A little while back, a friend of mine was getting rid of his collection of LPs. I helped him organize his digital music collection, and in return he let me raid his storage space. Like a greedy kid, I took about 10 milkcrates full of records. Needless to say I haven’t gotten through all of them yet, but even if I never do, one specific song makes all of the ten crates seem worthwhile.
I found this song on a collection of unknown soul, a reissue put out in the eighties by Rhino. Now this wasn’t your average bootleg Japanese reissue (“Number One Soul!” “Happy Drums!”), it was called Screamin’ Soul Sisters, and it was full of good stuff. Shirley Ellis doing “Nitty Gitty”, Gloria Jones doing “Heartbeat”, “Ask Me” by Maxine Brown, but even embedded inthis kind of gold one song stood out. Right at the end of side one is Lorraine Ellison’s recording of “Stay With Me”. It’s the kind of song that can make the end of a side sound more like the end of the world.
It starts like a lullaby, a slow 6/8 piano line, and a hi-hat cymbal very deliberately keeping the beat. Ellison’s vocal comes in, riding on top of a swell of strings. It starts to crescendo and before you know it the horn line is leading you into a screaming, desperate chorus. It’s enough to make your jaw clench and your toes curl.
There are two stars in this song, Lorraine Ellison’s operatic range and Jerry Ragovoy’s arrangement. The story goes that Frank Sinatra canceled a recording session with his orchestra and Ragovoy was the only producer who was willing to take up the slack, with only three days to write and arrange a full symphony. “Stay With Me” is the result of those three days of tireless effort. Legend also has it that Ellison recorded those soaring, hearwrenching vocals in just one take, a feat that is more than impressive, it’s nearly unheard of.
What Ellison and Ragovoy created is a song about desperately wanting. Ellison bargains, denies and pleads and Ragovoy’s lyrics make it obvious that he knows a thing or two about loss. Each chorus begs for togetherness, sounding like a last ditch effort, a blind shot in the dark.
It’s not the kind of song that has a lesson. You don’t walk away with a new set of morals or with new questions about the world. It does however, demand that you feel. As the side ends and the needle starts it’s cyclic popping you feel what Ragovoy and Ellison want you to feel, and that’s a powerful thing.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org