History in a Nutshell: God Blesses, Rockers and Crooners Use and Misuse

Written by Steve Pauwels on December 28, 2013

I was in the car this “Boxing Day” (December 26) scanning the radio dial, checking out my region’s Christmas 24/7 stations. My mission?  To see if any of them had bucked the trend of pretending, the day after the holiday, like Christmas never existed. Alas, the only thing I discovered Christmas-wise was one tune (“Silver Bells” by Anne Murray) resolutely playing on a single Boston station — unfortunately wedged between a lot of current, over-produced crap. 

I flicked over to WFEA, a local AM station that, anachronistically, actually plays music — one of the few of that AM-dial species in existence anymore. Normally, FEA features what is called an “Adult Standards” format — ie, nostalgic, easy-listening, vocal-oriented “hits” from the past (Sinatra, Kenny Rogers, Barry Manilow, the Carpenters, etc; its tag lines include “Unforgettable Hits” and “America’s Best Music”.) The operation normally begins regular rotation of Christmas perennials a few weeks before the Big Day; by the 26th, however, it seems they follow convention and return to their regular, non-Christmas fare. 

Anyway, while hunting in-vain for holiday-themed music, I did catch a lovely, faintly familiar piece by a crooner whose voice I sort-of recognized, but whom, naggingly, I couldn’t specifically pinpoint. Rich vocals in service of a bittersweet ballad. Something about a “last waltz”. But who was the vocalist? I sat in a parking lot listening, listening: WHO is this?? 

Of course, the “disc jokey” was no help. When the piece wrapped, he provided me his name — but not the artist’s. Thanks, bub. 

I returned home and sat down at my computer to track down the song title.  Before Google could work its wonders, however, the performer’s name popped into my head (and how could I have forgotten a moniker like this one?):  Engelbert Humperdinck, British serenader who’d enjoyed a pretty impressive run, a decade at least, starting in the late ’60’s. The song I’d stumbled upon had been one of his earliest hits, 1967’s “The Last Waltz”.

The now seventy-seven-year old Mr. Humperdinck (birth name: Anthony George Dorsey) is fixed in my memories because I remember very excitedly giving my mom his After the Lovin’ album for Christmas back in 1976.(I think she still has it somewhere). Even as a kid I thought he had exceptionally fine pipes. My passing encounter with “The Last Waltz” the day after this year’s holiday, didn’t dim that evaluation.

Say what you will about the Engelbert-Humperdinck-Frank-Sinatra-Dean-Martin-style soloists and all their colleagues — the boys could sing. (I know, to many of us that seems like a bit of a “Well, Duhhh” statement; but trust me: lots of folks nowadays are oblivious to it). This time of year these capacious vocal faculties are on full, rambunctious display — so many of them cranked out the Christmas classics that, for decades now, have made up a sizable chunk of the season’s soundtrack. 

I pretty much cut my teeth musically in the mid-1970’s, so my tastes developed, generally, toward the “classic or pop rock” genre — although, those were peculiar days in which it was still possible for Perry Como or Sammy Davis, Jr, to make an appearance on Billboard’s Top 100 alongside acts like Grand Funk Railroad or the Rollings Stones.  While there are lots of “rock-n-roll” offerings I take a pass on because of their objectionable subject matter, stylistically, all things being equal? That’s the sound I prefer. There is an energy to that category of music unique to itself, and enormous skill goes into producing that energy.

So, I roll my eyes when I hear “old-timers” grousing about how rockers “can’t sing” or play “real” music. Really? Please. Declarations like that I have to chalk up to ignorance — and I mean that not as an insult, but in the most literal sense: ignorance, ie, lack of knowledge. I suspect lots of those who imperiously dismiss any and all “rock” musicians, singers, composers  haven’t paid much attention to them, many of whom are certifiably genius in his/her ability and creativity. 

Unapologetically, I’d put Led Zepplin’s Robert Plant, the late Brad Delp (Boston) or pre-mid-80’s Elton John up against about anybody in the vocalist department. At the same time, just because Bing Crosby never howled like Ronnie James Dio or Andy Williams’ chops weren’t as volcanic as David Lee Roth’s, doesn’t mean their vocal aptitudes were lackluster, either. Different style, different sound, different demands — different, not necessarily deficient, in these cases.

And let’s give the crooners their specifically impressive due in this regards: They performed and recorded minus auto-tune or the other over-synthesized crutches that too often carry the minimally-gifted-but-sellable personalities proliferating on the music front today. Again: they could sing. There’s a reason so much of their material is considered timeless, still enjoyed and talked — or written — about on the eve of 2014. 

Once again, I’m struck by how self-evidently, how grandly the Creator gifts human beings. The proclivity of so many to abuse, or misuse, what are quite literally heavenly endowments is, thus, a cosmic scandal – plying them to promote their own vainglory or selfish agendas or lifestyles and ideals that fly in the face of His way of doing things. Not just musical abilities either — but any strength possessed by adroit but wrong-headed individuals. 

It’s human history in microcosm: Israel stumbled into this pit time and again: ample  blessings leading to appalling failure. The ages before and after have supplied gobs of other examples of talented men, women, towering nations and incandescent regimes which self-immolated on the fuel of those very advantages. 

I’ve scant knowledge of what kind of fellow is the warbling Mr. Humperdinck personally. Married to the same woman for close-on fifty years, he’s “maintained a strong family life, even as the family alternated between homes in England and in southern California” (Wickipedia)  — a minor miracle in the hard-charging, razzle-dazzle entertainment industry . One acquaintance, reportedly, has praised him as a “gentleman … in a business that’s not full of many gentlemen.” And Humperdinck’s been involved significantly in a number of high-profile charitable institutions.

Over the years, not a few artists — both rockers and crooners — have cultivated reputations as aggressive philanthropists (accounts of Elvis’ lavish gift-giving are legion); and good for them. But, conversely, much in the headlines  are those “beautiful people” who conspicuously take fame and privilege for granted, who insolently exert little effort to rein in their grotesque self-centeredness, Caligulan excess and unquenchable arrogance. Perversely, in those instances fans get to watch the much-in-demand skills God has bestowed on these superstars go toxic, becoming the very catalyst driving them away from the purposes and life-principles the Divine Lawgiver intended for mankind. 

People are gifted to make the world a better place, not ruining themselves along the way. No matter how intoxicating or toe-tapping the melodies they produce, when individuals fall short of that standard? That’s tragedy.

Image: Courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rockinred1969/6927276326/

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.