Hello there! This week our blog features a 60s tune, Walk Away Renee. First we will discuss the original version of the song by The Left Banke. Then we will show how the song was covered by The Four Top, and finally by Cyndi Lauper and Peter Kingsbery.
The Left Banke and Walk Away Renee:
The Left Banke was a band popular in the 60s and 70s that specialized in pop tunes inspired by classical music themes. Keyboardist and songwriter Michael Brown formed a band that included lead vocalist Steve Martin Caro, drummer George Cameron, bassist Tom Finn, and guitarist Rick Brand.
Below is a photo of the band Left Banke, decked out in their finest Mod attire.Embed from Getty Images
The song Walk Away Renee describes a man whose girlfriend is leaving him. He urges her not to look back, lest she see the pain he is enduring from their breakup. Everything that he sees reminds him of their relationship.
And when I see the sign that points one way
The lot we used to pass by every day
[CHORUS] Just walk away Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You’re not to blame
From deep inside the tears that I’m forced to cry
From deep inside the pain that I chose to hide
Michael Brown states that he co-wrote the song Walk Away Renee in 1966 with Tony Sansone and Bob Calilli. In Brown’s version, the subject of the tune was Renee Fladen-Kamm, who was the girlfriend of bassist Tom Finn. Brown claims that he was infatuated with the free-spirited blonde Kamm. Even though he never dated her, Brown alleges that she was an object of his devotion.
Like many pop songs, there is an alternate story behind this tune. Co-writer Tony Sansone claims that he was the primary songwriter, and states that he was inspired by the Beatles tune Michelle. According to Sansone, the ‘Renee’ in the title was simply a random choice of a French girl’s name.
Regardless of the song’s origin, Walk Away Renee was released in July 1966. It climbed up to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was the biggest hit for The Left Banke.
Here is The Left Banke in a live performance of Walk Away Renee. I believe this is from 1966.
You can see why the group’s performances were referred to as “baroque rock” (or, by some, “Bach-rock”). The song features a lush string section, in addition to a striking harpsichord backing and a flute solo in the middle. The chorus is particularly melodic – this is one of those songs that can get stuck in your head for days or weeks on end.
The recording sessions were directed by classical violinist Harry Lookofsky, who was Michael Brown’s father and who also played violin on this tune. So the classical touches in the song were certainly influenced by Lookofsky.
By the way, I believe that the group is simply lip-synching to their record. Apart from the fact that no harpsichord is visible, during the flute solo the video abruptly cuts away to show photos of the group’s records (perhaps to hide the absence of a flute).
Walk Away Renee has had lasting appeal; it is rated #220 by Rolling Stone magazine in their list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Many rock groups experience tensions between the musicians, but with The Left Banke, their situation deteriorated very rapidly. The Left Banke members were no longer performing together by the time Walk Away Renee hit the top of the charts. So Michael Brown attempted to capitalize on their hit by re-forming The Left Banke.
Brown assembled a “Left Banke” touring group with new backing musicians, and released a new single. However, his former bandmates issued a cease and desist order against Brown’s new group, and urged radio stations and the band’s fan club to boycott the new record.
One memorable addition to the new Left Banke ensemble was guitarist Michael McKean. McKean later became a successful actor, staring in TV series such as Laverne and Shirley and Better Call Saul. In an inspired example of art imitating life, McKean then became immortalized as the lead singer in the rock parody movie This Is Spinal Tap.
Well, the members of Left Banke have re-formed from time to time and participated in various reunions, but they never re-captured the commercial success of their two hits, Walk Away Renee and Pretty Ballerina. Their classically-inspired music was influential in the late 60s, and Walk Away Renee continues to be a staple on oldies radio.
We send our best wishes to the surviving members of Left Banke (Michael Brown passed away in 2015 and George Cameron died in 2018).
The Four Tops and Walk Away Renee:
The Four Tops were a vocal group who became extremely popular Motown artists. Here is a publicity photo of the Four Tops from 1965. From L: Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, lead singer Levi Stubbs and Lawrence Payton.Embed from Getty Images
Although 1965 was the “breakout year” for the Four Tops as Motown stars, by that time the group had been together for a significant amount of time. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the Four Tops hold the record for longevity as a group. They had exactly the same lineup from 1953 to 1997, a remarkable 44 years!
The Four Tops formed while all four members were in high school – Fakir and Stubbs went to one school, while Benson and Payton attended another. They first sang together at a birthday party, and began their career as The Four Aims.
Over the next seven years, the group performed in the Detroit area, where they became polished performers and gained a strong regional following. They also backed up singer Billy Eckstine. However, their jazz-inspired records did not sell, as they cycled through four different record labels.
In 1963, Berry Gordy, Jr signed the boys to Motown Records. Then in 1964, the Motown songwriting and producing powerhouse Holland-Dozier-Holland (H-D-H) composed an instrumental track. For a while they weren’t sure what to do with it, but they eventually added lyrics and gave it to the Four Tops.
That song, Baby I Need Your Loving, became the Four Tops’ surprise breakout hit, making it to #11 on the Billboard pop charts. This success convinced the Four Tops to switch their focus from jazz to R&B. And H-D-H began to write songs specifically tailored to the Tops.
The Four Tops were unusual in that their lead singer Levi Stubbs was a baritone, whereas the “natural” arrangement for vocal groups was to have a tenor as lead. As a result, many arrangements for Four Tops songs were pitched at the top of Stubbs’ range. This made him strain to reach the notes, and that became a hallmark of the group.
