Perfect Sound Forever

Morgana King's I Know How It Feels to Be Lonely (1968)

A Vintage Jazz-Folk-Pop LP with a Cool Beatles Twist
By Kurt Wildermuth

How cool is it that Morgana King played Mama Corleone, wife of Don Vito, in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974)? It's cool, all right. Few movies have achieved the cross-cultural ubiquity of those two, and involvement with them brings long-lasting cachet. If most people will remember the name Morgana King, it's for those appearances.

To some music nerds, however, it's even cooler that King recorded a version of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." King's version of the band's psychedelic masterpiece --not their only one, but their first and possibly anyone's first--is the opening track on her LP I Know How It Feels to Be Lonely, released by Verve Records in 1968.

King was born Maria Grazia Morgana Messina in 1930. She lived her early life in Manhattan. As a jazz, folk, and pop singer performing under her stage name, King released her first album in 1956, her last in 1994; she died in 2018. She recorded for a few labels over the years, and I Know How It Feels to Be Lonely was her only album on Verve.

That it was King's only album for that storied label is one of a few singularities related to this record. The title song was written by Lou Guardino and Phil Gilbert, and web searches suggest it is their only credit as songwriters--or as anything else, at least in the music business. Likewise, Joe J. Williams and Walter Smollen's "Warm Eyes and Bright," recorded here by King, appears to be their only music-biz credit. And the Charles A. Pomerantz who contributed liner notes for the album's back cover has precisely this one credit. It's as though a coterie gathered for a special project, but most of the trails go cold at this spot.

Pomerantz may have been the owner of a California company, Charles A. Pomerantz Ltd. He may have been a publicist whose clients included Lucille Ball. Perhaps he was King's publicist as well. In any case, in his beautifully written notes Pomerantz flings superlatives about King, to the point of admitting his "excesses . . . but nothing less can match the sensory stimulus of listening to her sing."

To account for King's vocal brilliance, Pomerantz refers to "the musical soul of her Sicilian heritage; early dramatic training; long and educating maturation as an artist; the minor key wail of Hebrew chants absorbed as if by osmosis from her nearness to a neighborhood synagogue; an ear-opening exposure to the rhythms and quiet style of South America; a life of highs of total acceptance and the soul-tearing lows of tragedy."

All of this makes me feel--absurdly but wholeheartedly--that I know Morgana King. I recognize her spirit. She's the huge talent who lives in my building or whom I pass on the street, some of whose experiences are etched in her face or articulated in his gestures or embodied in their demeanor. I might never know the facts of this person's life, but I can intuit that the person has developed a rich soul. To however small a degree, I am Morgana King, becoming a sum of knowledge and feeling, letting part of my expressiveness into the world--not in the specific sense of doing anything but in the general sense of being. "I am my own captain and this is my ship," King told a Washington Post reporter in 1981. "I don't want anybody messing with my steering wheel or my navigation."

As you might have gathered, King's 1968 album inspires reverence, even love. Like, for example, albums from the late '60s and the early '70s by Mary Hopkin and Carol Hall, I Know How It Feels to Be Lonely could introduce you to a major talent. It has the potential to become a desert island disc if you're able to acquire it. But you'll need to find a vintage copy or listen to illegal electronic files, because (unlike Hopkin's but like Hall's) the album has never been reissued.

Two years before the appearance of King's album, "Tomorrow Never Knows" concluded the Beatles' album Revolver. King or someone in her camp must have loved Revolver (a few people do), because her album includes recordings of two other songs from it: "Eleanor Rigby" and "Got to Get You into My Life." Those two, coming from the McCartney side of the John Lennon and Paul McCartney songwriting partnership, are far more standard fare for jazz and pop singers. For example, the jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery's A Day in the Life (1967) includes versions of both the title track and "Eleanor Rigby." Aretha Franklin covered it. The song itself is rendered perfectly by McCartney and strings on the Beatles' original, but its articulateness invites interpretation. "Tomorrow Never Knows," decidedly from the Lennon side of the partnership and therefore far thornier, takes real imagination and chutzpah to recast beyond its original form.

Lennon derived the lyrics from a 1964 book, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert. The experience referred to in the title involves hallucinogens, and Lennon was an LSD aficionado at the time. He wanted this song to convey an acid trip, with the music carrying you where the words indicated. The lyrics begin:

Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thought, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining

An early version, included on the Beatles' archival compilation Anthology 2 (1996), displays the bones of the eventual release. In this trial run, a thumping, echo-enhanced rhythm section and sound effects hardly hint at Lennon's ambition for the track. He wanted the effect of myriad monks chanting, with himself vocalizing as Dalai Lama atop a mountain. But the finished version, on Revolver, doesn't match that grand vision either. It ramps up the rhythm to a concoction not heard elsewhere, before or since, with Ringo drumming like a one-man locked-in groove, and it adds squawking birdlike noises that fly around: intense, gripping, trippy, potentially mind-altering, like a dance song for the uncoordinated.

King's version does something completely different. Its arrangement arises from a repetitive yet sensitive bass pattern, the sort of thing the genius bassist Ron Carter excels at. Unfortunately, King's album does not credit its musicians, but I wouldn't be astonished if Carter turned out to be the bassist here. Gentle keyboards and, I think, swirling woodwinds deliver low-level psychedelia, as though a circus is playing somewhere nearby. King is up front, her voice ranging in a way Lennon's doesn't and, indeed, never did. He was a different kind of singer. On "Tomorrow Never Knows," Lennon goes for cool, weird, and heavy. King goes for warm, meditative, and light.

(Let's pause for a six degrees of separation moment: It's fun to wonder what Lennon made of King's version, if he heard it. Consider that in 1965, the Beatles thought so much of "And I Love Him," a retitled version of "And I Love Her" by the American blues and soul singer Esther Phillips, that they flew Phillips to England to perform. McCartney has called that version his all-time favorite cover of any of his songs, which is really saying something.

As far as I know, Morgana King and John Lennon intersect not personally but in the person of Torrie Zito, an arranger and conductor who worked on several of King's mid-sixties albums. In 1971, Zito worked on Lennon's Imagine. He did not, however, work on I Know How It Feels to Be Lonely.)

The Revolver version of "Tomorrow Never Knows" has always been seen by some as a brilliant encapsulation of an internal state and a breathtaking explosion of song form. For example, the whole thing is built on a single chord. Its detractors have viewed the result as nonsense, a nonsong, a noise. King's version goes a long way toward placing "Tomorrow Never Knows," the composition, somewhere in between these extremes. She brings out the melody but maintains the meditativeness. Above all, she takes the material seriously, celebrates it as beautiful.

Just as we might wish the Beatles' original were longer, the way we want Hendrix's "Little Wing" to be longer and more epic, so we could see King's version extended into a trance-inducing ambient-techno mix. Perhaps an enterprising digital sound person, having been introduced to King's track by this article, will mix it with beats and effects, extending it into the cosmos.

Her album's creative team knew the merits of King's version of "Tomorrow Never Knows," as they placed it as the lead-off track. While the genesis of that version remains mysterious, the talent that went into its realization helps ground it in the folk-pop of the period.

The album's producer, Pete Spargo, worked extensively for Verve, where in 1968 he also produced albums for the Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto, the American jazz singer Arthur Prysock, and the American Latin-jazz percussionist Willie Bobo. The album's primary arranger, Jimmie Haskell, has extensive credits ranging from schmaltz to credible rock, but here it suffices to say that in 1967 he arranged two hit singles: Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" and the Mamas & the Papas' "I Saw Her Again." In 1968 he arranged Simon & Garfunkel's "Old Friends."

