‘Humans are distinguished by being a remembering, storytelling and singing race’.
‘ A word thrown into the silence always finds its echo somewhere where silence opens hidden lexicons’. (Dejan Stojanovic)
‘ We were looking for an echo – an answer to our sound – a place to be in harmony; a place we almost found’
All of us search for, cherish and store in our hearts’ chambers the echoes of the sounds of the golden sunny uplands of our lives. Those times when we achieved what we set out to do; when we were first in love, when someone said,’you’re really good at that aren’t you?’, when you knew that this was a really fine time, THE fine time to be alive.
What holds for individuals holds for friendships, communities and nations which strive to hold on to the fine times and to work towards regaining them when they seem misplaced, lost or abandoned. We remember with joy the times we made it to the summit and wincingly the times our faltering grip couldn’t hold on to the elusive prize and we had to start again bruised and chastened from base camp or the muddy ground
We are all looking for answers to our longings and dilemmas, for a place to be in harmony with ourselves, our families and those with whom, willingly and unwillingly, we share our lives.
‘Looking For An Echo’ a single released on Atlantic in 1975 by Kenny Vance has continued to echo in my life for nearly forty years because it’s an anthemic folk/doowop ballad that gloriously captures the sweet heartache of remembering the thrill of reaching for that harmony and the melancholic realisation of how rare it is to hold on to that harmony, once achieved.
Kenny Vance (who grew up as Kenny Rosenberg) is a son of Brooklyn and a canny time served music industry veteran. He came up through 1950s vocal and doowop groups before achieving chart success and a measure of fame with Jay and The Americans who had a string of hits throughout the 60s including the eerily beautiful, ‘She Cried’ (memorably covered by The Shangri – Las). They were a supporting act on both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones first US tours. Late additions to the group, talent spotted by Vance, were two hyper smart East Coast musicians and writers, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who would form the coolest band of the 1970s, Steely Dan.
Post Jay and The Americans, Kenny went on to carve a productive and profitable niche as a musical director for TV (Saturday Night Live) and in the Film Industry. He was involved in the highly successful soundtracks for Eddie and the Cruisers, American Hot Wax and Animal House.
By the mid 70s he was ready to record again and he produced a fine album called Vance 32 the highlight of which was Looking For An Echo, written by a friend, Richie Reicheg. The recording was layered beginning with simple acoustic guitar and Kenny’s searching, ruminative vocal. This gives the song the yearning quality which is so attractive. The electric instrumentation added builds the swelling atmosphere and the sense of time passing in tension and release.
The song is now something of a standard within the world of vocal group and doowop aficionados: regularly played on oldies radio stations and frequently used a a show stopping, tear inducing, finale to live shows. It reincarnates the doowop days of practicing in parks, subways and halls with vocals soaring upwards from stoops, fire escapes and tenement block roofs as bunches of teenagers quivering with energy and ambition reached for that sound that would warm their hearts and might, just might, make them stars if they could only be heard by someone who could get them into a recording studio and onto the radio.
The song is a quest song and we all know that most quests end in mature (or wearied) acceptance that we will never reach El Dorado to find the mother lode but that there were many fine times along the journey. And, that perhaps the place we now inhabit has its own virtues and consolations if not the fabled ones we imagined in our youth. Still, we listen for the echoes.
Kenny has revisited the song with his group the Planotones upping the dramatic ante and stressing the nostalgic heft of the song. I much prefer the original but would still queue to see him perform the song live.
There is a superb version of the song by the titans of acapella singing The Persusasions – available to view on the internet and on their album, ‘Chirpin’.
I’m a lover of reference books on all subjects (as you may have guessed!) but none has given me such pleasure as Jay Warner’s, ‘American Singing Groups: A History 1940 – 1990’. I guarantee that if you read it you’ll be soon making long lists of records to buy and marvelling at the hope and energy which produced so many great sounds that still echo in our hearts and memories. You could start by looking up the entries for groups referenced in Echo – The Moonglows, The Harptones and The Dells.
My favourite Paul Simon album is his criminally under appreciated Hearts and Bones. For the exquisitely described heartbreak of the title track, the devastating sadness and accuracy of, ‘Maybe I Think Too Much’ but most of all for the sweet threnody that is ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War’ which manages, entirely successfully, to yoke a portrait of the surrealist couple to the spectral sounds of the Orioles and the Five Satins.
There is no end to the making of doowop compilations. I recommend those on the Rhino, Ace and Proper labels. Part of the charm of the doowop era is that there are so many one off triumphs that might turn up almost anywhere now – happy hunting!