After their big breakthrough, the Four Tops churned out hits in the mid-60s. Not only did they release a series of classic R&B songs (topped by their 1966 signature tune Reach Out I’ll Be There), but they also struck gold with their 1967 cover of Tim Hardin’s If I Were A Carpenter.
Here are the Four Tops with their 1968 cover of Walk Away Renee.
I believe this song is lip-synched. First off, I don’t think that the acoustic effects (e.g., echo chamber) can be replicated in live performance. Second, the Four Tops vocals were supplemented with those from a girl group, The Andantes. I don’t see any “Andantes” present in this video. Nevertheless, we are treated to Levi Stubbs’ strong lead vocals on this song, backed up by those great Tops harmonies.
The Tops’ cover of Walk Away Renee was nearly as successful as the original (and in my opinion, is superior to the Left Banke version). It reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100, #15 on the soul singles charts, and #3 in the UK Singles Charts.
Alas, in 1967 H-D-H left Motown after a contract dispute with Berry Gordy. After losing their main songwriters and producers, The Four Tops began a slow but inexorable slide. A number of the remaining Motown songwriters and producers worked with the group, and they had a few more hits, but nothing like their glory years.
In 1972, Berry Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles. While most of the groups followed Gordy to L.A., the Four Tops remained in Detroit with a few other Motown acts. In the 70s the group moved around from one record company to another, scoring the occasional hit. Then in 1983, the Four Tops returned to Motown, where once again they were produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland.
The Four Tops continued to perform, becoming favorites on ‘oldies’ tours. In 1986, Levi Stubbs appeared as the voice of the man-eating plant Audrey II in the musical Little Shop of Horrors.
The Four Tops continued touring until in 1997, Lawrence Payton died from liver cancer. The group added a replacement in 1998, but in 2000 Levi Stubbs was diagnosed with cancer and he also had to be replaced. Obie Benson died from lung cancer in 2005, and Stubbs himself passed away in 2008.
The Four Tops continue to tour, although only Duke Fakir remains from the original lineup. The Tops have deservedly received a slew of honors. In 1990 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, and the group was named as one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by both Rolling Stone magazine and by Billboard magazine.
We salute the Four Tops, most of whom are in Rock and Roll Heaven. They left us with a terrific legacy of Motown classics.
Cyndi Lauper & Peter Kingsbery and Walk Away Renee:
Cyndi Lauper is a singer-songwriter who came to prominence in the early 80s, and has had quite an amazing career. As we will see, she seems to be one of those people who can be successful at just about everything.
Cyndi had to overcome a number of obstacles in her life and career. She was expelled from high school, and left home at age 17 to escape an abusive stepfather.
She then began singing with various cover bands; however, in 1977 she damaged her vocal cords and was told that she would likely never sing again. Luckily, Cyndi found a vocal coach who helped her recover.
In 1978 her band won a recording contract and issued an album. The album was critically acclaimed but no one bought it, so the band broke up. Their manager filed suit against them, which forced Cyndi into bankruptcy.
However, in 1983 everything finally turned around. Cyndi released her first solo album, She’s So Unusual. It became a blockbuster, with two of the singles, Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Time After Time, becoming iconic pop hits.
Cyndi Lauper became famous both as a talented singer and also a feminist cultural symbol. With her multi-colored hair, style sense and her affinity for professional wrestlers, Lauper became a real trend-setter, as shown in the photo below.Embed from Getty Images
Ms. Lauper was named Best New Artist at the 1985 Grammy Awards, where her album She’s So Unusual was nominated for a gaggle of Grammys. In addition, the music video for Girls Just Want to Have Fun won the first-ever Best Female Video category at the 1984 MTV Music Video awards.
Cyndi Lauper’s second solo album was the 1986 release True Colors. The title cut of this album hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts, while her cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On reached #12 on the pop listings (we discussed this in an earlier post).
Here are Cyndi Lauper and Peter Kingsbery in a live version of Walk Away Renee. This is a 1994 performance on French TV.
Isn’t this a terrific song? As always, Cyndi Lauper brings a fresh and appealing take to a song, and she accompanies herself on dulcimer.
I was not aware of Peter Kingsbery before, but he and Cyndi produce lovely harmonies together. He is an American singer-songwriter who co-founded a band in the 80s called Cock Robin. That quartet found commercial acclaim in Europe but was less successful in the States.
Since the early 60s Kingsbery has lived in France, where he became a very popular musician. He introduced a number of classical instruments into his records (appropriate, since Kingsbery’s original training was in classical music).
And now back to Cyndi Lauper, whose career has branched out all over the place. She has composed the music for a slew of movies, and has garnered acting roles in a number of movies and TV shows.
Cyndi was one of the performers in the VH1 benefit Divas Live 2004. She also wrote a best-selling memoir in 2012 that chronicled her experiences dealing with child abuse and depression.
Then in 2013, Lauper collaborated with Harvey Fierstein in composing the music to the Broadway musical Kinky Boots. This smash hit dominated the 2014 Tony Awards, with 13 nominations and 6 wins, including Best Original Score.
Cyndi Lauper has also been a trail-blazer and a social activist. She has raised funds for charities and appeared at several gay-rights functions. Ms. Lauper co-founded the True Colors Fund that supports the Human Rights Campaign. And she founded the True Colors Residence in New York City that provides temporary shelter and job placement information for LGBT homeless youth.
What an impressive woman. Rock on, Cyndi!