A well-known newspaper runs a regular weekend feature about the life of songs. I have watched and waited for years but, strangely, the editor/authors of the feature have never hit upon what I consider to be a superb song, Wild is the Wind, and its wonderful story. If I were one of those authors, this (below) is what I would write. Indeed, I sent this off to the editor as a possible contribution, but despite several follow-up e-mails I have never heard back from anybody. So, in the absence of such a reply, here’s the story of Wild is the Wind…
When Russian-born High Noon composer Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979) and professional lyricist Ned Washington (1901-1976) teamed up to provide the love-interest ballad for Johnny Mathis to sing in the 1957 film Wild is the Wind they could have had little idea of how over the next four decades three great artists – Nina Simone, David Bowie and George Michael – would go on to make the song their emblematic own. The popular original, with its swooning strings and harmonica, reached number 22 on the Billboard chart and Mathis sang it at the 1958 Oscars. Within a year, Nina Simone had reinvented the song as ‘an eerily placid investigation of romantic hypnosis’ (Peter Doggett). She slowed the tempo, did away with the strings, and reduced the accompaniment to her own characteristic piano playing, with the rhythm intermittently provided by a quiet brush stroke on the hi hat cymbals. It was Simone’s genius to parse the lyrics differently, using distinctive syncopation and silences. (Both Bowie and Michael would follow her example; it was she who introduced the climatic silence at the end of the line Don’t you know your life itself …. that Bowie would make his own in his live performances.) Simone first performed her version live at Carnegie Hall, published on the 1959 LP Nina Simone – Live at Town Hall, and perfected it (with bass and guitar chords occasionally added in) on her eponymous 1964 album. By the early 1970s Simone, the ‘high priestess of soul’, had slumped to a low point of creative inactivity. In July, 1974 she took her daughter, Lisa, to a David Bowie concert at Madison Square Garden. Bowie had famously killed off Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon the year before and moved to New York City in search of a new musical direction (he’d later move on to Los Angeles). A week after Madison Square, Simone and Bowie met serendipitously at the Hippopotamus night club and an improbable friendship was born, with an admiring Bowie boosting Simone’s morale as an artist (Alan Light). Bowie would finally pay homage to his friend’s genius on his 1976 Station to Station album, the last track on the second side of the LP being his cover of her cover of Wild is the Wind. The echo on his vocals aside (perhaps a deliberate echo of the Mathis original), Bowie stayed broadly faithful to the Simone interpretation, but put his vocal emphasis on the howling wind that finally takes his voice up to a high B before subsiding to A. As ever, Bowie’s genius lay also in the artists he gathered around him: Carlos Alomar’s multiple-tracked rhythmic guitar strokes combining with Earl Slick’s overlaid lead accompaniment and drummer Dennis Davis’s tension-releasing cascade (well over half way through the song) to create an unforgettable portrayal of passionate desperation. In his 1999 version, on Songs From the Last Century, George Michael pulls the song back towards Mathis’s lyricism and Simone’s syncopation. Singing wistfully over a full orchestra and a jazz guitar, Michael’s immediately distinctive version suggests a last couple dancing languidly on a jazz club floor as dawn is breaking – this is the calm after the windstorm. Other great artists and great voices have tried original interpretations: Shirley Horn (1961 – pared back and very slow); Nancy Wilson (1963 – straighter jazz and a xylophone); Randy Crawford (2001); Barbra Streisand (2003 – flutes and lots of strings); Amel Larrieux (2007); and Dame Shirley Bassey (2014 – strings and a saxophone). And there have been plenty of more idiosyncratic interpretations: Clan of Xymox (1994); Fatal Shore (1997); Rialto (1998); Cat Power (2000); Billy MacKenzie (2005); Bat for Lashes (2010); and Esperanza Spalding (2010). None, however, is better able to communicate the tragic underlying ambiguity in Washington’s lyrics than Simone, Bowie and Michael: ‘cling to me’, urges the singer, ‘like the leaf clings to the tree,’ and yet the couple are ‘like creatures of the wind,’ and we all know what wild winds do to the leaves; these lovers are doomed, and the singers know it. It is instructive to listen to the four versions – Mathis, Simone, Bowie, Michael – in succession, each demonstrating distinctive musical genius in his or her own right and each also building on and reflecting the initial creative genius of Dimitri Zinovievich Tiomkin and Ned Washington. Copyright 31 January 2017 Martin Westlake
Beautiful! Thank you for the history of this amazing song. I was looking for the background as a Bowie fan and will now listen to each version of the other artists, who I also love, chronologically as you recommend.
Thanks for a fantastic article on a great song! About to attempt my own version….