I admit, it’s been a long time since I last wrote a post on this blog. One of the reasons has been a plethora of problems and distractions (as readers of this blog surely know, we are living in a troubled world). But I also have spent a lot of time delving into some old interests too.
As I may have mentioned in some “About” sections and other autobiographical materials, for a number of years before I started this blog, I was a part-time rock/pop music critic, writing tons of reviews for several small-to-medium-sized magazines specializing in lesser-known, independent or “alternative” kinds of pop music, rock music, electronica, and “world”/”global” music. I also have been fairly obsessed with rock music and the people who perform it ever since I became deeply involved in some punk and post-punk rock scenes during my mid-late teens and 20s. I suppose that most people are supposed to grow out of such interests, but I never really did. However, when I started falling in love with old Indian film music in the 2007 or so, I let that new obsession occupy the front of my mind while the older interest (and some others) receded a little toward the back for a while. But in the past several months, the old rock/pop obsession has reemerged in a big way.
And this time, I became very interested in exploring some of the historic rock/pop music that I might not have been as focused on before. At the beginning of the year, I became quite fascinated with a lot of the “girl group” music (which I have actually always loved to hear) and related music by female artists who emerged in the 1960s. After that, I let my mind wander into some of the psychedelia and other music of the later ‘60s, but rather than focusing on the big names with heavy production, I preferred the “garage rock” sounds as well as, simply, the relatively more modest and less bombastic pop singers of that day (some of whom also performed quite well in the areas of folk and jazz).
But I still do love old Indian film music, too, and that was why I was ripe to fall for a singer who could easily cross into both worlds; that is, someone who could do really good performances of these classic Western pop songs of the ’60s and ’70s and maybe even became known for that but who also was in demand as a performer or playback singer in at least few Indian films, fitting into those films nicely too.
In other words, I was ready to fall for Usha Uthup (formerly known as Iyer).
Usha Uthup has a very special voice as far as Indian film singers go, especially for the years that she has been active, starting in the late 1960s. When I (and most people, I gather) think of the Indian film singers of that time, I (we) think of higher voices, including some voices might also even be called “thin.” I suspect some people who just saw that word “thin” know exactly what I’m talking about, because that was one of the criticisms that was leveled at Lata Mangeshkar when she started out. And then by the 1960s, the “Mangeshkar sisters” came to dominate the world of film singing in India. Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, especially, ended up defining female singing in Indian films.
So I had no idea until the past few years that the Indian film world of the ’60s and early ’70s could have made even a little room for a voice like Usha Uthup/Iyer’s. Usha’s voice can be a bit lower and thicker even than many western female singers’, and it often has a certain unusually appealing hoarseness too. (And by the way, I did not come up with that word “hoarse” all on my own to describe her. I recall an interview with her in which she talked about how she was kicked out of a choir because the teachers, etc., could not find a way that she might fit in, in part, because – as she was told – her voice was too “hoarse”! But that’s part of what gave her such special appeal later on.)
There certainly was a huge contrast between Usha Uthup – or Usha Iyer – when she started out and the voices of Lata and her sisters – and that’s why it was doubly fascinating when Asha Bhosle and Usha Iyer were brought together to do a duet in the film Hare Rama Hare Krishna, in the song of that same name (sometimes referred to as “I Love You”). When I saw that film sequence, I thought to myself, wow, who is the lady singing the English part? And while it was not difficult to find answer to that question, for some reason, I took a few more years to get a good picture in my mind regarding who she was.
It is commonly known (as explained in Wikipedia, etc.) that Usha Iyer started out not as an aspiring playback singer but an increasingly popular singer in nightclubs. And while she was performing in those nightclubs, a number of interesting things happened to her. As a nightclub singer, she got to perform in a few cities, including Chennai, Calcutta, and Delhi. In Calcutta, she met her future husband, a man from Kerala whose last name was Uthup. (And that’s how the name change happened, in case anyone was wondering – in 1971.) Then when she sang at a club in Delhi, she was seen by a Navketan film crew (including Dev Anand), and that’s how she ended up singing in films.
Actually, before she sang in Hare Rama Hare Krishna for R.D. Burman, she got a role singing as part of a Shankar-Jaikishan soundtrack in Bombay Talkie, the 1970 English-language film directed by James Ivory (and produced by Ismail Merchant). She did not do playback singing in this film but, instead, her role was split between playing herself in a nightclub performance and singing as part of the background soundtrack. The night club scene in this film was the first of a couple of film scenes in which I have seen Usha Iyer simply play the role of nightclub singer, as she did in real life. I have to admit that this one is not my favorite (which I will get to soon), but it’s certainly noteworthy as the first.
