Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Great: The Great Pretender

purchase [ Platters version]
purchase [The Band version ]
purchase [ Freddy Mercury version ]

There are many notable version of The Great Pretender and it is no surprise that it was voted one of the greatest songs of all time by Rolling Stone magazine back in 2004 (Yeah, OK, in @ #360, but still...) But the song also carries on our previous mask theme, where the protagonist puts on a public face/performance that just aint true. And it would appear that this is something you just about have to do when you get up on a stage, be you Dolly Parton, Elvis, Freddy Mercury, Roy Orbison or Sam Cooke.

Way  back in  the year I was born, the story goes, a music producer named Buck Ram wrote this song in 20 minutes in a Vegas hotel washroom. At the time, he was the manager for the Platters, who recorded the song as a follow up to their first hit, Only You. When Mercury records signed them in a two-fer deal on the coat-tails of The Penguins (who, unlike the mostly unknown Platters, had a charting hit called Earth Angel), it wasn't at all clear that The Platters would go down in history. But they did- for a number of reasons - and the Penguins mostly did not. They went on to have many hits (something like 40 of them in about a 10 year span), they were like the first cross-overs from doo wop R&B to rock, they included a female in the line-up, and then they rapidly fell out of favor after they were busted.

Sam Cooke did a  version on his 1960 album Hits of the 50's

Dolly Parton covered it in 1984. Now there's someone who was well aware of the need for pretense as part of her show/pesona. Says Michelle Lindsey [link], "‘The Great Pretender’ is what she set out to be as a poor kid playing dress up, writing songs and hoping to become a star. ...  [Parton] admitted, ‘I do it because I’m a show person.’ To drop the pretence, the persona and age like a normal human being is not an option. You see this now in almost every famous person, trickling right down even to the average person in the street."

The most familiar to me is the version from the Band. I guess by that time I was consuming most of the music that was being produced and The Band, as J David recently noted was [link] hot. J David references the Stage Fright album. How appropriate! The best way to get over your stage fright? Pretend.

The version by Freddy Mercury in 1987 has a certain poignance to it in that it immediately predates his HIV public announcement, and most research indicates that he must have been aware of his health issues well before the song came out. That said, there isnt much debate about his sexual orientation at that time, and that, too, could certainly entail an element of pretense. These factors may be part of the strength of his commanding performance of the song. About Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddy's lover, Jim Hutton said "Freddie was never going to admit it publicly, because he had to carry on the charade about being straight, for his family. But we discussed it many times."

Old and In the Way also cover the song in a wonderful country style, this recording without Garcia unfortunately.

None of the above will be confused with the Foo Fighters' song similarly named The Pretender, which is a great song but doesn't pass our theme test for "great" unless you force a match like this :

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