Brilliant Songs #21 : Gene McDaniels’s “Compared to What”

Consider these lines from the early 1960s pop classic, “A Hundred Pounds of Clay”:

He took a hundred pounds of clay
And then He said “Hey, listen
I’m gonna fix this-a world today
Because I know what’s missin’
Then He rolled his big sleeves up
And a brand-new world began
He created a woman and-a
Lots of lovin’ for a man
Whoa-oh-oh, yes he did

And now these, five years later, from another hit, “Compared to What”:

Slaughterhouse is killin’ hogs
Twisted children killin’ frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin’ logs
Tired old lady kissin’ dogs
Hate the human, love that stinkin’ mutt (I can’t stand it!)
Try to make it real, compared to what? C’mon baby now!

Might it strike you as improbable that one artist played a major role in both of these songs, the first which he sang to a hit that peaked at #11 on the R&B charts, the second which he wrote but was beyond happy and surprised to see another artist take to #1 on the jazz charts of his time?

The two songs bookend a particularly transitional period not only for singer and songwriter Gene McDaniels (pictured on the right), but on a much wider scale, the cultural-political history of the United States between 1961 and 1966.

“A Hundred Pounds of Clay” was a feel-good piece of vanilla sentiment for a feeling-good country just emerging from the somnolent 1950s, and it helped set up all that followed in McDaniels’s music career. (“Nice little song you got there, friend…”)

McDaniels never disowned it, and, indeed, a tender You Tube clip you’ll see below shows him singing it just a year before his death to a group of shy teen girls as part of a school arts mentoring program.

But by 1966, the country seemed to be imploding from multiple scourges of war, racial unrest, and general loss of the can-do mojo that had supercharged its path to world dominance since the end of World War II. And McDaniels, a Nebraska preacher’s son and proud black man of deep and deliberate feeling, had much different fish to fry than picturing God in a ceramics studio, making a partner for males. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

***

***

McDaniels wrote “Compared to What” to virtually no fanfare as a Dylanesque ballad (he was a longtime admirer of Dylan) but later said in interviews that he had his ex-bandmate, the keyboardist Les McCann, in mind all along as his preferred interpreter. The problem was that he and McCann were not on speaking terms after McDaniels left McCann’s trio a few years earlier under less than cordial conditions.

The pair eventually made up after McDaniels proffered a sincere and even public apology, with McCann then recording a relatively tame, ballad version of it in 1966 that didn’t make any waves.

But in the way of things in the jazz world, rare is the song that gets played the same way twice, and over time, the music began to move a lot more as it rode along with McCann’s uninhibited keyboard style.

And then one of those nights happened, and it just happened to be at the fabled Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on June 21, 1969. With the cameras rolling and McCann’s band on fire in a blaze of improvisation, “Compared to What” suddenly revealed itself as a driving, righteous and incendiary howl of indignation, equal parts social anger and musical exploration, its essence uncovered at last.

(Asked later how long the band had rehearsed its set, McCann replied, “About 10 minutes.” If it wasn’t jazz, one might dismiss such a claim out of hand…)

McCann and percussionist Donald Dean laid down a relentless, pounding beat behind McCann’s alternately emphatic and incredulous vocals that seemed to challenge the very sanity of the world he was beholding. He and consummate sax man Eddie Harris launched the bulk of the fireworks, joined by trumpeter Benny Bailey and bassist Leroy Vinnegar—along with a jazz-savvy crowd that seemed to recognize that the explosive 8-minute riff they were soaking in was already becoming one for the musical history books.

McCann actually left the stage at song’s end in a state of disconsolation, so bathed was he in its mix of anger and despair and none too sure how to read the crowd’s reaction. In a 2015 interview, he confided:

“I was angry when it was over and I went back to my hotel room to cry on my wife on the phone. When I was done, my manager called and said ‘Man, the band’s calling you wanting to get your butt back onstage. There’s something magic going on.’”

Let’s give the song a listen and read now and sink into the scene, the beat, the sweat on the band’s brows as it serves up an uncompromising vision of what music’s moods and movement can be.

***

***

I love the lie and lie the love
A-Hangin’ on, with push and shove
Possession is the motivation
That is hangin’ up the God-damn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut (everybody now!)
Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what? C’mon baby!

