Ooh-La-La

Music is the creative organization of sound and this is such a fundamental part of human culture that it likely pre-dates literacy, and the invention of the wheel.  Music can take on an endless array of shapes, but the basic foundation remains the same as every piece of music has an overall plan or structure which includes elements like rhythm, tone, melody, beat, tempo, pitch, chord and harmony.  Rhythm is the organization of musical movement in respect to time and it is heard as a specific pattern of sounds.  Tone is a steady periodic sound which is characterized by its duration, pitch, intensity (or loudness), and timbre (or quality).  Tone can be described as being a note, or a single pure frequency, or a particular interval of music.  Melody is one of the most basic elements of music consisting of a series of tones set to rhythm which form a musical line. Melody is a timely arranged linear sequence of pitched sounds that the listener perceives as a single entity.  Beat is a steady pulse in the music, the regularly repeating event, a musical pattern marked by a basic unit of time.  Tempo is how fast or slow the beat of the music occurs and this is measured in beats per minute or BPM.  Pitch is the highness or lowness of a tone and this is a perceptual property of sounds that allows their ordering on a frequency-related scale, or more commonly, pitch is the quality that makes it possible to judge sounds as ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in the sense associated with musical melodies.  Chord is a combination of three or more tones sounded together, a layering of several tones played simultaneously.

Harmony in music is the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes put together to produce chords and chord progressions having a pleasing effect, or some instances of notes sounded one after the other, thus a sound created from two or more notes which are heard simultaneously.  Harmony is as simple as it is strange, as if the consecutively sounded notes call to mind the notes of a familiar chord (a group of notes sounded together), the ear creates its own simultaneity in the same way that the eye perceives movement in a motion picture.  In such cases you perceive the harmony that would result if the notes had sounded together.  In a narrower sense, harmony refers to the extensively developed system of chords and the rules that allow or forbid relations between chords that characterizes Western music.

A chord is in close harmony if its notes are arranged within a narrow range, usually with no more than an octave between the top and bottom notes.  The term close harmony can refer to both vocal arrangements and instrumentation.  Close harmony music is also commonly used among a Capella groups such as barbershop quartets.  Since we are humans, the human voice is the most emotional and meaningful sound we can hear.  When we listen to someone singing, the pure usage of their voice becomes peaceful for us, as music exists to be make people feel special things.  Something happens to our brains when we hear voices in close harmony.  We feel something primal, that creates a deep connection between individuals, especially when two or more melodies intertwine, move through space for our pleasure, and oscillate inside of our brains.  Close harmony can work with two, three or many more voices, and it takes practice to achieve this, as there is a tendency for singers to all veer onto the same melody, but when singers achieve it, in perfect harmony, following each other but keeping to their own path, it becomes pure magic.  To attain this groove, that hum, the buzz, a sudden purity of chord, can sometimes feel like a form of transcendence, the musical equivalent of passing through a rainbow.

Close harmony singing has been a part of rock and roll right from the beginning, because it was pioneered from gospel, blues, R&B, doo-wop, country, folk and bluegrass music.  The Everly Brothers ringing, close-harmony style introduced a whole new sound into the rock-and-roll vocabulary, being the sound of Appalachia set to hard-driving acoustic guitars and a subtle backbeat rhythm.  Don Everly’s voice usually handled the melody, while Phil Everly gave the higher accompanying harmony to that melody, and this is what defined The Everly Brothers’ sound.  The high harmonies that Phil sang were fluid and so beautiful and they always sounded effortless in a way that just washes over the listener.

The Everly Brothers, Don and Phil are one of the most important and influential groups in the history of rock and roll, and they burst onto the music scene in 1957.  By the start of 1957, Columbia Records dropped the duo after just one unsuccessful single, when Don and Phil were just 17 and 19 respectively.  They considered leaving the Nashville scene altogether, but a longtime acquaintance of their dad guitarist/producer Chet Atkins, stepped up and plugged the boys to Archie Bleyer, owner of the small Cadence label, and this gave the Everlys another shot at recording music.

