What Now? Sad Songs, Standards and Sweet Sixteens

Sam Cooke's lament -- "Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody" -- summed up my social situation after, for reasons known only to my unconscious. I'd blown the Sweet 16 by ignoring my friendly good-looking date in favor of a sarcastic snob at the next table.
09/24/2014 11:15 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

(This is the seventh in a series of excerpts from the forthcoming book, Field Notes from a Music Biz Life.)

It was good to be 16. (It was the best of times...)

It was the first week of January 1966, the beginning of the second semester of my junior year at Great Neck South High School. Our varsity basketball team was well on its way to winning the Nassau County Championship. And though it had hurt to get cut from the Rebels (this was the north shore of Long Island, but we were Great Neck South), watching the games, especially the David-vs.-Goliath, come-from-behind wins, was thrilling.

I'd been invited by a pretty girl to a fancy Sweet 16 party at Leonard's, the garish monstrosity on Northern Boulevard which, 48 years later, elicited this Yelp rating: "The room we were in was overly pink, but I guess it was befitting for a Sweet 16."

Best of all, the music that filled the air was, my friends and I agreed, unreeel. It wasn't just the Beatles, the Stones, and Bob Dylan who were churning out what we called crucial records. The Who, the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons, the Kinks, the Byrds, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, the Supremes, the Temptations and dozens of other artists served up platter after platter of transcendent pop/rock/soul that got better with each listening.

And there was still room near the top for standards like Carl's "Ebb Tide," which hit the No. 5, courtesy of Phil Spector and the Righteous Brothers.

But I was 16. As January wore on, life began to suck so bad it was ummbuhleevable. (It was the worst of times...)

I suffered from a wicked Basketball Jones after a sprained ankle sidelined me from the addictive daily pick-up games at Wyngate Park.

Sam Cooke's lament -- "Another Saturday night and I ain't got nobody" -- summed up my social situation after, for reasons known only to my unconscious. I'd blown the Sweet 16 by ignoring my friendly good-looking date in favor of a sarcastic snob at the next table. When I summoned the courage to tell a cute cheerleader I liked her, she delivered a time-honored one-two punch of high school heartbreak: 1. "Mike, I think you're terrific." 2. "But I only like you as a friend."

The country was still reeling from the JFK assassination, simmering civil rights tensions erupted with the murder of Malcolm X, the Watts riots and violence in other cities, and kids my age were getting arrested for possession of a single marijuana joint. LBJ's invasion of the Dominican Republic was bad enough; his dramatic escalation of the Viet Nam War spurred huge anti-war demonstrations, draft card burnings and accusations of treason from an older generation that, from our point of view, didn't get it.

At home, Carl was convinced that the burgeoning rock'n'roll counterculture would make sure that "Ebb Tide" was his last hit. He was wrong.

Call it synchronicity, coincidence or convenient 20/20 hindsight, but my emotional swings often seemed to eerily parallel the content of Carl's chartmakers, In this case, during the last week in January -- the very week "Ebb Tide," his most romantic creation, began to roll back out to the murky depths -- "What Now My Love," his most despairing lyric, waded into the charted waters of the Hot 100, courtesy of Sonny & Cher.

By the time the nation's hottest hippy husband and wife act released their jingle-jangle version of "What Now My Love," the song had an illustrious history. In 1961, Gilbert Becaud, a French singer/composer/actor whose energy and passion earned him the moniker "Monsieur 100,000 Volts," asked Carl to write an English lyric to a powerful French number called "Et Maintenant" (French lyric by Pierre Delanoe) that Becaud himself had recorded and taken to No 1 in France.

Compared to the torture Carl had endured in writing the blissed-out "Ebb Tide," creating the suicidal howl of "What Now My Love" was a walk in MacArthur Park. It had been impossible to fit the already existing title "Ebb Tide" into Robert Maxwell's tune, but for Carl, "what now my love" presented itself almost immediately as the perfect wedding of words to the first four-note phrase in Becaud's composition.

Each tune builds to a dramatic climax, but while "Ebb Tide" explodes into orgasmic ecstasy followed by utter peace, "What Now My Love" leaps off a cliff into nothing less than nothingness.