Slaughterhouse is killin’ hogs
Twisted children killin’ frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin’ logs
Tired old lady kissin’ dogs
Hate the human, love that stinking mutt (I can’t stand it!)
Try to make it real, compared to what? C’mon baby now!

The President, he’s got his war
Folks don’t know just what it’s for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We’re chicken-feathers, all without one nut. God damn it!
Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what? (Sock it to me)

Church on Sunday, sleep and nod
Tryin’ to duck the wrath of God
Preacher’s fillin’ us with fright
They all tryin’ to teach us what they think is right
They really got to be some kind of nut (I can’t use it!)
Tryin’ to make it real, compared to what?

Where’s that bee and where’s that honey?
Where’s my God and where’s my money?
Unreal values, crass distortion
Unwed mothers need abortion
Kind of brings to mind ol’ young King Tut (He did it now)
Tried to make it real, compared to what?!

***

“Compared to What” became the first cut on the group’s live album that came out of that evening, titled “Swiss Movement.” It’s a great title, a multiple entendre suggesting the precision of a Swiss watch, the body’s natural desire to join wholly into every musical groove it encounters, and also a cultural “movement” that the work takes the measure of and then turns into art with a profound social conscience.

“They really got to be some kind of nut!” McDaniels-McCann howl. “I CAN’T USE IT!

What can’t they use? Preachers bathed in hypocrisy, for one.

Faux patriots and their “crass distortion” of a true patriotism that faces the country’s shortcomings with humility and resolve.

Also: a president sending the young to die for reasons as murky as the jungles they confront.

And let us not forget the poor dumb rednecks.

McDaniels is not asking anyone to make an extra special effort to understand the motivations of those oppressing the country. It’s not a plea for conciliation or learned analysis of the lies, the materialism, the racism, the industrial agriculture, the wayward politicians who are “hangin’ up the God-damn nation!”

The mere utterance of both “God-damnit” and “abortion” from any stage in 1966 was still shocking and rare. (Or is that “rare and thus shocking?”) In the same interview cited above, McCann related that a Washington radio station had been fined $10,000 for initially playing the song with “abortion” intact. “By the time I did it for Atlantic (Records),” he said, “they bleeped out ‘God-damnit’ the first few releases, but they eventually left it like it was supposed to be. Shows how far we’ve come.”

Well, yes and no. One wonders what McCann, still alive at 85 years old, and McDaniels, who died in 2011, would say about the culture today, so many of the seeming tide-turnings toward justice under renewed, virulent assault, anger and lunatic conspiracies loosed like a virus across the land, albeit one seemingly impervious to ready vaccination.

McDaniels actually left the U.S. after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 to reside in Denmark and Sweden for three years, joining a kind of long-running black diaspora among artists who sought a less inflamed environment in which to pursue their lives and careers. He had no idea McCann would be playing his song that magical night down south in Switzerland, and was stunned to hear about it weeks later, when a friend phoned him with congratulations.

“For what?” he asked.

“You’ve got the No.1 jazz tune in the world,” came the response.

McDaniels didn’t have to dig too deep to know which of his songs had achieved that lofty perch, even three years after he wrote it. The resulting financial windfall allowed him to quit performing in nightclubs, which he had come to hate, given all their smoke and tipsy chatter. He then spent the bulk of his remaining creative life devoted to his true love of songwriting.

Biggest among his subsequent hits was a return to romance with “Feel Like Making Love,” which Roberta Flack made into a #1 hit in 1974.

As it happens, Flack had recorded “Compared to What” to lead off her “First Take” album in 1969, which was released exactly one day before McCann’s “Swiss Movement” concert. It didn’t do much for Flack, but no worries there: her ravishing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” on the same album became a monster hit for her when jazz-loving actor and director Clint Eastwood included it in his 1971 chiller, “Play Misty for Me.”

Well past half-century after its release, “Compared to What” remains as an enduring anthem, full of raw power, the album it led off a keepsake in many a collection. It’s hard to imagine a time when it would not be appreciated and held up as a timeless, fierce piece of music, foot-tapping, provocative, and echoing across the generations with a beat that goes right to the heart.

