Hello there! This week our blog features a terrific soul tune, Tupelo Honey. We will first discuss the original version by singer-songwriter Van Morrison. Next, we will review a cover by Dusty Springfield and we will finish with a cover by Richie Havens.
Van Morrison and Tupelo Honey:
Van Morrison is one of the greatest soul and R&B artists of all time. Born in August 1945 in Belfast, North Ireland, he grew up listening intently to his father’s extensive collection of American rhythm and blues records. Morrison subsequently created his own blues vocal style. In 1964 he became co-owner of an R&B club in Belfast, and assembled a rock band called Them (named after the title of a 50s horror movie) to perform there.
Morrison sang lead vocals, and played harmonica and tenor sax with the group. In summer 1964, Them released the song Gloria, which became the group’s biggest hit, and established the band as part of the British Invasion. Working with American producer Bert Berns, their song Here Comes The Night reached #2 on the U.K. pop charts and #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 list in March 1965
Below is a photo of Van Morrison performing in Boston in 1968.
Morrison left Them and went solo in 1967, and over the past fifty years has released some of the greatest soul albums of all time. Masterpieces such as Astral Weeks and Moondance are chock full of beautiful, haunting songs. He has wonderful technique and great creativity, and I can listen to his two Greatest Hits albums over and over without becoming bored.
Van Morrison wrote the song Tupelo Honey in 1971, and it was the title track on his album. Tupelo honey is an expensive brand of honey produced in the southeastern U.S. (and Tupelo, Mississippi was the childhood home of Elvis Presley).
In Tupelo Honey, Van Morrison declares the magnitude of his love for a woman who is “an angel of the first degree.”
You can take all the tea in China
Put it in a big brown bag for me
Sail right around all the seven oceans
Drop it straight into the deep blue sea
[CHORUS] She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey
She’s an angel of the first degree
She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey
Just like honey from the bee
You can’t stop us on the road to freedom
You can’t keep us ’cause our eyes can see
Men with insight, men in granite
Knights in armor bent on chivalry
Tupelo Honey was released as a single in 1972. It only reached #47 on the pop charts; however, since that time it has become one of Van Morrison’s signature tunes. The melody is a big favorite of his. For Tupelo Honey, he borrowed the melody he had previously used on his 1970 song Crazy Love. Then in 1991, he once again used the tune for his song Why Must I Always Explain? In concerts, he frequently pairs it with either or both of those songs.
So here is Van Morrison in a live performance of Tupelo Honey at the Greenwich Village club The Bottom Line in 1978.
I consider this to be a really spectacular blues tune. Van Morrison’s terrific vocals are paired here with an ethereal organ and some angelic backup singers. The tune is further highlighted by impressive solos on sax, guitar and organ. What a fine song!
And now because we did not have video of Van Morrison on Tupelo Honey, we provide you with live video of Morrison singing Caravan.
This took place at the final concert by The Band, which was filmed by Martin Scorsese on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom and released in 1978 as the movie The Last Waltz. Here Morrison is in great form, shouting out his blues lines with backing from The Band.
Van Morrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, although he skipped the induction ceremony. You can read a detailed discussion of his work and music in his Rock and Roll Hall bio.
Morrison was the first inductee into the Irish Music Hall of Fame in 1999 and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003. He was also knighted in 2015, so now you may address him as Sir George Ivan Morrison, OBE.
I regret that I have never seen Van Morrison in live performance. However, one of my friends saw him in concert when he was having a particularly difficult time with stage fright; as a result, Morrison performed the entire set with his back to the audience.
Morrison’s stage fright is sufficiently severe that he has occasionally had to cancel performances. We send along advice to Van Morrison from our Australian friends – “No worries, mate!”
Dusty Springfield and Tupelo Honey:
You might guess that Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien was raised Catholic, and you would be correct. Ms. O’Brien was born in 1939 in West Hampstead, U.K. where her interest in music was encouraged by her family.
In 1960, she joined her older brother Dionysius and Reshad Feild in a folk-pop group called The Springfields. At that time her brother Dionysius took the stage name Tom Springfield, and Mary Isobel became Dusty Springfield. Below is a photo of Dusty Springfield from the late 60s.
The Springfields were top performers in the U.K. and they had one major international hit, Silver Threads and Golden Needles, in 1962. The group traveled to Nashville to record a folk album, and during their time there Dusty became fascinated by R&B music.
So when The Springfields disbanded in 1963, Dusty set off on a solo career that would focus on R&B music. Her first big hit was the song I Only Want To Be With You, which rose to #4 in the U.K. and #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
included rhythm and blues features such as horn sections, backing singers, and double-tracked vocals, along with pop music strings, all in the style of girl groups that Springfield admired, such as the Exciters … and the Shirelles.
Dusty Springfield then became a superstar in the U.K., and she used her fame to introduce British audiences to Motown acts. In 1965 she hosted a TV special called The Sound of Motown that featured Dusty along with The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and The Miracles, backed by the Motown house band The Funk Brothers.
Here is Dusty Springfield singing Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey.
This is only the audio of this song, but it showcases Dusty’s vocal styling. She has a girl-group backing and an impressive horn section, and the song is highlighted by solos from organ and sax.
