“You’re Not To Blame . . .’

Originally posted August 28, 2007

It was nearly impossible, during the autumn of 1966, to escape the Left Banke.

Even one who didn’t listen avidly to pop music heard, seemingly everywhere, the violins and reedy vocals that dominated the Left Banke’s hit “Walk Away, Renee.” During its ten-week stay in the Top 40 – and it seemed a longer time than that – the record peaked at No. 5 and became one of the enduring earworms of the 1960s. Just a ten-second snippet of the song is liable to embed the song in one’s mind for hours.

That’s not to say that “Walk Away, Renee” is not a beautiful record. It is. The group’s chief writer, Michael Brown, wrote “Renee” with friends Bob Calilli and Tony Sansone, but he wrote most of the rest of the group’s oeuvre on his own. In doing so, Brown showed a skill in composition far greater than one would expect a teenager to have, and his craft in writing lyrics was also obvious, though not as astounding as his composition skills.

And the song, whether its strains came from a hand-held transistor radio, from the backseat speaker in a car or from a larger radio set at home, drew listeners in. The clearly sung chorus – “Just walk away, Renee; you won’t see me follow you back home.” – contrasted with the muffled vocals of the verses, leaving listeners to wonder exactly why Renee was being dismissed. I recall numerous discussions after school and on weekends of exactly what the words were and what did they mean?

(I looked at the lyrics for the first time ever today, as I was writing this, and finally resolved a question that I’d pondered very occasionally for the past forty years. I’d wondered if there truly were a sunglasses reference in the lyrics, for I’ve always heard the words “Foster-Grants” in the song. It turns out that I was mishearing the words “forced to cry.”)

Those types of conversations – detecting the accurate lyrics to a popular song – are less frequent now, I assume, with the existence of so many lyric sites on the ’Net. There still might be challenges in divining the meanings of lyrics, though. (And not all sites are all that accurate, of course. I recall one lyrics site that misheard one song’s words “I’m from the barrio” as “I’m from the bayou.”)

In the years since we first heard of the singer’s unrequited love for Renee, there have been numerous covers of the song. One of the more evocative versions came from Vonda Shepard for the television show Ally McBeal in late 1990s. That’s a little more recent than I like to deal with here, so I’ve selected one of the earliest cover versions of the song, that by the Four Tops.

At first thought, the pairing seems odd. The Four Tops’ greatest success came with more forceful work, songs like “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” and “Bernadette,” not with the light, airy strains of something like “Walk Away, Renee.” But lead singer Levi Stubbs and his partners – backed by the superlative Motown studio players – do a pretty good job with the song, and the resulting single (Motown 1119) reached No. 14 on the pop chart in the early spring of 1968.

And it’s easier to understand the lyrics, too.

Four Tops – “Walk Away, Renee” [1968]

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