B-side of Down To Earth
b/w Down To Earth
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
Somehow managing to be even gloopier, even more steadfastly middle-of-the-road than the A-side, the meandering Down To Earth – but beyond all the soft-jazz-circa-1951 trappings, this has a catchier melody and vastly better (and more relatable) lyrics.
What’s more, it swings – oh, rather gently, of course, the kind of swing you might see from a hanging sign on a mildly windy day, but a swing nonetheless. It’s just easier to get a hold of than the A-side, so much so that when Tamla Motown came to issue Billy Eckstine’s début Motown 45 in the UK (the only Eckstine single so released), they swapped the sides around, making this the plug side instead. You can understand why; it’s still not a masterpiece or anything, and it’s still almost defiantly retro in its easy listening stylings (it’s virtually a pastiche of Eckstine’s work from a decade ago) – but it’s undeniably a better song. It sounds like a standard without ever sounding like a show tune, if that makes sense.
The tune is catchy, even whistleable, while once again Mr. B is in fine voice, deep and distinguished, perfectly at ease against the background of one of the fullest productions Motown have yet put forward (the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5 credit this to the installation of new 8-track recording equipment in the Hitsville studio, signalling the end of their low-budget Rube Goldberg phase of operations).
Perhaps Motown had now reached the stage where throwing money at something was an acceptable solution, or perhaps the musicians had reached a level of proficiency that the likes of Sammy Turner or Amos Milburn would have killed to have in their corner twelve months previously. Or perhaps it’s just because this is Mr. B, and this is what he does. Whatever it is, this sounds as though Columbia cut it in the late Forties, muted horns and swooning strings blended with butter-smooth call-and-response backing vocals. By the time we reach the end, with a series of big kick drums briefly cutting loose before scaling back to allow Billy his big finish, you can only really admire the craftsmanship.
Certainly Motown thought so, and it’s proven popular over the years; while Youtube doesn’t have the most famous rendition of this (Michelle Allar’s cover from Lady Sings The Blues), Diana Ross cut a long-shelved version in 1972, and there are some capable third-party jazz covers and piano versions out there too. But Eckstine’s original is close to being definitive.
I was expecting horrors, a Forties pastiche of nightmare proportions, an out-of-control vocalist decades past his prime descending into self-parody. Instead, Eckstine is on imperious form, and once more, this is nowhere near as horrific as it might have been, Mr. B bringing a level of class to proceedings which makes it all go down smooth. Truth be told, I’ve ended up becoming rather fond of it.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
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“Down To Earth”