singer needs cash because his girl thinks "money makes a man," and yet he's "a poor boy." The way the Everlys sing that phrase, forlornly, resignedly, in a descending melody, exposes the emotional truth of the song. ("A Poor Boy" is the unofficial song title, to my ears.) The forthright, four-four beat mirrors the singer's determination to do something about it, and that something arrives in the astonishing middle:

Just down the street, I know a place
When they're asleep, I'll cover my face 
I'll break the lock, open the door
I'll slip inside, I'll rob the store
Don't be fooled by the simplicity of the imagined plot; this is feverish stuff for the singer, who needs to hide behind a mask not only for anonymity but because he'd have to be a wholly different person to steal. The mounting, Spectorish drama in this passage—set up with a compulsive, 3 AM repetition of "man with money" muttered by the singer to the ceiling—could've easily veered into melodrama, but the Everlys sing the despair so fervently that the fears, regrets, and faux courage feel all too real. (Springsteen was listening, that's for sure. And for that matter so was Pete Townshend: the Who cut a version of "Man With Money" during the A Quick One sessions in 1966 but it collected dust until the 1990s.) The full band comes crashing in after the dream sequence, tasked with puffing up the singer's fragile bravado, and the performance really starts to accelerate. Yet it's hopeless: we never get to the robbery scene, the song fades (appropriately, as there's no resolution for this poor kid, not until he grows up a bit), and the title, sung over and over, is the inner voice of loserdom he can't yet shake.

"Man With Money" is an extraordinary pop song—powerfully sung, with steep dynamics and a forceful group performance, the guitars and rhythm bed rocking hard (in his Leon Russel biography Superstar in a Masquerade, William Sargent reports that Russell plays the track's mixed-low piano). I find the rock and roll attack of the pretty melody so moving, the yin and yang of fantasy-desire and all-too-real reality. As for the points of view: different angles expose different truths. Is she a shallow "gold digger," that tired trope? Or is she smart, unwilling to waste time on a guy who can't support himself? She isn't given a verse.


"When Phil and I hit that one spot where I call it 'The Everly Brothers,' I don't know where it is," Don Everly once remarked.
'Cause it's not me and it's not him. It's the two of us together. I sing the lead, and so I can drift off. Then we'll come back in together and the whole thing happens again. It amazes me sometimes.
In the middle passage the first two lines are sung solo, the last two as a duo. The Everly Brothers have the sublime knack for inhabiting the concerns of lone individuals and bringing them to life with two voices, thickening the emotional grist of the songs in a kind of magic trick—and often tightening my throat in the process: their songs routinely move me to tears. There are the great hits that everyone knows, and there's "Man With Money," one their greatest album cuts, a deeply moving, bracing tune about sorrow and hopelessness sung with optimistic gusto. Thanks—yet again—Phil and Don.

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