Apart from its reliance on Revolver, I Know How It Feels to Be Lonely draws its material from standard pop and then-contemporary pop. The collection might remind you of Roberta Flack's First Take (1969), with its jazzy renderings of folk-pop songs by Leonard Cohen and Ewan MacColl (and its bass playing by Ron Carter!), or Barbra Streisand's Stoney End (1971), with its takes on contemporary pop by new faces such as Laura Nyro and Randy Newman. As on those albums, undisputed classics, all the material on I Know How It Feels to Be Lonely is presented with the utmost delicacy. Nothing is overplayed. No song overstays its welcome.

Buddy Johnson's "Since I Fell for You" follows "Tomorrow Never Knows" the way Sarah Vaughan might have followed Grace Slick. In place of the pointillistic, carefully controlled arrangement of King's "Tomorrow Never Knows," the backing becomes a mildly swinging jazz combo. Donovan's "Sunshine Superman," too, is recast for jazz, enhanced with strings that recall the Beatles' "Within You Without You" and a stringed instrument that sounds like and may be a sitar. This combination works, though you need to adjust your ears to get it.

Some lite-jazz guitar opens Jimmy Webb's "Didn't We," which King renders as a standard with the right degree of wistfulness. At the end she works a little vocal corkscrew, twisting time. By contrast, Guardino and Gilbert's "I Know How It Feels to Be Lonely" is old-timey but unstodgy jazz/blues with a relaxed tempo, punctuated by tinkling piano and gentle horns, the kind of smile-inducement that the young Bonnie Raitt excelled at and Leon Redbone made a career of.

King's dramatic side comes to the fore on Arthur Hamilton's "I Can Do a Trick," a light samba with a nonschmaltzy touch of Broadway, which by the end shows off the very upper reaches of her register. Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields's "Where Am I Going" prefigures the German-American stage performer and chanteuse Ute Lemper, especially on her fearlessly challenging album of rock songs, Punishing Kiss (2000). Befitting its title, "Where Am I Going" is an unconventional composition whose angularity perhaps conveys way finding but whose overall effect is of hammering on, drilling in, one spot. Williams and Smollen's "Warm Eyes and Bright" is theatrical folk-pop, kind of like Joan Baez's orchestrated work at the time. Its Old English feel, with lutes or flutes, makes this song feel like it's been around for ages.

The album's closer, Tony Scibetta and John Wallowitch's "Only Know I Loved You," fully showcases King's gorgeous voice, especially when she lets the high notes rise and float over the breathtakingly spare piano and strings. She does so at the very start, going straight for your heart; holds on to that part; and wraps up the proceedings by extending a lower line that could be a heartstring.

And the other two songs from Revolver? "Got to Get You into My Life" sounds pretty much like what you'd expect from a translation of the Beatles' soulish, heavyish groove into a jazzier, lighter one with a female vocal. It is not, in other words, a reinterpretation the way Earth, Wind & Fire's 1978 version is; nothing to get hung about, and wisely positioned as the penultimate track, a breather before the finale.

"Eleanor Rigby," by contrast, reveals the elastic strength of the composition. The arrangement resembles that of King's "Tomorrow Never Knows": a stringed instrument is plucked, then strings build unobtrusively, to the point that you're not sure what you're hearing. Was that a touch of woodwinds? Was that an oboe? Over the resulting shapes, King glides through and around the very recognizable melody.

On the Beatles' original, the insistent, headlong string quartet and McCartney's unadorned vocal focus attention on the lyrics, the narrative, and potentially the emotional component. King treats the words more as a means of creating patterns of notes in the air. Her vocal soars into the freeform contours associated with pop experimentalists such as Kate Bush, Mary Margaret O'Hara, and Fiona Apple. She brings the pathos but in her own style. It's an interesting choice, to be less reverent toward "Eleanor Rigby" than toward "Tomorrow Never Knows," but that kind of interpretive prerogative seems to have been King's stock-in-trade, a point of pride.

She splits the difference on a version of Simon & Garfunkel's "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)," which skirts the song's potential for cheesiness. When King scats, she appears to be skipping along. She's having more fun than Simon & Garfunkel ever sound like they're having. Her version lasts less than two minutes--it's just a brief blast to side 1--and like the rest of this collection, it may indeed leave you feelin' groovy.

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