You can find our original song smackdown “Battle of the Southern Rainy Day Songs” by clicking here or you can find all of them by clicking on smackdowns just under the title above.
SUNNY vs SUNSHINE SUPERMAN
Bobby Hebb wrote “Sunny” in 1963 shortly after the assassination of his President Kennedy. Harold Hebb, his brother, had just been killed in a knifefight in Nashville. He wanted a song that would express feelings of optimism over “lousiness”. It has become one of the most popular songs in popular music, having been recorded by hundreds of artists in nearly every genre.
Hebb was not a successful performer at the time but a studio musician working for pop producer Jerry Ross. “Sunny” was a #2 hit but quickly a number one favorite for pop singers – Everyone from Cher and Sinatra to Stevie Wonder and rockers like the Electric Flag. “Sunny” also led Hebb to stardom, and he was opening for the Beatles within a year, earning as lusty applause as the famous Liverpool songwriting team.
Never again did Bobby Hebb hit so high on the charts, and he essentially retired after the unpopular, always-in-stock-at-Hymie’s album Love Games in 1970. He did not record another album for thirty-five years although he did release some singles in the 70s. One of them was the unsuccessful disco remake, “Sunny 76”. Fortunately, his royalties from “Sunny” allowed Bobby Hebb to enjoy a life in his hometown, Nashville, up until he passed away in 2000.
“Sunshine Superman” was recorded at time when Donovan was growing out of Bob Dylan’s shadow, which has characterized his early career as a folk singer. He had also just signed a contract with Epic Records, and probably had a lot more money to work with while recording than he ever imagined he would. A little bit of everything but the kitchen sink turns up in the album, also named Sunshine Superman, including Donovan’s interests in jazz and Indian music and various references to marijuana and LSD. It’s a psychedelic masterpiece, although that sort of music is not as reliably popular as Bobby Hebbs easy-going soul.
And its been a popular song, too, although not as popular as “Sunny”. A different cast of artists have taken to “Sunshine Superman”, in particular jazz artists, who I suppose like the songs unusual melody and chord changes. Bands with often-overlooked psychedelic elements also seem to like it. Hüsker Dü recorded it along with another psych rock classic “Eight Miles High”.
Donovan, living today in Ireland, remains popular in U.K. clubs. And now that Hymie’s has been DJing at the Turf Club for a couple months I can tell you that “Get Thy Bearings”, from his Hurdy Gurdy Man LP, kills. Man, I love that song! I think I’ll post it later this week.
AND THE SMACKDOWN
Can we compare these very different, very popular pieces? Sure. Let’s drop a couple recordings into the pit and see who comes out the winner…
Round 1: Jazz First Take
The first round is complicated because I threw all of my favorites into it – I let “Sunshine Superman” have two entries because I love the Herbie Mann/Tamiko Jones LP. Gabor Szabo’s “Sunshine Superman”, however, is so good I chose it over several other jazz guitarist’s recordings.
And the Lonnie Smith LP Move Your Hand is a favorite, and well represented by the organ heavy soul jazz “Sunshine Superman”. I don’t really remember how he fared in the Lonnie Smith/Lonnie Liston Smith smackdown a few months ago, but I love his records. And the thing is, if this were any other track from Move Your Hand, Dr. Lonnie would take this round for Donovan hands (moving) down.
And while Larry McGee (Guitar on Move Your Hand) cooks through “Sunshine Superman” and Szabo shreds through it, I really like Tamiko Jone’s take on the tune. She didn’t make a lot of great records, but when she was on she was on. Personally, I think she should have replaced Eartha Kitt as TV’s Catwoman instead of Lee Meriweather. Of course, the fact that I thought of that makes me weird and probably negates this entire contest.
I would really like to hear how differently Herbie Mann would have approached “Sunny” a year later – In his Push Push, Memphis Underground era – and I’ll bet he played it in some club somewhere with those groups in 1969-70.
Round 2: Rockers
The first time I heard “Sunshine Superman” was on this Hüsker Dü record.
