Lou Rawls and the Christmas Clams
I hate to do this.
Lou Rawls is one of my favorite R&B singers. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is one of the most harmonically delicious Christmas songs. So you’d think the Lou Rawls cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would make me happy. But it doesn’t — all because of one phrase.
I know this is a little stupid. Most of the cover is perfection. The band is tight, and Lou is on his game. I’m having myself a merry, as requested. But just over a minute in, on “faithful friends who are dear to us,” Lou lays down a series of clams so painful that I want to gently place my fingertips on the crowning head of baby Jesus and stuff him back in.
Let’s listen from the beginning, up to the spot that pees on my Yule log (75 sec):
The harmony in this song is rich and gorgeous, especially in the bridge:
It’s taking all of my restraint to not run naked and giggling through the Romans on this one. Those of you who would understand it can do the analysis your own fine selves. For the rest, here’s a slow jam on the harmony (32s):
A lot of the wonder in this passage is in the relationship of the melody to the harmony. There’s a chain of dissonances that still play by the rules of harmony. The bass note and melody note form one dissonant interval after another — sevenths and ninths and tritones. But in the context of the full harmony, every note of that tune is either part of the chord or what’s called a non-harmonic tone — a note that’s not in the chord of the moment, but follows one of a dozen established patterns that your ear can make sense of. This passage was not written overnight. Picture one of those guys who paints landscapes on the head of a pin.
If you’re a jazz singer, futzing around with the melody is part of the job description. But when the harmony is as complex as this, it’s a lot harder to thread that needle. Rawls starts the bridge like so:
I’ve straightened out the rhythm for comparison to the original, but notice the pitches. Instead of singing three Cs for “Here we are,” he sing Bb-C-Bb. Nice touch. He’s now off by one step for the rest of the phrase…
…and it works anyway! Jazz harmony is greatly expanded compared to classical harmony. Instead of three-note triads, you have 7th chords (with 4 notes), 9th chords (with 5 notes), and so on. More pitches are eligible to sound at any given moment. You can go off script and still win, and that’s what he did here. Every melody note nestles into its chord as either a chord tone or a legal non-harmonic. To translate that to jazz, Lou laid no clams in those four bars, only pearls.
Oh, but the next two bars.
Flush with that victory, Lou decides to sing the same basic phrase again. But the harmony under it has changed, a lot. The result is a clambake:
You don’t need to be a music theorist to hear it. Here they are together: listen to how the first phrase works, and the second phrase (“Faithful friends”) doesn’t (15 sec):
I know what you’re thinking. I’m a petty little man, and he’s Lou Rawls. But imagine that for years you’ve adored the genius that went into one tiny corner of a beautiful painting, a detail that no one else seems to notice or comment on. Then one day you see someone walk by and squirt their clam sandwich onto that exact spot. I don’t care if it was Michelangelo himself who bit the sandwich, you’re still gonna be pissed.
I love you Mr. Rawls, but dude, napkin.