When I first thought of starting “Allison’s Jukebox” as a recurring blog topic last fall, I had a lot of ideas about what songs to write up. One of those songs that was very high on the list is what I’ll highlight in this post, and the passing in November of the musician who wrote it and originally recorded it adds some poignancy to a song that already had a lot of pathos.
The song is “A Song for You,” and it was written and first recorded by Leon Russell for an album he released in early 1970. The song, for reasons I’ll get to below, is certainly one of Russell’s most recognizable pieces, one whose beauty will last well beyond the 74 years he lived on this earth.
And, oh, there’s a lot of beauty in this song. Both the lyrics and especially the music create pure plaintiveness as the artist talks of his life of fame and an occasional “bad rhyme.” But he’s away from the spotlight at this moment, and the singer is just one-on-one with his love.
You can surmise from the second verse that the relationship between the two has been a strained one. Perhaps the singer has adored the extended limelight at the expense of their true love, much to that true love’s chagrin. But the singer (in song, of course) is pleading for forgiveness and understanding, finally expressing appreciation to the love he’s neglected to show. It’s not easy for him to express it; perhaps it’s never been easy for him. But he’s asking his love, “Listen to the melody ’cause my love’s in there hiding.”
No, seriously, hit the play button below and listen to the melody.
Part of what makes “A Song for You” so powerful is its marriage of plaintive words and melancholy instrumentals. That downward lilting piano at the beginning immediately sets that tone, and the generally sparse instrumentals and occasional minor keys continues that tone for the song’s balance. Leon Russell established that sparseness in his original version, and many of the countless versions that have followed over the years have held firm to that approach (save for an occasional percussion-accented deviation such as this version by Amy Winehouse).
And, yes, there have been countless versions of “A Song for You.” Though I do not have hard evidence to confirm, I’ve read that about 100 versions of this song have been recorded in the nearly half-century since Leon Russell’s original. I’ll highlight another version below, one that actually first made me aware of the song’s existence…
One of the more unfortunate things about growing up when and where I did was the fact that there was a lot of great music I missed out on. Yeah, we had a radio and a record player, but my parents’ and siblings’ tastes gravitated toward what was popular at the time and not necessarily beautiful or acclaimed (my stepbrother and his wearing out of his AC/DC records [*insert eyeroll here*] was clear proof of that). Because of that, I never got the chance to listen and appreciate any version of “A Song for You” until the spring of 1993. That was when Ray Charles recorded and released his own version.
At that point in his life, Ray Charles already had a long, dignified, and truly appreciated career. He had played before a lot more than 10,000 people in his career, and for sure he had put out an occasional bad rhyme (not everyone’s career can be a perfect one, of course). Knowing all this adds a lot of extra poignancy to his interpretation of “A Song for You.” From his first utterance of the lyrics, right after the point where he seems to hesitate at the piano after that familiar lilting opening, you get the sense that Ray brings to the song a knowing world-weariness of being an artist who’s traveled the world but knows he must care for that someone he loves back home. And while the instrumentals are not as sparse as that on Leon Russell’s version, they do preserve the song’s long-standing tone of pensiveness (and, oh, that string section).
The YouTube description to the above video ponders whether Ray Charles’ version is the definitive rendition of the song, suggesting that it seems as if it had been written for Ray in mind. The description has a point for sure. Others may debate which of the many versions of the song is the best version. But for sure in my book, Ray’s version make me sit in rapt attention every time it graces my ears.
It’s for sure, too, that time and the broadening of my musical tastes have allowed me to appreciate the many other renditions of “A Song for You.” Leon Russell’s life is now over; Ray Charles and Amy Winehouse and Donny Hathaway have long since left us as well. But never fail to remember that they left behind such beautiful turns recording this song. It’s a haunting and moving work, and it will always be a true classic.