“Sunny” may have been pop gold, but there is a very good reason why it was so seldom done by rock groups. The Electric Flag tried, and I’ll salute them for that (Ha), but I have to add that their hammy, would-be hippy anthem “With Time There is Change” loses something by coming after a song also done the same year by Andy Williams.
Round 3: The Pop Singers
Francis A. and Edward K., the 1968 Sinatra-Ellington collaboration, is characterized by it’s song selection. Ellington was in one of several periods where his prodigious output briefly slowed, and had just finished what must have been one of the most difficult sessions of his career, his heartfelt and beautiful tribute to the late Billy Strayhorn (…And His Mother Called Him Bill, 1967). An LP of original material would have been unlikely, but an album so heavy on 60s pop songs? Unexpected.
Sinatra sounds great on the session, but I suppose the label was hoping for something more like his collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim the year before. “Sunny” really is a sharp pop tune, but not so well suited for Sinatra & Ellington as “Follow Me” (from Camelot) or “I Like the Sunrise”. If this version of “Sunny” were by any other singer and bandleader, it would maybe be remarkable, but fro these two its just another version of “Sunny”.
Round 4: Disco Dancin’
Here Hebbs got the edge, having recorded a disco remake of Sunny himself.
But this was not until after it had already become an established dancefloor hit by Yambu and then, more so, by Boney M. Hebb hedged his bets, I guess, maybe hoping for the same kind of disco resurrection enjoyed by a variety of 60s soul singers.
Donovan may have been influential on dance music but there have not been as many covers of Sunshine Superman as you may expect. I couldnt even find many samples of the song, excepting in this one by Imani Coppola.
I don’t know where this round should go. I like the Imani Coppola track, but I usually like songs that sample songs I already like. The various disco “Sunny”s, on the other hand, I really don’t care for. I don’t blame Bobby Hebb for re-recording his own signature hit after it bacame a dancefloor favorite, but the finished product does smack of desperation. I suppose in the end this is a “Sunshine Superman” round, if not for these reasons then because I do like cowgirl songs.
Round 5: Jazz, second take
Let’s put it all on Les McCann this time around – He recorded both songs on my favorite of his many great albums, Les McCann Plays the Hits. Here they are, “Sunshine Superman” and both parts – 10 minutes – of his epic study of “Sunny”:
Clearly Les found something special about Sunny, having put so much work into arranging such an elaborate version of it and to have chosen to start his mostly-pop covers album with it. Sunshine Superman fits well with the late-60s McCann style, but not as successfully as “Sunny” or “Guantanamara”, or about half of Les McCann Plays the Hits.
Round 6: the Instrumental Smackdown
“Sunny” gets burned on Sunpower, a concept album by mid-level instrumental group the Marketts (best known for the hit “Out of Limits”). A dozen “sun songs” are collected – “California Sun”, “House of the Rising Sun”, etc – but missing is the recent Bobby Hebb hit that had become a favorite of everyone from Atlantic City crooners to soul and rock artists. Why?
I don’t know but I think it was because the Marketts wanted to market themselves as young and tuned-in. Old-timey (“You are my Sunshine”) is okay but a contemporary pop song wouldn’t fit the image.
Jazz, on the other hand, has always been cool with contemporary pop songs, so it’s easier to find a good example. I couldn’t come up with an instrumental rock version of “Sunny”, but I would like to hear one. I was genuinely surprised after I went through at least 15 Ventures albums in the shop and couldn’t find “Sunny”!
Round 7 Into a New Era?
Well that’s the thing – The best version of “Sunshine Superman” I could find was by Rickie Lee Jones and it came from the Party of Five soundtrack Sunny has aged even worse In fact I couldn’t find a contemporary recording of it without buying one on iTunes (Not likely to happen)
Consider then this little compendium of “Sunny” recordings I have compiled and marvel at just how fleeting it all is Sunny reigned supree for a tie and well let it win this little smackdown although neither song as proved enduring
Tomorrow: Maybe Donovan? I think so.
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