A new release looks at the career of Timi Yuro, who worked with Phil Spector, Willie Nelson and Hank Cochran, and who has been covered by Morrissey.
By Steven Rosen
Any list of proto-feminist Top 40 hits of the 1960s would have to include Timi Yuro’s 1962 “What’s A Matter Baby” along with Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and Dionne Warwick’s “Don’t Make Me Over.”
With a voice that roars with the strength, defiance and unforgiving ferocity of that tiger in The Life of Pi, she scoffs at the ex-lover who now is being treated poorly by his new girlfriend. The sturm und drang Wall of Sound production is by Phil Spector, and Yuro’s voice sometimes seems too powerful, too scary, for him to handle. At moments there’s a little wobble in the sound as if he’s shaking. Her voice tears through the girl-group-style backing vocals as if they were sexist. It is a great record, a platter that matters, and so much a shape of things to come that it’s surprising Mad Men didn’t feature it in an episode.
It’s also surprising why Yuro, who died at age 63 in 2004 long after a 1985 tracheotomy for throat cancer ended her singing career (which itself had long before lost its momentum), wasn’t a much, much bigger star. She had a tremendous voice, mixing forcefulness with pinpoint clarity, equally adept at rockers, torchy ballads and subtle jazz inflections. But as revealed on The Complete Liberty Singles, a two-disc collection from Real Gone Music (a first-rate reissue label started by a founder of Collector’s Choice Music), there is a reason.
Her label, Liberty Records, early on saddled her with too much overly orchestrated schmaltz, perhaps thinking the Italian-American Yuro could be another Connie Francis or Bobby Darin. It weighed her down. She idolized Dinah Washington, and was crying out for sophisticated jazz-pop material. And, although demure in stature, she could also shout like Big Maybelle or Etta James and could do the kind of blues/hard-edged R&B to make a listener shiver and quiver. But Liberty didn’t see her that way, after she scored her first big hit with a cover of Roy Hamilton’s sensuous ballad “Hurt” in 1961. (She didn’t write much.)
The songs of the first disc, nicely presented in their original mono mixes, reveal the problem all too clearly – unbelievably expressive voice trapped in uninspired material and arrangements, save a few exceptions. The arrangements also trapped her into moments of corny, melodramatic oversinging, though they were few.
For instance, there’s an aging Johnny Ray as her duet partner for the super-square “I Believe” and “A Mother’s Love.” So powerful and insinuatingly smoldering is her voice that she breathes some fire into “Smile,” a standard based on a melody Charlie Chaplin wrote for his 1936 film Modern Times, but it still seems like a stale choice for her. And a Bacharach/David composition from 1963, “The Love of a Boy,” has some of the effectively romantic major-minor chord changes of their work with Warwick at that time, but the icky theme is retrograde after “What’s a Matter Baby” (which was written by Clyde Otis and Joy Byers).
Of the good songs on the first disc, besides “What’s A Matter Baby,” there are the rockin’ “Count Everything” with its “uptown soul” groove of Ben E. King/the Drifters’ “I Count the Tears,” and the tart “Insult to Injury.”
However the second disc, in which all but two tracks are in original mono (the exception having been originally released in stereo), offers something different. Yuro had become friends with Liberty labelmate Willie Nelson, and through him Hank Cochran, and began interpreting their mature country-and-western ballads about love’s heartaches.
She did so with measured doses of wistfulness, wisdom and melancholy, but she could also get excited and start to break through her arrangements’ constraints. She obviously was influenced by Ray Charles’ 1962 Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and was the right person to be influenced by it. Liberty supported this new turn with a 1963 album, Make the World Go Away, and several singles.
Her driving versions of Billy Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” show the Charles influence. Nelson’s “Permanently Lonely” is lovely, despite a fakey choked-back vocal moment at the end; her take on Cochran’s “She’s Got You” stands up well to Patsy Cline. She was actually the first person to record Cochran’s countrypolitan masterpiece, “Make the World Go Away,” and her version, with its controlled wailing against chorale-style backing vocals, is soulful and injects some grit into the overall introspective mood.
Her country sides should have marked a successful career transition for Yuro, but it didn’t work. Once Beatlemania hit, there was no place for her on the charts. She left Liberty for Mercury, and those releases aren’t included here.
But she returned in 1968, and the six selections included on this package show her reprising the orchestrated, sophisticated pop sound of her post-“Hurt” singles. Yet the material is better, more contemporary and at times even luxuriant. “Something Bad on My Mind” has a Righteous Brothers-style expansiveness, though the song is a bit belabored. But “Wrong” is a treat with its insistent syncopation and gentle swing. And it was co-written by Yuro.
The standout of these final Liberty releases is the foreboding “Interlude,” a movie theme written by French composer Georges Delerue and South African-born lyricist Hal Shaper (“Softly As I Leave You”). It has a subtly stated but slowly mesmerizing minor-key melody that builds with enveloping impact. It’s one of the great overlooked 1960s movie themes, and it’s perfect for Yuro. (Morrissey much later covered it with Siouxsie.)
Yuro was capable of handling so many styles of pop music with conviction, intelligence, dynamism, and just plain talent. She too often didn’t have the material she deserved. And when she did get it, it was rare for the stars to align and give her the hits she needed. She’s a classic case of a pop vocalist – a rock, soul and country vocalist – who deserved much better. But we should be thankful for this.
This first ran in Blurt (www.blurt-online.com) on Dec. 23, 2012, with art selected by Editor Fred Mills.
For more on the singer, visit the Official Timi Yuro Association website.