It’s Christmas every day when you hear Telly Savalas’ spoken word version of Bread’s “If” and if there is anything in the world as sublime as when the actor goes “off-script” at the 1:55 minute mark, saying “if a man could be two places at one one time…hey baby…I’d be with you,” I certainly can’t name it. (And what a script it is. In Savalas’ capable hands Bread’s 1971 top-five pop hit is reduced to its proper realm in the land of treacle pudding, somewhere south of a Rod McKuen poem and two towns west of a Hallmark card.) Of course, “Who loves ya, baby?” was Telly’s catchphrase from Kojak, the CBS detective series that ran for five years in the mid-1970s, and his ability to seamlessly weave the phrase into the brilliant tapestry that is his spoken word version of “If” is just one of its many attributes, along with the inability to sing on pitch when he finally does sing (“and one by one, the stars will all go out”) and the irresistible Ray Conniff Singers-style vocal arrangement.
Telly Savalas’ long career had several high points beyond Kojak, including Burt Lancaster’s Birdman of Alcatraz, (for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1962), a memorable turn as the villain Blofeld in the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and roles in many other films including The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Capricorn One (1978). I was also intrigued to learn that he was, apparently, Jennifer Aniston’s godfather. And just how popular was Savalas and Kojak in the 1970s, you may ask? Popular enough that the R&B group Tavares name checked Kojak in their 1977 #1 R&B hit “Whodunit.”
But for me, none of Telly’s legitimate accomplishments pack the emotional wallop of the two and a half blissful minutes of his spoken word version of Bread’s If, and if you read stargayzing.com regularly, I know we’re in complete agreement.
Though it could appear to be something less than serious from the vantage point of history, Savalas’ improbable cover of “If” was a big hit—at least in the UK—where it was number one for two weeks in 1975! Telly’s somnambulist anthem, which, by the way, clinically produces a feeling of intense relaxation and overall well-being in eight-out-of-ten patients, can be enjoyed today both as fine sleep aid and as a singularly memorable musical moment with first-class bona fides: it was produced by Snuff Garrett who also gave the world the Every Which Way But Loose soundtrack and what I lovingly refer to as “Cher’s early-70s swarthy troika,” Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves, Half-Breed, and Dark Lady, so don’t be so fast to sniff at Snuff’s If!
The success of “If” was also reflective of the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s pretty much anyone could get a record deal, especially big TV stars like Telly. The difference here is that most of the others, like John Travolta, Cheryl Ladd and Lynda Carter, to name three out of literally dozens, actually, you know, sang, whereas Telly primarily spoke, content to rely on his sonorous speaking voice and undeniable Quiana-shirt-and-cigarillo sex appeal.
I can’t think of a better way to Tel-ebrate the sheer joy of Savalas’ spoken word version of “If” then with a second, altogether different performance of Telly speaking the ballad. That’s right, from the embarrassment of riches department, I bring you an altogether different “If,” this one really a prototypical music video, where Telly actually only hears the recording in his head while dramatizing what might best be described as an awkward romantic encounter with a lucky young lady! This randy redhead seems to enjoy nuzzling in Telly’s cigarette breath and wriggling over his ashtray (at 2:25) to get some lovin’ from her smokey Greek papa, who not only possesses indescribable sex appeal but also the ability to play solitaire on the floor and lay flat on his back simultaneously.This is not as easy as it looks.
If only because sincerity has been completely eviscerated by irony in our edgy, auto-tuned world, it is completely possible we may never see and hear missteps of this magnitude ever again.Instead we will have to face a world of pro-tooled blandness where every novelty record sounds exactly alike and every singer sounds more like a cash register than the swoon-inducing off-key swagger of the great Savalas!