After listening to Dusty Springfield’s soul songs, many people were surprised to find that she was white. However, she had a very distinctive style, with her beehive hairdo, black mascara and the formal gowns that she generally wore.
Since our previous clip contained only audio of Dusty’s performance, here she is live singing her biggest hit, I Only Want To Be With You.
As you can see, this video splices together two different performances by Dusty Springfield. One of these is on a show hosted by British pianist Russ Conway; the second is Dusty’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Ed Sullivan clip is definitely live while the Russ Conway appearance may be lip-synched.
As you can see, Dusty Springfield had a terrific voice and was an engaging performer. It is no wonder that she was a pop icon in her native Britain.
Dusty was also courageous. In 1964 a tour of South Africa was terminated by the apartheid government after she performed before an integrated audience in Cape Town, in violation of government policy at the time.
In 1968 Dusty Springfield achieved a couple of milestones. She traveled to Tennessee to record the soul album, Dusty in Memphis. Although the album was unsuccessful commercially, reaching only #99 on the Billboard album charts, it is now considered to be a classic and is included in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the greatest albums.
That same year, Dusty’s song Son Of a Preacher Man hit #10 on the Billboard charts and won her a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
But by the early 70s, Dusty Springfield’s record sales were declining. To keep busy, she began to sing backup vocals for various artists, including Anne Murray and Elton John (she used the pseudonym ‘Gladys Thong’ for that work).
At the start of her career, Dusty went to elaborate lengths to hide the fact that she was a lesbian. At that time, even rumors that a performer was gay might be enough to kill their career. However, as time went on and prejudice against homosexuals declined, she became somewhat more candid about her situation, although she never publicly acknowledged that she was gay.
In 1994, Dusty Springfield fell ill and was diagnosed with breast cancer. After chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she was given a clean bill of health and resumed performing. However, in 1999 the cancer returned and she died in March 1999 at the age of 59.
Dusty passed away just two weeks before she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Elton John inducted her posthumously into the Hall of Fame, saying
“I’m biased but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been … every song she sang, she claimed as her own.”
We second those sentiments and wish Dusty Springfield all the best in rock ‘n roll heaven.
Richie Havens and Tupelo Honey:
We previously encountered Richie Havens in our blog post on the Crosby, Stills and Nash song Teach Your Children, for his cover of the Beatles’ song Here Comes The Sun, and his cover of Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. We will briefly review Havens’ life and career here.
Richie Havens was a prominent folk-singer, songwriter and political activist. He was the oldest of nine children born in Brooklyn to a Native American father and a mother of West Indian descent.
Below is a photo of Richie Havens performing in 1972.Embed from Getty Images
Havens’ paternal grandparents had a fascinating history. They were both members of the Blackfoot tribe, and they toured the U.S. as members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. However, they quit the touring company once they reached New York City, and the family eventually settled in Brooklyn.
Richie gravitated to the Greenwich Village beatnik scene. Initially, he participated in poetry readings. Wouldn’t it have been fun to walk into a Village coffee bar in the 60s, and find Richie Havens declaiming poetry! Anyway, Havens soon gravitated to folk music. He attracted a significant following in New York folk circles and was signed by super-manager Albert Grossman, who also managed artists such as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary.
In the late 1960s, Richie Havens was not widely known outside East Coast folk music circles. However, that all changed dramatically after his performance at Woodstock in 1969. Havens was the first performer during the Woodstock Festival. He was scheduled to perform a short set; however, the crowds were so enormous that they blocked all roads leading into the festival.
Subsequent performers were caught in massive traffic jams, and had to be helicoptered in to the festival. The organizers asked Richie to prolong his set until the next performers could arrive.
Not only did Richie Havens perform for three hours at Woodstock, but his live performance was one of the highlights of the Woodstock movie. His electrifying appearance at Woodstock made Havens into an international celebrity, and he enjoyed a long and notable career thereafter.
Richie Havens developed a unique “open-tuning” guitar-playing style, which led him to be very creative in his music. By re-tuning the strings on his guitar, he was able to play a number of chords by simply strumming the guitar and sliding his thumb up and down the neck of his instrument.
His eccentric technique meant that Havens’ music was almost never a direct copy of another tune. Virtually every one of his songs displays a creative approach to the music.
Here is Richie Havens in a live performance of Tupelo Honey and Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman.
This is typical for Richie Havens. We get his open-tuned guitar paired with his inimitable vocal style. His Tupelo Honey is a slow, stately march through minor chords and is quite impressive.
However, it is a bit of a shock at the 4-minute mark when Richie segues into Dylan’s Just Like A Woman. We encounter an abrupt transition from terms of adoration like “she’s an angel of the first degree” to Dylan’s rather heartless “she breaks just like a little girl.” In any case, I find it always a treat to watch Richie Havens perform.
In addition to his musical prowess, Richie Havens was also a political activist. He was energetic in organizing for environmental issues, in fact he founded an oceanographic children’s museum located on City Island in the Bronx. In addition, Richie performed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, and he was a headliner at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1999.
In April 2013, Richie Havens died of a heart attack at his home in New Jersey. He was 72 years old. He will be remembered as a cerebral and vibrant singer-songwriter.