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What Makes an American Songbook? The Story of “Everything Must Change”


By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Tuesday, February 1, 2022.

 

“Rain comes from the clouds

Sun lights up the sky

And hummingbirds do fly.” – Benard Ighner

 

The “American Songbook” is best described as a canon of songs, largely written by White, male ethnic lyricists, and songwriters in the early-to-mid-20th Century, who literally labored on a street in New York City nicknamed “Tin Pan Alley”.  Names like Cole Porter (“I’ve Got You Under My Skin”), Johnny Mercer (“Moon River”), Sammy Cahn (“All the Way”), and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (“My Favorite Things”) immediately come to mind, with their songs covered by a who’s who of vocalists and musicians. To be sure there are and have been critical revisions to be made; just in the past year Daphne Brooks, with her exhaustive study Liner Notes for the Revolution The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound, and Danyel Smith’s podcast Black Girls Songbook, have offered necessary correctives. 

 

If one measure of inclusion in a reimagined American Songbook – and, yes to troubling that very term – is the number of recorded renditions of a song, there are any number of songs that should be under consideration from the late 1960s and beyond. This era is notable as a time when Black artists were radically transforming the sound and themes of American pop music.  Thus, for example, when we think of a singular post-Civil Rights era composition – as just one arbitrary marker – like Michael Jackson’s Rod Temperton penned “Rock with You”, there have been more covers than one might imagine, but few of any consequence (and yeah, this is my subjective view here). Yet from that same Off the Wall album, it is “She’s Out of My Life”, written by the relatively obscure Tom Bahler, and originally intended for Frank Sinatra, whose career is largely premised on his interpretation of the American Songbook, that rated the most significant covers. Notable from the decade after Jackson’s release were interpretations by popular Jazz organist Jimmy Smith (with Grady Tate on vocals), Country singers Johnny Duncan and Janie Fricke, who retitled the song “He’s Out of my Life”, as well as Country music legend Willie Nelson. In the late 1990s, a version appeared on Ginuwine’s 100% Ginuwine.  “She’s Out of My Life” is instructive; these are songs for which interpretations are from artists and genres far afield from each other, and while popularity might be one criterion, the songs themselves – their lyrics and easy to remember melodies – must possess a certain timelessness.

 

Not enough folk know the name of Benard Ighner (1945-2017), the singer/songwriter, whose late 20th century standard “Everything Must Change” seems a metaphoric challenge to the very idea of an American Songbook.  The song first appeared on Quincy Jones’ album Body Heat (1974), an album that was ground-zero for Jones’ melding of Jazz arrangements with 1970s Soul and Funk, the endgame of which was a trio of classics, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall (1979), George Benson’s Give Me the Night (1980) and his own The Dude (1981). Part of Jones’ brilliance in the 1970s was his ability to attract and cultivate just-under-radar talents into his orbit (arguably the case with Jackson in 1978). Some of Jones' albums from that period, Body Heat, Mellow Madness (1975), and Sounds...and Stuff Like That! (1978) – the title track the first of Jones’ songs to top the R&B charts – featured a collective of artists who would largely define mainstream Black music in the late 1970s and 1980s: Leon Ware, Minnie Riperton, Valerie Simpson, Al Jarreau, Louis and George Johnson, Chaka Khan, Patti Austin, Nick Ashford, Gwen Guthrie, and Luther Vandross; Ighner was one of those talents.

 

Ighner was a staff writer at A&M Records in 1972, when a demo of “Everything Must Change” was passed to Jones, who had begun recording with the label in 1969, after a long stint with Mercury Records. Jones not only recorded “Everything Must Change”, but he also allowed Ighner to sing it on the album, including a minute long reprise that closes the first side, built on the song’s most memorable lyrics “Rain comes from the clouds / Sun lights up the sky / And hummingbirds do fly.”  Throughout the song, those lyrics – “rain comes from the clouds…” – are  preceded by an “except”, a gesture, perhaps, to a Barakian notion “the changing same.” Jones’ arrangement doubles-down on “the changing same”  when the “except” is left floating in the air at the song’s bridge, where the song’s dirge-like character changes, albeit briefly, into a whimsical improvisational strut – Black Joy, if you will – that transforms the song into one of transcendence. 

