File this under Yet Another Candidate For A Saying To Be Known As “Baruth’s Law” After My Death: Enthusiasm for the accoutrements of a particular practice or discipline burns brightest in the third-rate practitioner. Consider, if you will, auto racing. I have never met a front-running talent who truly cared in any way whatsoever about the brand, layout, “DNA”, or “heritage” of the car he was driving. Nor are these people historians of their sport. The people who make history rarely read it. Conversely, any time I meet someone who blabs on and on about their intimate connection with Porsche or Ferrari or Shelby, they are absolutely garbage behind the wheel. To some degree, I can personally attest to the way this process works; I started off as a Volkswagen fanatic ham-handing my way around Ohio roads, obsessed with the difference between 8-valve and 16-valve GTIs, but I ended it as a fellow who can match data with any but the very best racers and who is also entirely indifferent to the particulars of what I’m driving or where I drive it. Achievement in a subject is the mortal enemy of contentment within it.
Music is not an exception to Baruth’s Law — in fact, it aligns with the Law so closely that we can use it to detect a flagging of ability in musicians. It is no coincidence that men like Slash and Jimmy Page become progressively more obsessed with their guitars as their musical drive and creativity gradually fades. The Jimmy Page who recorded the “Stairway” solo with a beat-up Telecaster in a hallway is not the same fellow as the Jimmy Page who used a TransPerformance-equipped Gibson Custom Shop R7 Goldtop to play the Zep reunion show thirty-four years later. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. John Mayer was obsessive about his gear from the beginning, featuring a Novax Expression on the cover of “Room For Squares” and then moving to an intimate relationship with the Fender Custom Shop before developing the love-it-or-hate-it Silver Sky with Paul Reed Smith. Those exceptions, however, are few and far between.
What causes the death of enthusiasm as proficiency increases? I suspect that it is a variant of the old “familiarity breeds contempt” trope. As kids, we want to believe in the superiority of a particular car, bike, or guitar; as we actually learn to operate these devices we begin to see them as tools with limitations to be overcome. You start by pulling Excalibur from a stone, but after ten years of close-quarters combat you find yourself cursing the thing for having too shallow of a blood groove. About twelve years ago I caught the gig of a very talented seventy-something bluesman who had made his name playing Les Pauls but who on this particular evening was sporting a beat-up PRS CE bolt-neck. “Why aren’t you playing the Les Paul?” I asked him. “Don’t you miss the tone?”
“Ah, fuck tone,” he spat, “the Gibson is too damn heavy for my old shoulder. And it never did sound that good anyway.” Which made me wonder: If equipment doesn’t matter, and tone doesn’t matter, what’s left? The answer, of course, is production.
Here’s the song “You Can’t Hide Love”, written by noted R&B creative Skip Scarborough and originally performed by the band “Creative Source”. I doubt you’ve heard it before, unless you’re a fan of the rapper Cesar Comanche who sampled it for “Hands High”. I am also certain that most of you, upon hearing it, will look around for the sudden appearance of Anchorman Ron Burgundy. Yet a few of my readers might recognize the lyrics, even if they barely recognize the tune. That’s because although Creative Source didn’t last long, and their records didn’t sell particularly well, this tune caught the ear of Maurice white, the driving force behind Earth, Wind, and Fire. Looking for some material to round out the end of EWF’s ambitious live/studio double album, Gratitude, White created a new arrangement and production for “You Can’t Hide Love,” renaming it the more efficient “Can’t Hide Love” in the process. Let’s check it out.
This is still, legally speaking, the same song as the one above — but can you see why the first one was a hippie-era throwaway and the second became an R&B standard? White added a horn line to the beginning, making this one of two famous soul songs from this decade where the defining horn theme was added by a producer after the song was written. (The other: Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love”.) The Gratitude album spent time on top of two different Billboard charts, while “Can’t Hide Love” went to #11 on the Billboard R&B chart and obtained a Grammy nomination for vocal arrangement.
Forty years ago, people weren’t as shy about jumping onto the cover-song bandwagon, so “Can’t Hide Love” was immediately picked up by a few artists, including Carmen McRae:
Listening to this, there’s no evidence that Ms. McRae ever heard the Creative Source version. A few years later, Dionne Warwick brought out her own take:
This one is notable for the solid-gold Yacht Rock credentials of the studio musicians involved: Steve Gadd on drums, Jeff Porcaro on bass, Steve Lukather and Jay Graydon on guitar. Unfortunately, the deviation from Maurice White’s template don’t help the song, and the whole is definitely less than the sum of its parts.
“Can’t Hide Love” has been covered about a dozen times on major-label recordings and hundreds of times on YouTube. Last week, while my son and I were on another one of our five-hour skatepark roundtrips, we listened to, and ranked, about twenty of the YouTube performances. What fascinated me is that none of the covers — and I mean not one — fails to incorporate significant parts of the EWF version. The original Creative Source track might as well not exist. The way I like to think of it is this: When Skip was writing the song, he had a nearly infinite number of possibilities for its performance. The Creative Source version represented one potential “timeline” for the song, but it was not definitive. Then Maurice White got a hold of it and basically collapsed the waveform, quantum-computing style. There is now only one way to perform “Can’t Hide Love”. That’s the power of production: it collapses the limitless possibilities of a particular song into profitable but limited realities.
The best proof of this: sometimes the covers are so “on the nose” that they might as well be identical, as is shown here. In particular, the drumming is almost always beat-for-beat.
After listening to about twenty different covers, John gave his award for “Best Cover” to this drum-centric rendition above. “It has the most changes to it,” he noted. He also noted that it was virtually the only cover version that didn’t let the beat drag. “If you want people to listen to you, I think your new version has to sound faster than the old one.” And although John is a novice bass player who already owns two instruments and is likely to inherit everything from a Fodera Yin-Yang to a Carvin B24 Elite, he didn’t care much about the kinds of basses being played in the songs. “It matters a lot more how they sound,” he offered. Which makes me think that he will quickly progress past me in his development as a musician. I’m still very interested in the tools; I’m still very much an enthusiast; when it comes to music I still am, and always will be, third-rate.