Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 15: The Exciters, "Tell Him"

Artist: The Exciters
Song: "Tell Him"
Album: Tell Him (single)
Year: 1962


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While there is a clear beginning to every genre and sub-genre, it is often far more difficult to find the origins of the more subtle aspects of any given musical style.  However, much like the larger idea of the genre, every persona other technique that one can find within music has a starting point, and one can see the way in which it builds itself over time.  Though it is often thought to be a very modern approach within music, the idea of the strong, "street smart" woman has been present in music nearly as long as there as been recorded music, and in each generation, it seems to be reborn anew.  Without question, one of the most important contributions to the growth of this style came during the odd musical time when jazz was giving way to the development of rock and roll.  Quickly setting themselves apart from the other "girl groups" of the time, there was a certain tenacity and attitude that one can find within the fantastic songs of Jamaica, Queens' own trio, The Exciters.  With their distinctive sound and style, it was this group that paved the way for the flood of "girl groups" that followed over the next few years, and one can easily make the case that without their contributions, music simply would not have taken shape as it did.  Standing as their finest achievement, there are few songs that bring a similar sound or style to what one finds in The Exciters brilliant 1962 single, "Tell Him."

In many ways, it is impossible to place "Tell Him" into a single musical category, as overall approach was completely fresh, and the musical arrangement is so unique that it defies any simple grouping.  The song opens with an instantly recognizable pairing of triangle and violin, and there is an immediate intensity to the song that is unlike anything else from the era.  The song soon slides into a fast-paced groove, and it is at this point that one can hear everything from funk to soul to Latin styles within the music.  If one listens closely, there are even elements of ska at play on the song, and one would be hard pressed to find a song from any era that has as diverse a musical sound as one finds here.  The cadence from the drums and guitar give "Tell Him" a fantastic sense of movement, and when it clashes with the violins, there is a strange, almost haunting mood that is conveyed.  "Tell Him" also brings a swing that is completely unique, and one can make the case either way on whether the music guided the vocal work or vice-versa.  Regardless, there has simply never been another song quite like "Tell Him," and nearly every genre from soul to Motown took pieces of this song and incorporated it into their own musical approach.  Though there is a great deal going on within the music, in comparison it is rather minimalist and restrained, and this is clearly to leave ample space for the sensational vocal work found on "Tell Me."

In many ways, The Exciters set the standard for "girl groups" with their performance here, and their style remains a massive influence on groups to this day.  Though there are three singers on the track, it is Brenda Reid who takes the spotlight for nearly the entire song.  From the instant she begins singing, her voice is completely captivating, as their is a strength within it unlike anything previous recorded in any genre.  Reid's voice soars across the track, showing no signs of weakness or lament, and there is also a certain sense of aggression that cannot be denied.  In retrospect, there were few acts that followed chronologically that boasted a singer with similar power, and this is one of the main reasons that "Tell Me" remains such a classic.  Further adding to her strong persona, the lyrics which she sings were quite racy for a woman to be singing at that time.  Moving far beyond the "helpless, sad woman" approach, the words to "Tell Me" are far more aggressive and proactive than one finds previously.  One need look no further than the opening stanza for an example of her forward nature, as Reid belts, "...I know something about love, you've gotta want it bad...if that guys got into your blood, go out and get him..."  In both the words she is singing, and the almost growling way which she delivers them, Reid stands as an indepsensible trend setter, and it helped to make "Tell Me" a world-wide hit for the trio.

Truth be told, "Tell Me" has actually already been released twice in 1962 before The Exciters recorded their version of the song.  Both Gil Hamilton (AKA Johnny Thunder) and Ed Townsend released their own take of the song, yet The Exciters version, release in October of that year, completely eclipsed the previous efforts, and though it has been covered countless times since, it is this version that remains the standard.  This is perhaps due not only to the amazing performance of Brenda Reid, but the work and presence of the producers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.  It was largely their work that led to the musical arrangement being as uniquely fantastic as one hears, and one can make a strong case that without their presence, the song would not have had such success.  However, the instant that Reid begins singing on "Tell Me," the presence of anything else on the track becomes a distant second, as her vocals are so superb and dominating that everything else seems to fade far into the background.  Working the entire vocal scale, Reid never laments even for a moment, and it is her performance here that remains very much part of the standard for strong female vocalists.  With an almost military-like cadence running throughout the track, "Tell Me" also has a strange, almost unsettling mood, and it makes the song enchanting in a way unlike any other song.  Taking all of these facts into account, one can easily understand why The Exciters 1962 version of "Tell Me" was such a hit and while it remains such a monumental musical achievement all these decades later.

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