Hello there! This week we will discuss the song Handy Man. We will first look at the original 1957 song co-written and recorded by Jimmy Jones. Next we will review covers of this song by Del Shannon and by James Taylor.
Jimmy Jones and Handy Man:
Jimmy Jones was an American singer-songwriter. He was born in 1937 in Birmingham, Alabama, but his family moved to New York City where he grew up.
Below is a photo of Jimmy Jones circa 1960.Embed from Getty Images
Jones initially began his show-business career as a tap dancer. He then joined a group called the Sparks of Rhythm. In 1955, Jones wrote the song Handy Man for that group. They recorded it a year later, but by that time Jones had left that ensemble.
Jones then teamed up with Otis Blackwell. They performed a major re-write of Handy Man and recorded it in 1959, with Blackwell as the co-writer and producer of that song.
The gist of Jones’ song is that he is a “handy man,” not in the sense of a home repairman, but someone who has the knack to “fix broken hearts.”
Hey girls, gather round
Because of what I’m puttin’ down
Oh, baby, I’m your handy man
I’m not the kind to use a pencil or rule
I’m handy with the love and I’m no fool
I fix broken hearts, I know I really can
If your broken heart needs repair
I’m the man to see. I whisper sweet things
You tell all your friends, and they’ll come running to me
Here is Jimmy Jones in a ‘live’ performance of Handy Man.
We put ‘live’ in quotes, because Jimmy is appearing on the Dick Clark Saturday Night Beech-Nut Hour on Jan. 23, 1960. As per Clark’s standard practice, Jones is not actually singing the song, but simply lip-synching to the record.
We are on record that we deplore the practice of lip-synching. Rock music was made to be performed live, and we feel strongly that rock ‘n roll was degraded by promoters like Dick Clark, who allowed performers to simply mime their records.
It is also rather unsettling to see everyone in the audience chomping on chewing gum (they were all given packets of gum and pins with the Beech-Nut logo ‘IFIC,’ which I believe was short for ‘terrific’).
Anyway, Jimmy Jones’ claim to fame was his energetic, over-the-top use of falsetto. On Handy Man, the falsetto singing is most pronounced in the phrase “Come-a, come-a, come-a, come-a, come come-a” that he repeats during the chorus.
The practice of falsetto singing in rock music had a fascinating history. Jones apparently copied it from Clyde McPhatter, the first lead singer for The Drifters. And falsetto was also common in the doo-wop style, where it was often contrasted with solos from the bass singers.
Then, after Jimmy Jones scored a few pop hits with his style, Del Shannon (whom we will review later in this post) also employed for his first big hit, his signature tune Runaway.
Jones and Shannon then inspired Frankie Valli, who had a string of hits with the Four Seasons. And Lou Christie also copied this style. Finally, Barry Gibb was inspired by Del Shannon to sing in falsetto, and this allowed the Bee Gees to dominate the disco scene.
Note also the whistling throughout Jimmy Jones’ recording; this was provided by the song’s co-writer and producer Otis Blackwell. Apparently the plan was to have this melody provided by a flute; however, the flute player did not show up for the recording session, so Blackwell replaced the flute part with his whistling (Blackwell is quite a proficient whistler).
Handy Man reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960, and sold over a million records. Jones followed this up a few months later with Good Timin’. That disc made it to #3 on the U.S. charts, and also sold a million records.
However, those two hits would constitute the peak for Jimmy Jones. Subsequent records never achieved as much success, so Jones next concentrated on producing and also some touring. He moved around from one label to another in the 60s and 70s.
In 2002, Castle Records released a double album, Jimmy Jones: An Anthology. It included most of his single releases.
Jimmy Jones died in North Carolina in August 2012 at the age of 75.
Del Shannon and Handy Man:
Charles Weeden Westover was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1934. As a youth, he was a fan of country and western music.
In 1954 Westover was drafted into the Army. When he was discharged two years later, he returned to Battle Creek, Michigan and worked as a carpet salesman. In his spare time he played rhythm guitar in a country band.
In 1958, the lead singer for Westover’s band was fired for drunkenness, and Westover took over as band leader, temporarily taking the name Charlie Johnson.
Eventually, Westover and a couple of his band members recorded a few demo tapes and attempted to land a recording contract. At that time Westover adopted the stage name Del Shannon.
Below is a photo of Del Shannon circa 1970.Embed from Getty Images
Shannon and his keyboardist Max Crook eventually scored a deal with Bishop Records. While recording in New York City, they re-wrote an earlier tune called Little Runaway. The tune featured Crook playing his invention ‘the Musitron,’ which was an early version of a synthesizer.
The song eventually became Runaway. That song, released in Feb. 1961, became a blockbuster hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Crook’s Musitron played an important role in Runaway. Shannon followed that up with a second top-10 hit Hats Off To Larry.