What Now My Love

What now my love, now that you've left me
How can I live through another day
Watching my dreams turn to ashes
And my hopes turn to bits of clay

Once I could see, once I could feel
Now I am numb, I've become unreal
I walk the night, without a goal
Stripped of my heart, my soul

What now my love, now that it's over
I feel the world closing in on me
Here come the stars, tumbling around me
There's the sky, where the sea should be

What now my love, now that you're gone
I'd be a fool to go on and on
No one would care, no one would cry
If I should live or die

What now my love, now there is nothing
Only my last good-bye

Shortly after "What Now My Love" was published in 1962, the brilliant arranger Nelson Riddle (Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole et al.) was in England scoring the film Lolita when he found the time to work with a 25 year-old singer named Shirley Bassey whose extraordinary pipes were matched by a larger than life stage presence. The resulting album, Let's Face The Music, featured an operatic rendition of "What Now My Love" which was released as a single and rose to No. 5 in the UK. The song went on to become a centerpiece of Bassey's more than 50-year concert career.

Once Bassey showed the way, a flood of "What Now My Love" covers ensued. But it took Sonny & Cher, fresh off the massive success of their paean to hippy love, "I Got You, Babe" (an answer song to Bob Dylan's 1964 break-up masterpiece "It Ain't Me Babe"?) to give it singles cred. As their record approached the Top 20, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass declared "cover battle" with a syncopated, Latin-flavored instrumental version to follow up their No. 1 smash "A Taste of Honey." Both singles did well, and Herb's double Grammy-winning "What Now My Love" album also rose to No. 1, where it fended off all challengers for nine weeks.

Once a song becomes a standard, its inherent versatility takes it to places its creators never imagined. "What Now My Love" has been reimagined by so many artists in so many genres and styles it's hard to believe it was written as an expression of unmitigated agony.

Dame Shirley Bassey's 1962 version remains definitive for female vocalists, but that hasn't stopped Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Sarah Vaughn, Brenda Lee, Jane Morgan, Dionne Warwick, Petula Clark, Connie Francis, Nancy Wilson, Dakota Staton, Lana Cantrell and ABBA's Agnetha Faltzkog from weighing in with their own impressive interpretations.

Despair being neither merely female nor male, but a part of the human condition, male vocalists took to the song even more readily. A partial list seems like a catalogue of the era's best: Vic Damone, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bobby Darin, Robert Goulet, Steve Lawrence, Al Martino, Anthony Newley, Lou Rawls, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Engelbert Humperdinck, Bobby Darin (who sent up the song's portentousness by sticking his head in an oven while crooning it on his TV show), Paul Anka (who swung it on the popular TV rock show, "Hullaballoo") Lenny Welch (who'd also had a hit single with "Ebb Tide"), Jack Jones, Tom Jones.

The song was a natural for jazz reinvention. In addition to Herb Alpert, it's been recorded by Lou Donaldson, Stephane Grappelli, Ray Anthony, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and big band Joe "Fingers" Webster & His River City Jazzmen.

Willie Nelson and Don Gibson took "What Now My Love" into the country, while the Temptations, Martha & the Vandellas, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and Ben E. King found its soul.

Frank Sinatra's finger-snappin' solo version swings, and his duet with Aretha presents a swing/soul combo you won't find anywhere else.

The great Lee Dorsey took the tune way down yonder to New Orleans, and there were reggae iterations by Archie Lewis and Byron Lee & the Dragonaires.

If you needed additional evidence that the song was something of a Rorschach test, six decades of rockers took it on: Duane Eddy, Roy Orbison, Mitch Ryder, the Righteous Brothers, Long John Baldry, Wall of Voodoo, and NOFX, whose remodel gives us Herb Alpert by way of the Ramones.

Liberace and Jackie Gleason had their moments with "What Now My Love," as did a distraught Diva named Miss Piggy.

Given the song's origin, it is perhaps a surprise that Carl's English-language lyric has been recorded by French singers including Charles Boyer, Patricia Kass, and Amanda Lear on her new Elvis tribute album.

Speaking of The King, for years Elvis gave "What Now My Love" a full-on melodramatic workout in his live act; it was a highlight of his "Aloha from Hawaii" concert, broadcast to over a billion earthlings in 1973.

If you consider that "What Now My Love" has been a staple for four decades of Elvis impersonators, the number of its performances approaches infinity.

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Toward the end of junior year, it was again the best of times.

On Senior Prom night for the class one year ahead of us, a bunch of dateless friends and I snuck into the back of the gym and listened rapturously as the Chiffons sang about a Sweet Talkin' Guy and the Young Rascals held forth about the need for Good Lovin'. We may not have been sweet talkin' enough to get good lovin' at that moment, but being in the presence of music so sublime was just as good. Maybe better...