No matter how many robins I see nor how much blue sky slips through the clouds, no matter how the thermometer edges up by a degree or two, I’m still reminded that the nights are long and frigid, that we’re along way still from bogs blanketed by wild irises, we still have some time before bluebirds take up their perch on fenceposts.
With many long, cold nights ahead of us, there’s little we can do but to snuggle in, grab whatever warmth we can and gird ourselves against another two months (or so) of more of the same. Hopefully, we find an escape in a good book, warm ourselves with a full-bodied glass of red wine, maybe wrap ourselves up like a mummy to enjoy a good movie. At my place, we fill our mugs with hot chocolate and break out the Uno deck or Monopoly board for some heated competition (my children are all extremely competitive), enjoying a big bowl of popcorn or some freshly-baked brownies.
Winter’s icy grip remains steadfast but with each passing night, a little more tenuous. Distant hints of springtime bring to mind the words of Tennyson that, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”
I mention this because a final — and perhaps, the finest — way to wile away the last vestiges of winter is in the arms of a sweetheart, embracing tightly, gently swaying to the strains of song that demands an embrace, insists sweeping that certain someone up for some hold-me-close-and-don’t-let-go.
Although I love to dance and almost any tune will get me in the groove, I’m a bit of an embarrassment with fast songs. Oh, I have the rhythm, I just lack the moves — or rather, I have too many moves, all of them spastic. Not into the “white guy’s dance,” (you know, the uptight take-your-place-and-hold-it, fists balled up and held out from about stomach level in a Rock Em’ Sock Em’ Robot stance, feet barely moving, if at all); no, I move with all the grace of Mick Jagger on a fat rail of Ritalin, dosed with a jolt of 10,000 volts, someone usually dialing 911, thinking I’m having a seizure.
Slow dancing, however, is my bailiwick. A technique perfected by years of a hyper-hormonal adolescence, balanced by a Catholic High School education (where dances were monitored by chaperones wielding rulers to measure appropriate distance between slow dancing couples), I learned the subtlety of the soft seduction versus the merely obscene. Having heard, “Any closer and you’ll be behind her!” one too many times, I perfected the fine art of the grind-and-grope. Too much of that and you’re just a creep. Just enough and you’re assured a kiss in the parking lot.
Thirty years later and I’m no less desirous of a hot, wet kiss to top off the evening. Therefore, the rewards assured by mad slow dance skills are as relevant today as they were back in the day. The only difference is, I’m not eyeing some high school honey for the purpose of wooing with my superb slow-dance technique (preferring not to invite untoward gossip and very real legal troubles) nor am I in the clubs for a cheap thrill. No, the slow dance is now reserved for someone I’ve wined and dined to some extent and is hardly a stranger. But the seductive power of a well-executed slow dance is no less potent.
The thing is, there’s considerably fewer opportunities to prove my grind-and-grope prowess: maybe a friend’s wedding, rarely some change tossed into a jukebox, there’s not a lot of times to get busy on the dance floor.
On top of that, I tend to be much pickier with my preferred slow dance music. In my younger years, I tended to be rather promiscuous when it came to a shot at getting close to a possible paramour and any down-tempo tune would do. Now, however, while no less enthusiastic for a chance to hold someone really close and sway to the music, there’s quite a bit I’ll say “no” to, ordering another drink and sitting tight.
For instance, as serviceable as Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” is, it’s too much like the soundtrack for a Cialis commercial, a Geritol and gin cocktail. Spin that tune and the walkers roll out on the floor, locked in a passionate embrace, popping cannulas loose and setting the stage for an unnecessarily busy night at the ER.
Lest you think I’m guilty of aggressive ageism, I’ll also admit that any R&B released over the past 20 years is off my list. Alicia Keyes has cut some decent stuff but I find her style overly-Baroque and showy. She tried a little too hard to grab Aretha Franklin’s crown as the Queen of Soul and the result was going so far over the top that it overshot the mark by a city mile. The same with Aaliyah or the execrable Mariah Carey; no thanks, I’ll pass.
The same thing with anything by Keith Urban, Bobby Brown, Usher, et al. Nothing by them inspires my urge to get up close and affectionate.
And any modern country sends me running for the door.
Fortunately, I don’t need to a dance floor to get things hot and heavy. Make a little dinner, open a bottle of wine, light a few candles and the stage is set for some rockin’ romance. More than that, I get to put on my own selections, songs guaranteed to get me out of my chair and reach out my hand in an invitation to get my slow dance on.
