There is a great chance that regardless of your demographic profile you are familiar with Leon Russell’s A Song For You, one of the really towering copyrights of the last 40 years. Aside from being an unquestionably terrific song—touching, lovely, and timeless—an additional reason that A Song For You has been recorded dozens of times and continues to be absolutely irrisistible to singers, lies in the narcissistic rush of a single couplet: I’ve acted out my love on stages/with ten thousand people watching/but we’re along now and I’m singing this song for you. In this one passage, Russell creates a narrative structure in which the singer of the song is a truly heroic figure of literary proportions, envied by thousands but lonely underneath. You can bet that the song would not be nearly as appealing to a star if Russell’s lyric was I’ve acted out my love in lounges/with six drunk people sleeping.
Here is a great clip of Leon Russell performing the song in 1971. After the jump I have aggregated some of the best (and less than best) versions of A Song For You just for you! Which one is your favorite?
- The great Joe Cocker included it on his 1976 album Stingray. A true interpretative wizard, Cocker is one of the few artists who was extended a dispensation by a loving fanbase despite not being a songwriter in the rock era.
- The Carpenters’ recording served as the title song for the duo’s 1972 album A Song For You. This was the first version of the song I remember hearing and I have a sentimental attachment to it, as well as to the album it came from. I can easily picture the heart on the album cover and I suppose that’s why I picked that image as the featured image for this blog post. Here they are peforming the song live on a Bob Hope special, circa 1971. (It’s always odd watching Karen trying to do the TV thing because, at least for me, her particular brand of charisma was almost exclusively vocal—but what a voice!)
- Helen Reddy recorded the song on her 1971 debut album I Don’t Know How to Love Him. Oh Helen—she of the fluttering vibrato and good intentions. I fully wanted to share her version with you, but I simply cannot bring myself to pay $1.29 for the privilege. You are welcome to sample it on iTunes or enjoy it on Spotify and please think of me when you do!
- Donny Hathaway recorded the song for his 1971 self-titled album. Considered one of his signature songs, Donny’s version is probably the best-known version of the song. His stunning arrangement is frequently emulated—sometimes exactly. For many folks, A Song For You simply is a Donny Hathaway and they are completely unaware of its true origin.
- Dusty Springfield recorded the song for possible inclusion on her 1972 album See All Her Faces, but her unfinished recording remained shelved for almost 15 years until finally released on the compilation Something Special in 1996. Although by the 70s Dusty’s output was decidely hit or miss for me, I must confess I think she really nails this one.
- Carmen McRae performed this song on her 1972 The Great American Songbook album. The embrace of the song by more jazz and standards oriented singers illustrates the songs unique elasticity—part of its endurance.
- Aretha Franklin recorded the song on her Let Me in Your Life album, released in 1974. I love many things about Aretha’s version, not the least of which is that 10,000 people was not nearly enough for The Queen, she changes the lyric to “millions of people watching!”
- Cher included the song on her 1972 album Foxy Lady. Though her version is limited by a rather Vegasy horn chart, our girl delivers a rather pleasing performance here. She performed the song on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in a typically inspired Bob Mackie creation:
- Nancy Wilson recorded the song on her the 1987 album Forbidden Lover (the jazz singer, not half of Heart).
- Ray Charles recorded a poignant version of the song on his 1993 album My World. Released as a single, it reached #4 on the Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chart, and won him a Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. Charles performed the song live at New York’s Beacon Theater on April 9, 2003, as part of Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday tribute (released on DVD as Willie Nelson and Friends: Live & Kickin’). Leon Russell sang the first verse, Willie Nelson sang the second verse, and Charles sang the remainder of the song in this unforgettable performance. Nelson, who stood nearby during Charles’ performance, was moved to tears.
- Willie Nelson has also recorded the song two times on his own. He included the song on his 1973 album Shotgun Willie. He also performed it in the movie Honeysuckle Rose and it appears on the movie’s soundtrack. Here is the studio version:
- Peggy Lee included the song on her final album for Capitol Records, Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown North Dakota (1972). Though by 1972 she was a throwback to another era, I think Peggy did a very credible job with songs like this and, for example, James Taylor’s Don’t Let Me be Lonely Tonight. There was something about her laid back hipness that made her occasional forays into more contemporary pop more organic than many of her peers.
- Elliott Yamin performed the song in both his audition for American Idol and in one of his final performances. It was also named number three in Entertainment Weekly’s 10 all-time best American Idol performances (a distinction that might strike some as an oxymoron), though I must admit Yamin is not half bad.
- Michael Bublé included the song on his album It’s Time. Bublé frequently ends his concert with the song. During his Crazy Love tour, he sang the majority of the song to the arena without a microphone. I’m of two minds about Bublé: though I truly appreciate that he is a young person carrying classic pop music forward, I wish that he was more of his own man and less numbingly derivative of Sinatra.
- Mavis Staples recorded a version in collaboration with British Electric Foundation, which was included on their 1991 album Music of Quality and Distinction, Volume 2.
- Natalie Cole recorded the song for her 1999 album Snowfall on the Sahara. Her lovely version was used to dramatic effect by figure skater Michelle Kwan. Here it is:
- City High included it on their 2001 self-titled album.
- In 2005 Herbie Hancock released a version with vocals by Christina Aguilera that was also nominated for a 2006 Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals. They performed it live at the Grammys. Here is the studio version, which is definitely the one to go with if you believe, as Christina apparently does, that good singing means endless vocal runs with no particular musical point other than to show off that she can riff endlessly.
- Whitney Houston performed A Song for You for the troops and their families returning from the Gulf War on March 31, 1991 on the specialWelcome Home Heroes With Whitney Houston (1991). Her powerful version was inspiring and far superior to the bizarre dance version she sadly squawked on her final album I Look to You.
- Simply Red recorded the song on the 2005 album Simplified in 2006. Not bad.
- Gavin DeGraw performed the song for StrippedMusic.com.
- Gerald Levert performed the song on the 1998 New York Undercover: A Night at Natalie’s soundtrack.
- Featured on Betty Wright’s album Betty Wright Live in 1978.
- Elton John used it as an intro to a medley of his own songs Blue Eyes and I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues on his 1986 tour.
- In 1994 the great Shirley Horn performed the song as a medley with the standard Goodbye on her album I Love You, Paris.
- Petula Clark’s live version was recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in 1974. It was recently released on the compilation Open Your Heart.
- Donna Summer often sang this as her encore during tours from 1977 to 1979, and again in 1983. I love what she did with this song.
- Beyonce Knowles performed the arrangement made popular by Donny Hathaway regularly during her second solo world tour.
- Title cut from the Temptations 1975 album.
- Sax player Kirk Whalum recorded the song on his Everything Is Everything: The Music of Donny Hathaway (2010).
- Neil Diamond included the song on his 2010 cover album Dreams.
- A version recorded by Amy Winehouse in 2009 was included on her 2011 posthumous album Lioness: Hidden Treasures. It sounds messy, rushed, and slurred. The vocal is comped within an inch of its life—typical of posthumous releases when the label is scrambling to release anything.
- Title cut from jazz legend Anita O’Day’s 1984 comeback album.
- Also recorded by Vikki Carr, B.J. Thomas, Barbara Cook, Woody Herman, Peabo Bryson, Andy Williams, Kenny Rankin, Ernestine Anderson, and on and on!
I always like to end this feature by sharing my favorite version of the song. With copyrights that achieve this level it is always difficult to choose just one, but I’m really feeling Merry Clayton’s right now:
Merry Clayton is an absolute real life soul survivor. Although she is best-known for essentially carrying the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, her solo work is absolutely timeless and worth seeking out. She is featured in the new documentary 20 Feet From Stardom that focuses on dynamic background singers who have supported some of our favorite pop and rock stars.
Merry’s version of A Song for You is from her eponymous 1971 album and benefits, I think, from exactly the right balance of grandness and humility. Her version’s arrangement is also one of the very best: tasty keyboard licks, awesome call and response vocals, a great horn part, and an overall fantastic build. It sounds like 1971 and forever. Prepare to be astounded!
You may also enjoy:
A Stargayzing Guide to 13 of the Most Over-the-Top Vocal Performances of The 1960s, Volume One