Saturday, November 19, 2011

Homonyms: Operator

Grateful Dead: Operator


Manhattan Transfer: Operator


Alexis Korner with Robert Plant: Operator


Jim Croce: Operator (That‘s Not the Way It Feels)


When I was a child, there was only one telephone company. If you needed any help making a call, you were completely at their mercy. What we call by the more clunky name of directory assistance was simply known as “information” in those days, and you spoke to a human being, usually female. Lily Tomlin, shown above, brilliantly spoofed the information operator and the power of the phone company. But their job was twofold: to help the customer reach their party, but also to protect the privacy of that party. So, if you didn’t have enough information to help the operator find the number and connect you, you might be treated with suspicion. That created the perfect metaphor for songwriters.

Ron McKernan, better known as Pigpen, was the original keyboard player for the Grateful Dead. His song Operator has the narrator trying to find a girl for whom he has incomplete information, maybe just her name. He has a vague idea where she might be, but nothing definite. The girl could easily be a groupie with whom the narrator had a one night stand that made a strong impression on the narrator. But, in listening to the song while preparing for this post, I was struck with another possibility, one I feel sure Pigpen never intended. What if the narrator is a father searching for his teen runaway daughter? As I said, I don’t think Pigpen had that in mind, but it works.

If you have heard of Manhattan Transfer, you may know them for their doo-wop flavored hit The Boy From New York City. Maybe you also know that they went in a jazz direction in their later career. But Operator was their breakthrough song in 1975, and it is pure gospel. The song was originally written and performed about 20 years earlier by William Spivery. Aside from Operator, Spivery is really only known for two other songs, musical tributes to John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The song is a prayer, with the singer asking the operator for a connection to heaven.

Special thanks go out to fellow Star Maker Bert for making this post possible. I asked him for the two songs above, and he went beyond the call of duty and sent me a third Operator by Alexis Korner. I had never even heard it before, but it’s a keeper that is also of historical interest. Alexis Korner was one of many British rock artists in the 1960s who embraced the blues. His playing, based on this example, was fine, but Korner wasn’t much of a blues singer, and that is probably why he isn’t better known. John Mayall was probably an even worse singer, but his reputation rests on his uncanny ability to find sidemen who would go on to fame and fortune. On Operator, Korner got that kind of help too, from Robert Plant. Plant would be in Led Zeppelin a year after this recording, developing his trademark rock howl. But here is the beginning of that voice, in a blues context. Personally. I would much rather hear Robert Plant sing the blues. This Operator is a breakup blues, with nothing special about the lyrics. But the performance is great. It’s just piano, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and that great blues howl by Plant that makes this one utterly convincing. Incidentally, nothing in the lyrics explains why this song is called Operator, but Korner had to call it something.

Finally, I’m cheating a bit with my last selection. But how can you post a set of songs called Operator, and not include Jim Croce? The parenthetical That’s Not the Way It Feels in the title means the song is not a true homonym, but it fits the theme better than the Alexis Korner song in terms of lyrics. Like Pigpen, Croce’s narrator is seeking a girl he knew back when. But he knows where she is. What Croce’s narrator really wants is the ability to forgive an old hurt that won’t go away. And that is what he is asking for help with.

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