After his first two big hits, Shannon bounced around from one record company to another, until his career had a positive bounce in the mid-60s. In 1964, Shannon released a cover of Jimmy Jones’ Handy Man that made it to #24 on the Billboard charts.
Here is Del Shannon in a live performance of Handy Man.
This concert took place later in Shannon’s career. I really enjoy his performance. Shannon is a good guitar player, and he produces an energetic rockabilly version of Jones’ hit tune.
The song features a gritty saxophone and an infectious beat. This tune was a natural for Del Shannon since he was famous for his use of falsetto. As we mentioned earlier, Shannon had copied this vocal style from Jimmy Jones.
By the mid-60s, Del Shannon’s solo career had slowed down considerably. He kept touring, and also kept his hand in the business with songwriting and producing. Shannon wrote I Go To Pieces, which became a big hit for the British Invasion duo Peter and Gordon in 1965, and in 1970 he also produced a million-selling record for singer Brian Hyland.
In the 70s, Shannon made a number of comeback attempts, but these were hindered by his struggles with alcoholism. Then after he sobered up in the late 80s, it looked like Shannon might catch one more big break.
Del Shannon had recorded with Jeff Lynne, and after Roy Orbison died in late 1988, it was announced that Shannon would be Orbison’s replacement in Lynne’s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.
Alas, in February 1990 Del Shannon committed suicide. Shannon was being treated for depression at the time, so his potential return to stardom never materialized. However, in 1991 Jeff Lynne produced one final album that was released after Shannon’s death.
In 1999, Del Shannon was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was a talented rock ‘n roller who had a couple of big hits in the early 60s, and we remember him fondly.
James Taylor and Handy Man:
We have previously discussed James Taylor for his covers of The Shirelles’ tune Will You Love Me Tomorrow (with Carole King), and his cover of the Marvin Gaye song How Sweet It Is. So here we will give a brief review of Taylor’s life and career.
James Taylor was born in 1948, the second of five children to Isaac Taylor, a physician who became the dean of the medical school at the University of North Carolina, and Gertrude Woodard Taylor, who was an aspiring opera singer before she married and settled down with Isaac.
The family moved to Chapel Hill, NC when James was three. Taylor has fond memories of his family’s home in the country outside Chapel Hill. In addition, the family spent summers in Martha’s Vineyard.
At age 15, Taylor met a young musician named Danny Kortchmar during a summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and the two began playing folk and blues at MV coffee houses.
In 1966, Taylor and Kortchmar recruited some of their friends to form a band called Flying Machine. They played coffee houses in Greenwich Village and achieved some regional fame. Unfortunately, James also developed a nasty heroin addiction. The drug problem was aggravated by recurring psychological issues, and it would take Taylor decades before he could kick the habit.
James Taylor’s debut solo album was released by Apple Records in 1969. Although it contained some fine songs, commercial sales were disappointing.
However, in 1970 Taylor released his second album, Sweet Baby James, and this became a blockbuster. The title song and his confessional masterpiece Fire and Rain both became breakout hits. Sweet Baby James is currently listed as #103 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Below is a photo of James Taylor circa 1970.Embed from Getty Images
James Taylor released his cover of Handy Man in 1977, and it appears on his album JT. The song reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Adult Contemporary playlists.
Here is James Taylor is a live performance of Handy Man.
This took place at Blossom Music Center in 1979. Here James is accompanied by his long-time backing band, including Don Grolnick on keyboards, Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel on guitars, Leland Sklar on bass, and David Sanborn on saxophone.
Isn’t this a really great version of the Jimmy Jones tune? James Taylor simply takes the song, slows the tempo drastically, and sings it as a laid-back ballad in contrast with Jones’ style.
The result is dramatic. Perhaps the most drastic change is the phrase “come-a come-a come-a come-a,” which Jimmy Jones sings in a frenetic falsetto. In James Taylor’s version, this is given a soft, slow delivery. Taylor’s harmonizing with his backup singers is quite impressive; it adds a great deal of gravitas to this otherwise simple tune.
Ever since he hit the big time, James Taylor has continued to be one of the most popular “soft-rock” singer-songwriters. His vocal work is very expressive, and he gives impressive renditions of both original songs and covers.
James Taylor is also a terrific guitarist. His acoustic guitar work is technically proficient and really sublime. JT’s 1976 Greatest Hits album has sold over 20 million copies, and overall Taylor has sold about 100 million records.
From 1973 to 1982, Taylor was married to fellow singer Carly Simon. The two frequently contributed to each other’s records. Since 2001, James has been married to Kim Smedvig, who was previously the director of marketing for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
We are happy to report that James Taylor successfully kicked his heroin addiction and that he appears to be healthy again. JT has won a slew of Grammy Awards, was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and received Kennedy Center Honors in 2016.
OK, JT, keep it up – both your singing and guitar playing are inspirational.