Well, that was pleasant; all of Bacharach's own recordings are pleasant. But, if your stomach is queasy, you might want to skip the next rendition, which was the song's first actual release, in 1963. It was performed by the "hot" young star of the popular television series, Dr. Kildare. Yes, sad to relate, the song was first recorded by none other than Richard Chamberlain, who abandoned his singing career shortly thereafter:
No, a thousand times no! Chamberlain preserved all of the song's schmaltz, without incorporating any of its simple pleasantries, such as they were. Apparently, Bacharach and David realized their hideous mistake in giving the song to this grinning jackanapes, and, in 1964, turned it over to their signature performer, Dionne Warwick. Perhaps they had lost all confidence in the tune, however, because it was released as the "B" side of her lovely "Here I Am." In any case, Warwick's rendition was infinitely superior, and much closer to Bacharach's original vison:
Much better. It's hard to go wrong with Bacharach's arrangement and Dionne Warwick's vocal interpretation. The song was associated with Warwick, and not Chamberlain, for several years, although it was immediately covered by everyone from Patti Page to Frank Sinatra. But everyone knows what happened next: it was covered in 1970 by The Carpenters, and became a worldwide smash. Although not the original and certainly not the best, this is undoubtedly the definitive version of the song. It's also the version that turned me off, and made me despise the song for many years. (Although Karen Carpenter was a wonderful singer, she and her brother completely jettisoned Bacharach's arrangement in favor of their own: an artist's prerogative, certainly, but I didn't appreciate it.) I heard it so often that, like the ancient Israelites and the quail (Numbers 11:20), it came out of my nostrils, and was loathsome unto me:
Since then, it's been sheer anarchy. The song has been covered by Barbra Streisand, the Muppets, Jerry Butler, the Cranberries, the Smashing Pumpkins ... but why go on? Michael Feinstein sang it at the White House. Oddly, with the exception of Erroll Gardner, jazz musicians have largely ignored it. But there is one version that I cherish, which will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog. I humbly but strongly suggest that you listen to all nine minutes of it. Like The Carpenters, Isaac Hayes created his own arrangement, but he has a special dispensation in these matters, because he was a genius at arrangement and orchestration, and he always respected the original material. With one caveat: he changed the lyric in one place, but he had his reasons. Listen to his version of the verse beginning "On the day that you were born...." Isaac Hayes was, at the time, the undisputed leader of the "funk" genre, and was considered the blackest of the black; indeed, this song appeared on his landmark album "Black Moses." He was not interested in singing about girls with "eyes of blue." (Van Morrison took exactly the opposite tack in his song "Brown-Eyed Girl," but that wasn't a cover.) In any case, Hayes' version is very fine, if one appreciates Hayes at all: as President Eisenhower once said of a certain book, "People who are interested in this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they're interested in." Whoever created the video had a fixation with Canadian geese, but we all have our crotchets:
The song endures, not only as a song, but almost as a cultural artifact. It has been featured repeatedly as "Marge and Homer's song" on The Simpsons, and has appeared in some very unexpected places. Consider this rather creepy scene from the 2005 film MirrorMask, a Wizard of Oz type fantasy about a young girl going to a magical land:
Yikes. A little of that goes a long way; I'm glad I never saw the movie. But, in order to wash the weirdness away, and to try and reclaim some affection for the song, we can do no better than to offer this live version by the enchanting Trijntje Oosterhuis. Her rendition is so good, and so apparently heartfelt, that it comes very close to redeeming the song for me. I hope you enjoy it!