***

***

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

McDaniels and 1964 Harlem uprising photos from the public domain 

12 comments to Brilliant Songs #21 : Gene McDaniels’s “Compared to What”

  • Susan Dearing  says:

    Drew! Thanks so much for reminding me about this song! Loved watching the live performance and loved the musicians, especially Les McCann. Such a great song and so emblematic of the 60s. You made my day as I watched the video and listened to the song just now, thanks!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Ha ha, yes, well that will certainly get your Sunday morning going into high gear, Susan! Thanks for letting me know!

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Delightful Sunday morning rave up! My older brother was a fine trumpet player and loved jazz. Much of his collection was wasted on me (being a young rock n roller) but not this album, as this glorious classic makes so clear why (loved seeing the front row dude snapping his finger along with the infectious beat). Had no idea about the song’s backstory, just assumed Les McCann wrote it (sorry Gene). Sweet clip of McDaniels singing 100 pounds of clay too – great way to begin the day!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Oh man, I am really glad you mentioned the finger-snapping dude, Kevin—I wrote a note to myself to point that out and just plain forgot. It was so emblematic, I thought, of what this song does to our nervous systems, yes?—An uncontrollable urge to MOVE something or other!

      • Arjan Khalsa  says:

        My favorite jazz recording of all time, Compared To What changed the way I listened to music. The utter thrill of the chromatic sax sequence and raw power of the vocals along with the relentless forward-leaning piano playing… it was and still is overwhelming.

        In the late 70s, Eddie Harris’s daughter lived in the ashram as I did. We went to the Circle Star Theater together to see him play this and other tunes with Les McCann. Fun night. Nice to meet the band.

        • Andrew Hidas  says:

          I think that’s probably true for me, too, Arjan: that this is my fave jazz recording of all time. I think the John Coltrane-Johnny Hartman version of “My One and Only Love” gives it a good run for its money, but it’s such a different style and sensibility that it’s really almost useless to play them off against each other—so I will simply be content to revere them both—quite deservedly!

  • Barbara Leahy  says:

    Thank you so much Andrew. The title of the album by Charles Earland “More today than Yesterday “ says it all.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Whoa, Barbara, I was not aware of Mr. Earland, but am mighty glad to make his acquaintance now! (Though I’m sorry to see he died so young.) Wondering how I missed him scouring all those used jazz albums in the dusty bins of long ago. Thanks very much for this!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Gene McDaniels is one of those talented R&B singer/songwriters who has unfortunately become more and more removed from the public consciousness; time hasn’t been kind to his legacy. He’s not alone: Brooke Benton, Clyde McPhatter, Hank Ballard, Curtis Mayfield and the like. Music is a strange business. I remember once talking to Bobby Troupe about Nat King Cole’s (not the Stones) recording of “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”. By the way, he preferred Nat to Mick. The most interesting part of our conversation concerned his touring as the opening act for one of Cole’s European tours. In Nat’s first concert in Paris, he started out singing his hits like “Mona Lisa” and “Nature Boy” but the audience wasn’t really wasn’t getting into it the way he would have liked. He asked Troupe during a break, “What’s going on?” Troupe said, “This isn’t America. They’re more in tune with your Trio recordings than the pop hits.” He took Troupe’s advice, played some pure jazz piano solos, and the crowd loved it.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      If I was ever aware of the Stones’ version of Route 66, Robert, I’d long since forgotten about it, so I’m glad to know it’s there. But for sure, Nat’s version runs the table, as pretty much his version of everything does. That said, I remember my piano teacher (back when I was taking lessons), who was a huge fan of his singing (as was my mother, to whom I owe my early exposure to him), telling me he thought he was even a better piano player, deeply admired by his peers. What a loss to music when he died at a mere 45 years old.

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    Just getting to this, but as soon as I saw the name of the song, it came howling back into my ears. No need to remember it by listening – it was played so often on WRTI the Philly jazz station back in the 70’s. What a great bang-on the-table of a song, an anthem for so much. Of course I had no idea of the back story so thank you for that. One of these Covid-y days I am going to sit right down and listen to your whole series of Brilliant Songs. What a great time that will be.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      “Howling” and “bang-on-the-table” it is, Jeanette, thanks much for that! And yes, one could do very much worse than whiling away a day with this group of writers and performers coursing through you. Music may yet save us all. :-)

Leave a Reply to Barbara Leahy Cancel reply