October 2011

Jackie DeShannon, back in the day: a unique songwriter with a common touch people can relate to, a voice everyday folks recognize as speaking to their feelings, fears and joys.

When She Walked In The Room Anew

In the intimacy and honesty of a semi-unplugged outing, Jackie DeShannon embarks on a journey of rediscovery

By David McGee

Jackie DeShannon
Rockbeat Records

If fans of a certain generation speak the name Jackie DeShannon in hushed tones, then give credit to Jackie DeShannon for earning such respect on multiple fronts, as a singer, songwriter and performer who began writing hits in the ‘60s and was still writing them in the ‘80s. Although her first big success as a solo artist came by way of her heartfelt rendering of Bacharach-David’s mellow message song “What The World Needs Now” in 1965, the former Sharon Lee Myers had been recording as Jackie DeShannon since 1960, with middling success Stateside—1963 had been the closest she had come to a breakthrough year when her version of the Jack Nitzsche-Sonny Bono rocker “Needles and Pins” and her own exuberant “When You Walk In the Room” made it into the lower reaches of the singles charts. (She had greater success in Canada, where the former song went to #1, the latter peaking in the Top 40.) Come the British Invasion and its aftermath, though, she found a groove: after opening for The Beatles on their first U.S. tour in 1964, she turned the aforementioned “What the World Needs Now” into an early generational anthem in 1965, two years ahead of the Summer of Love. While out on the road with the Beatles, she found that The Searchers’ intense, driving treatment of “When You Walk In The Room” was a Top 40 U.S. hit, as was a song she had written for the young, quavering voiced British thrush Marianne Faithful, “Come and Stay With Me,” a Top 30 U.S. single. In her “What The World Needs Now” year, the Byrds included on their debut album a rendition of DeShannon’s Dylan-esque ode to self-affirmation, “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe,” that was equal parts jingle-jangle guitar and Bo Diddley beat. She found herself performing with Ry Cooder in L.A., and collaborating with a promising young songwriter who had a Hollywood pedigree, Randy Newman.  In 1969, a year after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations and a year into Richard M. Nixon’s poisonous reign, she returned with a million selling, Grammy-nominated, self-penned (actually co-written, with her brother Randy Myers and Jimmy Holiday) message song for a world on fire, counseling “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” in a plaintive but reasoned voice, which, though running counter to the tumult of the times, touched a responsive chord in the populace. No protest singer she, or even a topical singer, but Jackie DeShannon, by accident or by design, stood for something as an idealist who had come a long way from the blonde, disco-booted, good-time rock ‘n’ roll girl of the early ‘60s. Then in 1981, Kim Carnes, a bluesier version of Jackie DeShannon vocally, recorded a song DeShannon had written in 1974 with her friend Donna Weiss, and it wound up as #12 on Billboard’s top 100 songs of the first 50 years of the Hot 100 chart and #2 on the biggest chart hits of the ‘80s. “Bette Davis Eyes” had an irresistible hook courtesy a synth riff fashioned by Bill Cuomo on the sexiest newest instrument on the block, the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer, to bolster a mesmerizing performance by Carnes about protagonist whose sexual allure shrouds the seemingly darker purpose of her ultimate designs.

Jackie DeShannon’s original ‘Breakaway’ recording, a girl group-styled barnburner that Irma Thomas followed to a T in her own frenetic treatment and Tracey Ullman speeded up to a breathless pace on her 1983 version.

When You Walk In The Room is a new album by Jackie DeShannon. It reminds us, if we needed reminding, of the special treasure she is. Not as prolific as Carole King, no Tapestry-like success on her album discography, no Brill Building background, but a unique songwriter with a common touch people can relate to, a voice everyday folks recognize as speaking to their feelings, fears and joys. She does that here by stripping away all the big arrangements she’s used to working with and using only her voice, mostly acoustic guitar with but a meager dollop of electric (it’s needed on “Bette Davis Eyes”), a bass and strings so discrete as to be easily overlooked. As she did on 2008’s Her Own Kind of Light, she revisits the songs she wrote (or didn’t write but recorded, such as “Needles and Pins” and “What the World Needs Now”) and made famous or were made famous by other artists. But Her Own Kind of Light was a band album with a big sound--“Breakaway” follows the template of her bustling original; “When You Walk In the Room” is driven by jangly guitars, strings and claves; “Put a Little Love In Your Heart” is a virtual replication, with strings, horns and a throbbing rhythm, of her original recording of same; only “Bette Davis Eyes” breaks the mold and truly surprises, by being transformed into a swaying country song.

Jackie DeShannon, 1964, performing her British Invasion classic ‘When You Walk In The Room’ on Shindig

When You Walk In the Room is reflective, authoritative, compelling, and never less than fascinating. There will always be die-hards who don’t care to hear the rock ‘n’ roll songs of their youth modified and reshaped into moody, subdued, sometimes elegiacal ruminations. Yours truly says this as one who cannot stand Neil Sedaka’s ballad version of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” even regards it as a betrayal of the audience’s affection for the original uptempo version, which of course always harbored the sadness that later dominated Sedaka’s revisionist revisiting. But Ms. DeShannon does not take the Sedaka tack here. The tender, ringing guitar riff that opens her new “When You Walk In the Room,” the album’s first song, sets the tone for the next 11 songs by sounding like the first rays of sunshine on God’s finest day. The silky strings sliding in underneath both the guitar and under DeShannon’s vocal enhance the beauty of the moment, and she brings it home with her soft, cheery vocal, abundant in hope for and anticipation of her paramour’s impending arrival. Put a little love in your heart, indeed. Accompanied only by a sturdily strummed acoustic guitar, DeShannon counsels “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe” with a depth of conviction and also palpable empathy for what it takes to gain control of your life as to make it a more effective statement of self-worth than the Byrds did in cloaking it in McGuinn’s ringing Rickenbacker 360 12-string and the band's close-knit folk harmonies. (FYI: The Byrds backed DeShannon on one of her finest ‘60s recordings, “Splendor In the Grass,” not included here.) Supported by fingerpicked acoustic and understated percussion, she turns the once frantic “Breakaway” into something approaching a country heartbreaker about a woman trapped in an obsessive love (you’d love to hear Deana Carter doing “Breakaway” exactly as it is arranged here). “What The World Needs Now Is Love” still has a graceful, affecting DeShannon vocal to recommend it, but the easygoing acoustic guitar accompniment tantalizes with a hint of Latin rhythm. “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” sounds like a hymn in a guitar-vocal treatment; a lesser-known DeShannon gem, “Bad Water,” a minor R&B hit single in 1973 in a horn-fueled, gospel-rooted rendition by the Raeletts, with Brother Ray Charles on piano and backing vocals and Mable John on lead vocal (its single release followed the 1972 release of the only Raeletts album, Ray Charles Presents the Raeletts, on Ray’s Tangerine label), here becomes a searing blues lament when filtered through a lowdown guitar and vocal attack; whereas Marianne Faithful sounds vulnerable and even desperate on her memorable rendition of “Come And Stay With Me,” the mature DeShannon lets an electric guitar sing in winsome tones while her own vocal exudes strength, a resolve to stand her ground even as she opens her heart, indeed her life, to another.

The Raeletts perform Jackie DeShannon’s ‘Bad Water,’ with Ray Charles on piano and backing vocals, from the 1972 album Ray Charles Presents the Raeletts

Jackie DeShannon, Bacharach-David’s ‘What the World Needs Now,’ 1965, Shindig

When You Walk In The Room has the intimacy and honesty of a house concert, for anyone who’s ever wondered what it would be like to have an artist of Jackie DeShannon’s caliber perform in the living room. More important, for those who have loved DeShannon’s songs, whether recorded by her or by others, this semi-unplugged album reveals what time has taught the artist about the words she’s been singing all these years. If listeners find some of these familiar tunes suddenly imbued with the force of revelation, imagine the life DeShannon has drawn on in her journey of rediscovery. It’s a humbling thing. Be glad you can share it.

Jackie DeShannon, ‘Put A Little Love In Your Heart,’ 1969, a #2 single, a message song for a world on fire

Jackie DeShannon’s What The World Needs Now is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024