Sunday, May 23, 2010

Public Domain: Frankie and Johnny

Stevie Wonder: Frankie and Johnny


Many public domain songs are thick in the broad waters of popular culture; others tend to one genre or another, depending on their ancestry. But Frankie and Johnny, which seems to have been inspired by any number of real 19th century murders, has murky origins, and its modern usage bears the stamp of the tabloids: pick an American genre - from country to folk, from jazz to swing, from stylized rock & roll to bar band blues - and you'll find a version or two. Mae West did it on broadway; Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck took their turn on the tune as a Jazz standard; Sam Cooke, Elvis, Lena Horne, Bob Dylan, and a hundred other names have all lent their credence to the sordid tale.

But though it's a straightforward ballad with fluid lyrics, open to interpretations from loving and wistful to gritty and raw, given its grisly and nuanced tale of love and death, it's much less usual to find it in the hands of babes. Here, on his no-hit 1962 tribute to the songs of Ray Charles, a startlingly young Stevie Wonder turns our expectations on their head, bringing upbeat innocence and funky Motown soul to a tune too often played out as weary and graveled. It almost works.

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