 

Within a year, Ighner, barely thirty-years of age, produced and arranged Marlena Shaw’s classic Who is This Bitch, Anyway (1975) for Blue Note, contributed two songs to Carmen McRae’s equally classic I Am Music (1975), and his song “Motherland” – “who would you be…would you walk free, in the Motherland?” – was featured on Jon Lucien’s Song for My Lady. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s Ighner provided backing vocals for a range of artists including Willie Bobo, pianist Rodney Franklin, and Smokey Robinson. He released his own album, Little Dreamer (1979), which closes with a rendition of “Everything Must Change”, but he never quite achieved the success or visibility that many others who were featured on Body Heat did. 

 

When noted Jazz critic Leonard Feather encountered Ighner performing live in the early 1980s, he acknowledged in his Los Angeles Times review, where he largely panned Ighner’s performance, that “his reputation as a songwriter is predicated on an intelligent wedding of words and music with lyrical themes and melodies that conjure up a romantic atmosphere.”  In the case of “Everything Must Change”, there were many who agreed with Feather’s assessment. In the years after Body Heat, there have been hundreds of interpretations of  “Everything Must Change”.

 

In an interview with the Austin American Statesman in the late 1980s, Ighner admitted "I'm not a jazz artist. My roots are there, but my art is a hybrid type. I'm just in love with music in all its forms.”  Indeed, the variety of artists that have covered “Everything Must Change” run the gamut of musical genres:  Billy Paul, Judy Collins, Milt Jackson, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughn, Randy Crawford, Lester Bowie, Oleta Adams, Mista (of "Blackberry Molasses" fame) and Bebe Winans, in rather perfunctory version from Quincy Jones’ Soul Bossa Nostra (2010), among them.  But even more than the number and range of vocalists and musicians who covered the song, was the sheer brilliance of some of its interpretations; Ighner gave them something extraordinary to work with and many returned the favor with equally extraordinary performances. 

The song, of course, initially caught the attention of those artists that were straddling the Soul and Jazz fence. Some of the early covers are from the likes of Walter Jackson (my personal introduction to the song) and Randy Crawford, though one of the real standout versions is one from Billy Paul that appears on his 1975 album Got My Head on Straight.  Paul’s unique take on the song, where he makes ample use of his jazz phrasing is enhanced by background vocal arrangements, featuring the trio of Carla Benson, Evette Benton and Barbara Ingram, which seem to mimic the line “hummingbirds do fly”.  One absolutely outside the box early take on “Everything Must Change” was a version by The Soul Messengers, a group of Detroit and Chicago-bred Black expatriates who settled in Israel; their performance features some of Ighner’s lyrics in Hebrew.  

 

Nearly a  generation later, vocalists Jean Carne (in a decidedly moody, synthesized Quiet Storm version) and Oleta Adams, whose cover on her debut album Circle of One (1991) replicates Ighner’s original arrangement, update the song for more contemporary R&B audiences.  That folk are likely more familiar with Adams’ cover Brenda Russell’s soulless “Get Here” from the same album – a Billboard Top-5 in a nation yearning for military personnel sent to Kuwait for the Gulf War – is a bit of a travesty.  In recent years, Phil Perry (whose archive from his days with The Montclairs is a gold mine of 1970s Soul harmonies) with his otherworldly-pitched voice, gives the song the feel of a throwback torch-song on his 2007 album of contemporary covers like Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” and Skylark’s “Wildflower”.

