‘The Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues – you can tell by the way she smiles’ (Bob Dylan)
Ah, The Mona Lisa. La Gioconda. Leonardo Da Vinci. Lisa Gherardini.
There is a fascinating post to be composed concerning the artistic, cultural and historical significance of the most famous painting in the story of art.
A painting of enormous influence which has beguiled artists, scholars and the public for more than 500 years.
Such a work would have to pay proper attention to; the signifance of the Renaissance in Florence, the relationship between secular and sacred art, the role of patronage in an artist’s life and the thorny subject of the role of the male gaze in the representation of women throughout the ages.
I wish the author of such a study well.
For my part, although I have an abiding interest in art history I must confess that when I hear the name Mona Lisa my initial response is not to reflect on the weighty matters outlined above but instead to launch, full throatedly, into my own rendition of a 1959 Rock ‘n’ Roll classic out of Sun Studios in Memphis.
‘Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?’
I refer, of course. to Carl Mann’s immortal, ‘Mona Lisa’.
Well, great googly moo! Ain’t that just a barn burner!
Texan Eddie Bush provides the overproof White Lightning guitar with Carl pumping out the setting the woods on fire piano underneath his amazingly assured vocal.
W. S. Holland on drums and Rob Oatwell on bass make sure that the song’s rhythmic attack never lets up as a few million synapses in your cerebral cortex flash and flash and flash until it’s permanently seared into your memory.
Carl and the boys recorded, ‘Mona Lisa’ at Sun Studios and it was issued, after some hesitation by Sam Phillips, in March 1959.
It went on to be a top 30 Billboard hit and to sell well over a million copies. It’s a certifiable Rock ‘n’ Roll classic and the record which will ensure that the name Carl Mann burns bright in history.
It might well have sold even more had Conway Twitty not put out his own version after hearing Carl’s far superior take on a visit to Memphis.
Astonishingly Carl was a mere 16 year old when he laid down, ‘Mona Lisa’. He had been born in the rural area of Huntingdon Tennessee in August 1943.
The Mann’s had a lumber business which Carl would return to after the heady months following the issue of Mona Lisa turned into a life sapping grind.
Growing up in Tennessee Carl; in church, through The Grand Ole Opry and from youthful forays into honkytonks drank deep of the living streams of Country, Rhythm and Blues and Rocksbilly music that were the virtual birthright of Southern musicians.
Inevitably the towering figures of Hank Williams and Elvis loomed large in his musical imagination.
Carl was something of a musical prodigy and while barely a teenager he had performed on local radio in Jackson and featured on WSM’s Junior Opry. It was in Jackson that he made his debut recordings for Jimmy Martin’s Jaxon label.
His output for Jaxon includes a prime slice of Rockabilly in, ‘Gonna Rock’n’Roll Tonite’ coupled with ‘Rockin’ Love’ which was issued under the name of Carl Mann and the Kool Kats.
It was when W S Holland, who had played with Carl Perkins, hooked up with Carl that the introduction to Sun Records was made.
Carl never managed to hit the mother lode again with Sun and his subsequent mainstream country music work is undistinguished.
However, the late 1970s Rockabilly revival in Europe gave Carl an opportunity to demonstrate that Mona Lisa wasn’t entirely a fluke. In Holland he made two eminently listenable albums with stellar guitar from Eddie Jones.
Tiring of travel and over fond of the bottle Carl wisely retreated to Tennessee where he remains.
Perhaps, as he rocks on his porch swing he sometimes, purely for his own amusement, croons a stately version of Mona Lisa and smiles as he realises that he created a lovely, warm and very real work of art all those years ago.
P.S. Through pure serendipity I wrote this post on Carl’s 74th Birthday. Many happy returns Carl!
‘Mona Lisa’ was written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston. It was penned for the film, ‘Captain Carey’ and won the duo the Oscar for Best Original Song at the 1950 Academy Awards.
Nat King Cole’s typically poised performance atop a Nelson Riddle arrangement of the song was a massive No 1 hit in 1950.
There have been innumerable versions since with my own favourites being those of Willie Nelson and The Neville Brothers.
Fine CDs of selections Carl’s best work can be found on the Charly and Bear Family labels.
Carl’s revival period can be found on the CD, ‘In Rockabilly Country’ on the Rockhouse label.