In a voice that’s more like a sleepy bulltoad’s than ever, all croaks and wrinkles that make it appropriate for the Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James songs he’s always been drawn to, John Sebastian sang “Deep Purple” at the City Winery, accompanied by David Grisman on mandolin. He’s anecdotally drawn the line between “Deep Purple” and the relaxed little classic “Daydream” that he wrote for The Lovin’ Spoonful, and in this new incarnation it did sound like it could have been an outtake from the album named after that hit from the spring of ’66. “Over sleepy garden walls” is a phrase Sebastian could’ve written, and as steeped in folk and blues as the Spoonful were, it occurred to me that there were moments in that wonderful band’s career that also connect to the pop tradition of writers like Mitchell Parish (who penned the lyrics to “Deep Purple,” as well as “Stardust,” “Stars Fell On Alabama,” “Volare” and “Moonlight Serenade”), Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer.
We think of Tin Pan Alley-era pop as being so cosmopolitan, so New York, so, let’s face it, Jewish (with the notable exception of Cole Porter), but there was this other stream, with its lazy rivers and old mills, rocking chairs and buttermilk skies. At the Winery gig, John pointed out how a riff he learned from John Hurt somehow became the Spoonful’s “Lovin’ You — country-blues was a big part of the band’s DNA — but I also hear some Carmichael and Mercer in Sebastian songs like “Warm Baby,” “Day Blues,” “Boredom” and “Rain On The Roof.”
Mitchell Parish (one of those Jewish lyricists, albeit one whose Lithuanian family lived for a while in Louisiana) attached his words for “Deep Purple” to a melody by Peter DeRose, and like his “Stardust” — with its verse that starts out describing the “purple dusk of twilight time” — it’s about loss and memory. “Stardust” is all aching recollection: the stars, the songs (“the melody haunts my reverie”), the nightingale, the roses, everything (as in “Deep Purple,” there’s a garden wall) reminds the singer, dreaming in vain, that the nights are lonely. “Stardust” is nearly all set-up: here’s what’s going on, and here’s why I’m so bereft. Most singers dive right into “Deep Purple” without setting the scene with a verse. I didn’t even know it had one until I came across the version by a singer named Turner Layton. “Across the years,” he sings, “you come to me at twilight” (this really is a close relative of “Stardust”), like it’s a visitation from the departed. Now it’s more than a lost-love song; there’s something haunting about it that’s missing from the records made in the big band years (Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman, Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, Larry Clinton’s Orchestra with Bea Wain all did it around 1939 after words were put to it), like there was a deeper layer of longing.
“Deep Purple” was a huge hit when the country was on the brink of WWII, and like so many songs from that time, underneath the smooth coating was the fear of separation: you’re gone, I’m alone, I miss you. Then the song was picked up again. In 1949, there was a recording by The Ravens, lead vocal by the impossibly dark bass voice of Jimmy Ricks, almost imperceptibly backed by the other guys for the first half of the song, and then Maithe Marshall’s careening tenor takes over to wrap things up; it’s a dramatic musical split. Other versions followed: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, not so much screamin’ as croonin’ in this case, not his vocal wheelhouse, and a big, too big some might say, rendering by a late (1957) edition of Billy Ward and His Dominoes on Liberty (Gene Mumford on Jackie Wilsonesque lead), following directly on the lush path of their version of “Stardust” (both singles made the top 20).
Nino Tempo and April Stevens, a brother-and-sister act that’d been kicking around for a while, concocted one of those dopey-yet-irresistible standard-tune transformations that popped up all over the place in the early ‘60s: “Blue Moon” by The Marcels, “Heart and Soul” by The Cleftones, “Linda” by Jan & Dean…”Deep Purple” by Nino and April had almost nothing in common with any other “Deep Purple” that had ever come before (the same could be said about The Marcels, The Cleftones and Jan & Dean: fidelity to the source was a non-issue). It sounded tossed-off, but nothing could’ve stopped it from being a hit, and it reached #1 in November 1963. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Rock & Roll Recording. And, naturally, there were sequels, so Nino & April got around to doing a similar variation on “Stardust,” by which point (February 1964) the clock had run out on this particular brand of “Rock & Roll.”
But John Sebastian had heard their take on “Deep Purple” (how could he not have?), he had it in mind when he wrote “Daydream,” and the other night, he brought it around again. It was a bluer shade of “Deep Purple,” intimate and a little worn, like the orchestrated version Brian Wilson did for the abandoned Adult Child album back in 1977. “Though you’re gone,” the song says, “your love lives on when moonlight beams.” Moonlight can do that to you, and so can songs.