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This week’s pick: “Please Stay,” released on Kojak Variety (1995)
Gary Stewart: On the one hand, I lament that so many folks don’t know the original version of “Please Stay,” one of Burt Bacharach’s earliest and best compositions (even before he was working with Hal David) and another should’ve-been biggest hit by The Drifters’ classic lineup.
But maybe it’s better you start with Costello’s take on the song, which, like many of his interpretations, makes it hard to imagine the song could have existed in any other form.
The word “reimagining” is now thrown around so casually that it’s almost become meaningless, but it’s apropos here. The original’s more jubilant tone is traded in for an almost dirge-like lament that splits the difference between a Sinatra saloon song and something you might hear in a David Lynch scene set in an empty bar rooted deep in one’s dark subconscious (OK, maybe with one other couple sitting in the back, for some inexplicable reason).
I love the way it starts with a slow march and just keeps building, peaking with that spooky organ solo. After that break, Costello could have gone for one of those tear-your-heart-out escalations familiar to the soul ballads he knew so well. But instead he goes back to deep restraint and an eerie sadness.
Originally recorded at a quick marathon covers session with the band that backed him on Mighty Like A Rose, and released five years later as the 15-song Kojak Variety, it’s one of the stops he made along the way to making Painted From Memory. It’s unfortunate this song got lost where it might have fared better, like “I Wanna Be Loved,” “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down,” or any of the lone covers that stood out on an album of Costello originals, where they served both as a revelation and an act of discovery/advocacy.
And while you’re at it, check out The Drifters’ version, sung by Rudy Lewis, who was Ben E. King’s replacement and the lead voice on “Up On The Roof,” “On Broadway” and ”Some Kind Of Wonderful.” It’s rhythmically cut from the same cloth as “Spanish Harlem” and rife with the elegant orchestration that informs the best classic Drifters sound.
David Gorman: This is the kind of song that made music matter to me. As an R&B fanatic, I knew The Drifters’ original, but it never affected me. It was too matter-of-fact for me to even pay attention to the lyrics. Great in the way that those snappy, uptown R&B records were, but nothing you could dance to, fast or slow, nothing that touched a nerve, and certainly nothing that reached through your ears, down to your heart, and ripped it out. But this version does. It’s painfully slow and pathetic and pleading. It’s sung with so much desperation that the lyrics—delivered with such urbane expertise by The Drifters that nothing really felt like it was at stake—come off serious as a suicide note here. It’s stark and eerie and pitiful as the loneliest night I’ve ever felt. Just listening to it drags me back to places and people and feelings I don’t want to relive.
On a more intellectual note, I’m guessing from the pace and arrangement that Elvis learned this song from The Cryin’ Shames and not The Drifters, and that makes it even more fascinating to me. Elvis took The Cryin’ Shames’ melodramatic cover and ripped the last bits of decoration and decorum away, leaving nothing but a raw puddle of hurt. I think a lot of his version’s power comes from how unrehearsed it all feels. It’s got that end-of-the-night vibe, as if Elvis just had his heart punched hard, called out the song to the band, and just enough of them knew the chords to make it work. It’s a little rickety and everyone sounds two sips from hitting the floor, especially Costello, whose voice breaks and spits and stutters and screams and finally drifts away in a falsetto cry of hope. It’s the very definition of deep soul, except delivered by an Englishman in a Barbados recording studio 25 years after people like Otis Redding and James Carr were cutting actual deep soul records.
Yeah, we know the last couple of songs have been soul-crushingly sad, but our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week Playlist has plenty of happy moments to ease the pain: