Back when they were cutting their teeth during hundreds of extended, pill-fuelled sets on stage in the joints of the Reeperbahn, the Beatles absorbed almost every conceivable pop music influence. Naming only a few, there was Elvis, of course, and early Motown, Goffin and King, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly – the name “Beatles” was an homage to Holly’s outfit, the Crickets – and the Everly Brothers. It’s been noted that the tight harmonies of their first number 1 hit, Please Please Me, owe more than a little to the Everlys, and particularly Cathy’s Clown, a massive hit for the brothers Stateside.
It was very much the repayment of an old debt, then, when McCartney gifted the boys this lovely song, lending them a hand in a minor comeback in the mid 1980s. Throughout his career, McCartney has never been averse to giving other artists the fruits of his “A” game; early on, he delivered sure-fire hit A World Without Love to Peter and Gordon (perhaps to ingratiate himself with girlfriend Jane Asher, Peter’s sister), and later he gave Badfinger a leg up with Come and Get It, and Mary Hopkin a hit with Goodbye, which featured one of his most sublime melodies.
He was obviously inspired when composing On the Wings of a Nightingale for the Everlys. From catchy start to elegant end, it’s a clinic in the art of pop songwriting, and it showcases another of McCartney’s rare gifts, his uncanny ability to write songs in the voice of other composers, not so much imitating as channeling, creating pieces that are entirely novel yet completely in the other writers’ styles (and fit, usually, to rank among those writers’ best work). I’ll Be On My Way (recorded only during the Beatles’ BBC sessions) is pure Buddy Holly; the much more recent New is Brian Wilson to a “T”, while Friends to Go is band-mate George, My Valentine is Richard Rodgers, and Let Me Roll It is none other than John, right down to the “bathroom voice” that Lennon favoured in his early 70s studio work. On the Wings of a Nightingale is Phil and Don all over, and just as With a Little Help From My Friends was composed specifically to suit Ringo’s vocal range, Nightingale was designed to exploit the Everlys’ particular talent for vocal harmonization. This is perhaps not so obvious in Paul’s demo version, attached above, but you can hear how Phil and Don made the most of the song’s construction in their more energetic version, below, which also reflects the influence of producer Dave Edmunds.
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