The Unfettered Critic – March 2015

British singer/songwriter Sam Smith is either a very lucky guy…or not quite so.

Smith reached the top of the charts last year with his soulful composition, “Stay With Me.” Then, just a few weeks ago at the 2015 Grammy Awards, the tune was named both “Song of the Year” and “Record of the Year.” Not bad for a newcomer, eh?

But it wasn’t all beer and skittles (that’d be “wine and roses” in U.S. slang) for Sam. A few days before the Grammy presentation, his name popped into the news as the press reported a bit of a kerfuffle regarding his success. The heart-rending chorus of “Stay With Me” sounds a lot like the melody of Tom Petty’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down.” After Petty’s people approached Smith’s people about the similarities, everyone agreed that Petty (and Jeff Lynne, co-writer on “I Won’t Back Down”) deserved credit on Smith’s song (and a percentage of its royalties). The legal settlement was remarkably peaceful, with both sides agreeing that Smith didn’t “steal” the melody. Smith noted that he’d never heard the Petty record. He’d innocently picked the same melody out of the musical air.

Really? The exact same melody? How could such a thing happen?

In fact, it happens all the time.

When you get right down to the real nitty-gritty, writing a musical melody isn’t much different from writing a phone number. We don’t claim that a phone number can make someone cry, or fall in love, or march into battle the way a melody can. But, mathematically, the two entities have very similar beginnings.

Phone numbers are composed by arranging or rearranging a choice of ten individual digits (i.e., zero through nine). Vocal melodies are composed by arranging or rearranging a choice of about twenty-five or so notes, the extent of the average human’s vocal range. That’s roughly the middle third of a piano’s keyboard. Since the birth of pop, those same few notes have been arranged and rearranged until almost every combination is recognizable to some portion of the listening public. Songwriters can’t help but sometimes dial the wrong number.

So what’s a recording artist who doesn’t want to experience a Sam Smith moment to do? One answer is to be very careful (and perhaps employ a producer who possesses a long musical memory). But we’ve noticed an alternate trend that we like a lot. More and more artists are recording older, classic rock and pop songs. And they’re rearranging those classics so that they feel almost like new compositions. This practice pleases the original artist and composer, it pleases the audience that’s familiar with the original work, and it engages the current youthful audience hungry for new tunes. That’s good news all around, because recently we’ve heard some wonderful “new” old music flowing from our radio. For example:

The Tedeschi Trucks Band—which, happily, has performed locally at the Britt several times—does a rocking arrangement of the l969 hit “Everybody’s Talkin’” that reminds us of why we want to see them again. American vocalist T.V. Carpio has recorded a slow, beautiful version of the Beatles early (1964) rocker, “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Folk and jazz singer John Shannon has created a rendition of Paul Simon’s iconic (1989) “Graceland” that makes us want to dance. Jazz/pop vocalist (and Britt alumni) Jamie Cullum’s version of The Animals’ 1964 “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” feels so current that one wonders how it could have been born so long ago.

Musically, it almost seems as though everything old is new again. And that sounds perfect to us.

Featured image is Singer/songwriters Sam Smith (L) and Tom Petty: a musical arrangement.