 

With his status as one of the most popular Jazz musicians of the last half-century, more might have been expected from George Benson’s take on “Everything Must Change”, but he mostly plays it safe – not quite muzak, but… – on an overproduced version from In Flight (1977), the last album he recorded before doubling-down on the fact that he wanted to be more R&B vocalist than Jazz guitarist (the breakout success of “On Broadway” in 1978, pretty much cemented that decision). As Jazz performances go, the great Lester Bowie, co-founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, is not one who might have been expected to cover fellow trumpeter Quincy Jones, but deeply embedded in his double-album masterwork All the Magic! (1982), “Everything Must Change” appears as part of the “Trans Traditional Suite.” David Peaston’s performance on the Bowie rendition, might be one of the best vocal performances of any version of the song. Befitting his under-appreciated status as one of the great male Jazz vocalists of the post-1950s, Arthur Prysock turns in a late career stunner on one of his last studio recordings, This Guy’s in Love with You (1987). The show is stolen, though, by vocalist Betty Joplin, who accompanies Prysock on the song. 

 

Though “Everything Must Change” will forever be associated with Ighner’s distinctly stoic approach to the song, it is really the Jazz divas who have had their way with it.  For Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughn, the song became part of their live repertoire soon after Ighner’s recording with versions appearing on Vaughn’s Live At Laren Jazz Festival 1975 (not released until 2016) and Lee’s Live in London (1977).  It is a testament to how “new” the song is to this generation that Vaughn forgets the lyrics at the beginning of the second verse (“I forgot the words right there”). Morgana King, most well-known to non-Jazz fans as Don Corleone’s wife Carmela in The Godfather films, is a revelation in the archive with her understated whisper of a performance from her 1979 album, where the song served as title track.

 

More than two decades later, Shirley Horn, who was a generational peer of the aforementioned vocalists, was in the midst of a career resurgence, when she recorded “Everything Must Change” on her last studio album May the Music Never End (2003). Often accompanying herself on piano, Horn’s style throughout her career could best be described as laconic, yet, her performance of the song, recorded two years before her death and as her health was declining, feels like a defiant last stand – against time and, perhaps, death.  In comparison, Nina Simone’s 1978 version of the song from her iconic Baltimore album, revels in the grandeur of the song, producing an anthem-like quality that is largely missing in many interpretations of the song, which bespeaks Simone’s unmatched ability to interpret songs in such a way. If there’s a sweet-spot between those performances, it’s Carmen McRae’s version from I’m Coming Home Again (1980), from an album that features a who’s who of wind and brass musicians including Freddie Hubbard, Hank Crawford, Hubert Laws and Grover Washington, Jr. McRae’s “Everything Must Change” was recorded during what might also be a sweet spot in her career with a run of albums like the aforementioned I Am Music (1975), 1976’s Can’t Hide Love (titled after the Earth, Wind, and Fire classic), and At the Great American Music Hall (1977). With string arrangements from Mario E. Sprouse, the bridge on McRae’s version starts in a dreamlike state, before unraveling into a Latin-Jazz breakdown; it is by far, one of the most artful approaches to Ighner’s composition.

 

A quick search of the archive will unearth numerous other live performances of “Everything Must Change”: Chaka Khan and Simply Red joining Quincy Jones in Montreux in 1996 or Gregory Porter and Ledisi tributing Jones in a BET performance celebrating the bandleader and producer’s 85th birthday. As so many of the great bandleaders often overshadow the soloists in their bands and even more so, the songwriters and composers whose songs they feature – unless your name is Billy Strayhorn – such was the case with Ighner.  When the singer-songwriter passed in August of 2017, there were few published tributes, save an obituary by veteran music journalist A. Scott Galloway, who wrote, “Ighner left indelible impressions on connoisseurs of fine, classic soul-felt jazz.”  

 

Though the name recognition of the composer goes a long way in how we remember songs that comprise the so-called American Songbook, ultimately it is the power of the songs themselves – the melodies, lyrics, and rhythms – that help generations after generations better understand and transcend their contemporary circumstance.  In that regard, everything might change, but the impact of the music stays the same. 

*** 

Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University, and the author of several books including Black Ephemera: The Crisis and Challenge of the Musical Archive (NYU Press, 2022)


What Makes an American Songbook?

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