Perhaps the greatest slow dance tune of all time is “I Only Have Eyes For You,” by the Flamingos. An artful relic from the Golden Age of Doo-Wop, the song is a surrealistic masterpiece, with other-worldly backing vocals seeming to drift in from the ether as a sparse guitar line (heavy on the tremolo) effortlessly floats the melody along, a gossamer sailboat drifting past the stars.
The lyrics, though, are enough to seal with a kiss, “I don’t know if we’re in a garden/or on a crowded avenue/You are here/So am I/Maybe millions of people go by/but they all disappear from view/And I Only Have Eyes For You.”
Softly humming those vocals, foreheads pressed close, lips nearly touching, the words are so in the moment that anyone not catching a kiss after singing those lines deserves empty arms.
Why the old R&B seems more real, more sincere, more authentic than modern R&B (or rock) is because, well it is. The timelessness of that music backs me up, I think, and the fact that you’ll hear those songs on countless movie soundtracks (and continue to hear them) and not any Boyz II Men or Aaliyah tunes is an indication of how heartfelt the oldies are as opposed to how shallow modern products feel: like mere consumerist junk.
Another case in point is “Unchained Melody” but the Righteous Brothers. The fact that its been far too overplayed in countless TV and movie soundtracks has failed to diminish its power as one of the great slow dance songs. “I need your love/I need your love/Godspeed you love to me,” gets sung by everyone hearing this song as sure as taking a breath — it’s unavoidable.
Masterfully produced by Phil Spector (the undisputed master of 1960s’ R&B production), Bobby Hatfield’s soaring tenor and Bill Medley’s smooth bass-baritone send this song into the stratosphere. If I’m sitting down while this song is playing, please check my pulse.
The 1960s was the classic era of slow dance music and I crown Otis Redding as the master. Engage me with several fellow music geeks over the running argument over who really deserves that crown (I think excellent cases could be made for Sam Cooke or Solomon Burke), my point would be that “These Arms of Mine,” rules them all. “Dock of the Bay” probably gets more votes because it’s so popular (deservedly so) but “These Arms of Mine” (They are burning/burning from wanting you/These arms of mine/They are wanting/Wanting to hold you) shows Redding at his soulful best, his church-trained voice pleading, begging, desiring the salvation of a simple embrace.
The melody is gutbucket soul, the stuff of roadhouses but Redding’s voice is absolutely divine. Listening to the song without hearing Redding make on of the most appeals on record is like drinking a 1961 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and complaining that you’re not getting sufficiently drunk.
Smoky-room jazz has so much to choose from if I’m hungry for a slow dance song but I’d easily put “My One and Only Love” by John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman at the top of my list. Recorded while Coltrane was in the midst of creating the most revolutionary music ever made (recorded in tandem with the A Love Supreme sessions), it shows Coltrane as probably the greatest jazz musician and arranger to ever record.
The sessions with Hartman are nothing like what Coltrane was doing as an innovator. Returning to standards and a more traditional jazz style, Coltrane proves he is the master, straddling the lines between revolutionary and revisionist without drawing attention to himself but making the music primary, sublime, transcendent.
I’ll end my list with a guilty pleasure, a wonderful gem from the tail end of the Disco era. “Always and Forever” by Heatwave never fails to get me sweeping my sweetie up to head for the floor.
Of course, the song is unlike the Disco that Heatwave was known for (i.e. “Boogie Nights,” “The Groove Line,” etc.) but hearkens back to the golden age of R&B. Not strictly Doo-Wop, it still has a that Streetcorner Symphony feel, with masterful harmonies and a jaw-dropping chorus. And with lyrics such as, “Everyday love me your own special way/Melt all my heart away with a smile/Take time to tell me you really care/And we’ll share tomorrow together/I’ll always love you forever — forever,” sung with all the fervor and authenticity that made so many of Otis Redding’s songs classic... well, I do melt. There is no way I can resist “Always and Forever” for its sheer power of masterfully crafted vocals.
Spring is right around the corner and yes, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. Life is too short to not indulge those thoughts with a well-deserved slow dance. When the warm weather returns, there will be time enough to turn our faces to the sun and throw our arms up in our won version of Snoopy’s happy dance. However, until the fields are afire with the wildflower’s blaze of color, we should sweep our loved one up into our arms and slowly, seductively, dance our way into spring.