Chet Atkins played guitar on ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ which was written by the husband and wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote most of The Everly Brothers songs in the ‘50s.  For The Everly Brothers, this was the first of 4 US #1 hits.  It also went to #1 on the Country & Western charts.  Rolling Stone ranked it as #318 of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Boudleaux was at home sitting in the living room of their new house with a guitar and he started playing that brisk rhythm and then just came out with, “Wake up, little Susie, wake up” and then Felice burst out of the bedroom and said, “That is great!” and this became the ultimate ode to teen angst ’50s style.  Boudleaux said, “I started writing one night, kept trying to get my ideas down, but it just wouldn’t happen.  Finally I woke Felice, who took one listen to what I had so far achieved and came up with the final touches that I couldn’t get.  The Everlys liked the song, but like me had problems with getting it right in the studio.  They worked a whole three-hour session on that one song and had to give up, they just couldn’t get it right.  We all trooped back to the studio the next day and got it down first take.  That’s the way it happens sometimes.”  Felice Bryant said the song “Coming out of their mouths, it was pure honey.  Anything they put their voices on seemed to blend like custard.  I think they could sing the telephone book to me.  The blend was unbelievable.”

This song is about a young couple who go on a date and end up falling asleep at the drive-in because the movie was boring, when they awaken at 4:00 AM they start panicking because they realize that they are out past their curfew.  They fear having their good reputation ruined and they need to make up a story to tell Susie’s parents, or else they will be in “trouble deep”. This may sound innocent enough by today’s standards, but this song was banned in Boston for suggestive lyrics.  I guess that someone in Boston made a connection with unsupervised teenagers in cars getting frisky and wanting to engage in sexual escapades, but this song is only provocative if you have a dirty mind to start with.  Maybe they were aware of the hormone release during orgasm which is known to causes men to feel sleepy afterwards.  The lyrics imply an accusation of guilt, as Susie’s mama told her to be in by ten, so she did something wrong when she failed to listen.  If this evening results in an unwed pregnancy the young girl will be associated with a sexual image that could doom her reputation as being an innocent good girl.  She could end up being shamed like Bobby Darin’s mother.  Her boyfriend clearly understands the implications of their now stained time lapse and this is not new to him as he says, “Well Susie baby looks like we goofed again”.  Ooh-la-la is an exclamation of surprise, that sometimes carries strong sexual connotations.

Songwriter Boudleaux Bryant died on June 25th, 1987, his wife and writing partner, Felice Bryant died on April 22, 2003 but she remained active writing songs and collaborating with other song writers after her husband’s death.  The Bryants have received numerous industry accolades such as induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1972), the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1986) and the Country Music Hall of Fame (1991), and in 1991 the Nashville Arts Foundation honored Felice with their “Living Legend Award”.  During their careers, they were affiliated with performance rights organization BMI and earned a total of 59 BMI Pop, Country, and R&B Awards.  At the time of Felice’s death, it was estimated that their recorded titles had sold more than a half-billion copies worldwide.

The Everly Brothers hit the Billboard top 40 chart 26 times.  In 1986, they were among the first 10 artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  In 1997, they were awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.  In 2001, they were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004.  Their pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.  The Everly Brothers have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7000 Hollywood Blvd.  In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked The Everly Brothers #33 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.  They are also #43 on the list of UK Best selling singles artists of all time.  On January 3, 2014, Phil Everly, a lifelong smoker, died in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank at the age of 74.  Don Everly lives in Nashville.

Wake up, little Susie, wake up
Wake up, little Susie, wake up
We’ve both been sound asleep, wake up, little Susie, and weep
The movie’s over, it’s four o’clock, and we’re in trouble deep
Wake up little Susie
Wake up little Susie, well

Whatta we gonna tell your mama
Whatta we gonna tell your pa
Whatta we gonna tell our friends when they say “ooh-la-la”
Wake up little Susie
Wake up little Susie, well

I told your mama that you’d be in by ten
Well Susie baby looks like we goofed again
Wake up little Susie
Wake up little Susie
We gotta go home

Wake up, little Susie, wake up
Wake up, little Susie, wake up
The movie wasn’t so hot, it didn’t have much of a plot
We fell asleep, our goose is cooked, our reputation is shot
Wake up little Susie
Wake up little Susie, well

Whatta we gonna tell your mama
Whatta we gonna tell your pa
Whatta we gonna tell our friends when they say “ooh-la-la”
Wake up little Susie
Wake up little Susie
Wake up little Susie

11 thoughts on “Ooh-La-La

  1. Nice lesson on musical components. I’ve been working on a sonnet to songwriters and think it’s ready for re-release with the right pentameter now. The Everly Brothers do “attain this groove, that hum, the buzz, a sudden purity of chord, can sometimes feel like a form of transcendence, the musical equivalent of passing through a rainbow.” Very eloquent turn of phrase.

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