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Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 2002 / 26 Elul, 5762

Bob Greene

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http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Sometimes what sounds like progress isn't.

A recent news story said that advances in technology are going to do wonderful things for the music of the Rolling Stones, a band that has been famous for -- this is really sobering -- almost 40 years.

Twenty-two old Rolling Stones albums are being reissued on something called Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD), and, according to the news report, "the way people experience the band's music may radically change."

This is because the sound quality of SACD is supposed to be extraordinary; on recordings of classical symphony music, SACD "delivers more of the power of an orchestra playing full out, as well as truer instrumental colors."

Although the Rolling Stones are not a symphony orchestra, their records allegedly are being improved because "Mick Jagger's vocals are clear and defined, each syllable distinguishable from the next."

Which is the problem here. Apparently the technical engineers are not familiar with the whole secret behind the success of the early Rolling Stones hits.

Jagger purposely slurred his vocals because....

This has to do with Fats Domino, so I will relate it to you exactly the way I related it to Domino in the early 1970s.

Domino -- singer of great '50s early rock hits such as "Blueberry Hill," "I'm Walkin'" and "Ain't That a Shame" -- and I were sitting in his hotel room before he was scheduled to go over to a nightclub and play. Fats said he did not enjoy going outside when he was on the road, and described his daily routine: "I watch TV and say some prayers and call room service."

Well ... who doesn't? We were shooting the breeze, and I asked Fats if he had ever heard the story about how Mick Jagger had learned to sing by listening to old Fats Domino records. Fats, not showing a whole lot of interest, said that he had not.

I told him anyway. I said that in the days when the Rolling Stones were first recording, people would complain that they couldn't always make out what the lyrics were. And Jagger would tell them that it was supposed to be that way -- that he had taught himself to slur the lyrics by listening to Fats Domino singles. Fats always buried his vocals under the instrumentals, Jagger would say, and that would give Fats Domino records a special sound. Jagger, as a young man, decided to emulate that sound.

(You would think that Fats would be flattered by that story. No. Without taking his eyes away from the television set, he considered what I had told him about Jagger and said: "He said that, did he? I don't know why that is. I try to make it so people understand me. I don't try to make it so people don't understand me. I want them to hear the words. Maybe the microphone is bad sometimes. Yeah, I'll bet that's what it is. I never heard that before." He then called another room in the hotel and said to one of his sidemen: "Hello, Royal? Yeah. It's me. Listen. Go over to the club early tonight. Yeah. About an hour early. Yeah. Make sure my microphone is working right. Yeah. You don't forget now.")

So perhaps Jagger's compliment was lost on Fats. But the fact is, much of the magic of rock music has been based on the simple fact that you're not supposed to easily hear the words. I once tracked down Richard Berry (no, not Chuck Berry), the rhythm-and-blues singer who wrote "Louie Louie" (on a sheet of toilet paper) in 1955, eight years before it became a hit by the Kingsmen. The allegedly dirty lyrics to "Louie Louie" are one of the enduring legends of rock and roll.

But Richard Berry told me that the lyrics to "Louie Louie" are not off-color at all -- it's just that people couldn't understand them. He said that he had met Jack Ely, lead singer for the Kingsmen, years later, and "I asked him why everyone thought it was a dirty song. He said that the Kingsmen had recorded it in this little 50-dollar studio. The microphone was way up in the ceiling. So Ely's vocals couldn't be heard very clearly. When people couldn't understand the vocals, the rumors started. And then it snowballed."

Anyway -- the new technology is making Mick Jagger's old vocals sound crisp and understandable. This is not progress, although somewhere Fats Domino probably thinks it is.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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