Sunday, 25 October 2009

Battle of the Song No.4 - A Legend In My Time

A Legend In My Time - As peformed by;
Don Gibson, Ricky Nelson, Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash

Don Gibson was one hell of a songwriter with a portfolio that included no less than Oh Lonesome Me, Blue Blue Day, Sea of Heartbreak and I Can’t Stop Loving You. I read once, I think in Now Dig This that he considered himself more of a songwriter who sang than a singer who wrote. And that’s probably fair, because although his voice was good, his songs were brilliant. I was surprised during my research to learn that the only version to reach the country charts was by Ronnie Milsap in 1975.

Country music is built on it’s lyrics, and the saying goes, the sadder the better. Throw in a big hunk of pity and you’re starting to get here. No song plays the pity card any better than A Legend In My Time. “If loneliness meant world acclaim / Everyone would know my name / I'd be a legend in my time”. The upshot though is that they don’t, “But they don't give awards / And there's no praise or fame / For a heart that's been broken / Over love that's in vain”.

When Gibson was interviewed about the song in Nashville on 7th September 1973 he said, “This song was written on the road to Knoxville, Tennessee, in a car with Mel Foree. I was reading an article in a magazine I had picked up about an entertainer. He was talking about show business and his career and how he would like to be a legend in his time. I told Mel that that would be a good title for a song, so I started humming.” The guy was a genius with the pen, but how does his version stack up against the others?

Don’s original is pure Nashville circa 1960. The sympathetic backing courtesy of the A Team had the right amounts of backing vocals, piano and guitar to allow Don’s voice to portray the pity in the message.

The Ricky Nelson version from his 1963 long player, “Sings For You” is a really good cover. The backing is very similar with James Burton adding a few extra embellishments. Ricky’s vocal performance is strong and belied his teeny bopper image.

Roy Orbison’s version was probably the first time I’d heard the song. My mate, the much missed Alan Galbraith, used to play it all the time. It was on the earth-shatteringly great Lonely & Blue album which included no lesser gems than Only The Lonely and Blue Angel. The Big O’s version of Legend is quite different to Gibson’s. The session from mid September 1960 was held at Nashville RCA studios, with his usual producer and engineer, Fred Foster and Bill Porter, using string arrangements to augment the same, without ever threatening to drown out the Bob Moore led country pickers. The haunting, atmospheric sax solo gives the words an extra dimension. On top of that, Roy plays with the lyrics for all they’re worth. A stunning masterpiece where the singer, the musicians and the material, bond in perfect harmony. He recorded the song again in 67 for the "Sings Don Gibson" album and that's great, but the first version is the best.

I love the Everly Brothers and think they are the tightest unit in rock history, but there’s something not quite there with their version of Legend. There’s just something missing that I can’t put my finger on. Their vocal performance actually reminds me of the style they were to employ in their 80’s comeback albums, EB84 and Born Yesterday.

Johnny Cash cut the song sometime between 2002 and 2003 just prior to his death. It was released late in 2004 as American V, and as with most of the American series it’s a dark, acoustic version. His worn, tired vocals gave most of the American recordings a hard edge that gave the mainly death and religious material an added effect. His take on Legend is no different and it was an inspired choice of song for that final period in his life.

The two that missed the boat with this song are my two main heroes. I would absolutely have loved to hear Jerry Lee do it at the London Sessions. When he did No Headstone On My Grave he had the upstart British musicians eating out of his hand and he knew it. His ego grew even more and he told them he didn’t want a headstone he wanted a damn monument. You can just imagine him doing this and shouting out that he’s already a legend in his time. Obviously the other guy who should have covered this was Elvis. In the early 60’s he’d have slayed it. Take a listen to Suspicion or Fame and Fortune and tell me that this wasn’t the perfect voice. With the Nashville band giving him the same backing as Don Gibson’s original, it would be phenomenal, and it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to know that this would be the perfect version.

I know there’s been loads of other versions, including Hank Snow but I have got a life and the five above will have to do. To be honest the handful I’ve looked at are the cream of the crop. As it is, the winner of today’s battle of the song is Roy Orbison. Beautifully sung, totally convincingly sung by the king of pain.

If heartaches brought fame in love's crazy game,
I'd be a legend in my time.
If they gave gold statuettes for tears and regrets,
I'd be a legend in my time.
But they don't give awards, and there's no praise or fame
For a broken heart that's been broken over love that's in vain.
If loneliness meant world acclaim,
Then everyone would know my name --
I'd be a legend in my time.

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