As an aside, I will say that I wish Usha Iyer’s nightclub performance had been given a more prominent – and less tainted – spotlight in this film. The performance is basically provided as a background for a pretty unpleasant dialogue involving the main characters, who are fairly despicable characters too, if you ask me. (But that’s another matter – maybe I will get more into it if/when I write a review of this film some day). I have not been able to find a separate clip of her performing in that scene, but maybe it is just as well. I have found an audio clip of her performing the full song, which is kind of nice. The song is “Hari Om Tat Sat” The lyrics of the song are in English, and it is apparently a praise of truth – a theme that is also contained in the Sanskrit mantra that comprises the title of the song and the main verse. By the way, it could be that the message of the song was meant to connect to the characters and/or a general theme of the film in some way, but all I could think when I saw the scene in the film was that I would have liked to hear her sing the whole song without rude distractions. Anyway, this clip also shows a very nice picture of Usha, which is from Usha Sings Love Story and Other Hits, a compilation that came out in 1972. (This song is not actually on that album, but l will get to something that is a little later on.)
(Incidentally, I have noticed, just from a quick glance at YouTube, that she has done a number of other versions of this song through the years, sometimes in a very disco vein. But I think I would rather stick with this one, thanks.)
The other song that she is given in Bombay Talkie is “God Times and Bad Times,” which is used for opening and closing credits. This is a really soothing and sweet-sounding number, but, unfortunately (and I hope I am not spoiling anything by saying this), the second time that it is used, it directly follows a pretty horrific scene. So, in this case, Merchant and Ivory chose to distract us from a nice Usha song by tainting it with some terrible irony. But once again, still worthwhile… Here is another nice audio clip:
There was a film made a little later, in 1972 – Bombay to Goa – which also featured Usha Uthup playing herself as one of the singers in a nightclub, and as far as I am concerned, this is a place where she is much more given her due. (By the way, this was the second film in which she worked with R.D. Burman – a pretty good combination, apparently.) She never gets to complete any of the songs that she sings here, but she is given a chance to sing a piece of each song in the spotlight, and she is provided with a diverse batch of pop and rock’n’roll standards that allows us to see a good range in the type of singing that she can do. It starts out with Jose Feliciano’s “Listen to the Pouring Rain,” but it quickly moves on to other numbers, such as a jazzed-up version of the song “Temptation” (which has been performed by Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and others), the song “Fever” (made famous by Peggy Lee, among others), and even Gene Vincent’s rockabilly classic, “Be Bop-a-Lula.” The scene also offers a nice challenge for her in another way, as the two characters – played by Amitabh Bachchan and Aruna Irani – each keep throwing new requests at her as a result of some kind of rivalry between them. At the end, she is forced to go back to one song and then the next faster and faster, and it gets pretty funny. But we also know at this point that she would be perfectly capable of doing a great full version of any of these songs too. (And I believe there might be clips of her doing full versions of these songs. I have not looked for all of them, but I know, for instance, that you can find a full clip of “Fever” somewhere. But the bit of that song that she does here is also good enough for me.)
I must admit that I have never seen the full film Bombay to Goa, but I will get to it one of these days. I know that I should have watched it a long time ago!
Although the Bombay to Goa scene shows that Usha could cover a pretty wide range, it doesn’t really show the entire range that she could cover, even just during the short time between the late ’60s and early ’70s. For something quite different, let’s go back a few years, to 1969. After I saw some of her film songs, I was very pleased to discover some real ’60s rock’n’roll numbers – including some classic psychedelic/garage kinds of stuff – that she recorded with a band called the Flintstones. I was actually pretty blown away (as the hip saying goes) by her performance of these songs, and I was very curious to find out who the band was that she collaborated with at this time. It took a little searching, but eventually I did find a very good entry in a blog called Seven 45rpm. I strongly recommend this post, as the writing – the description of the music, etc. – is very good, as are the details that this blogger managed to find. But I’m just going to give a very abbreviated version of the information I found there: The Flintstones were a psychedelic/garage rock group who performed regularly at Trincas, the club in Calcutta where Usha sang in 1969. (By the way, per Wikipedia, this is also the place where Usha met her husband.) These Flintstones seem to have had a very strong cult following. Usha Iyer did not join the band, but she collaborated with them on a couple of great records. The record called “The Trip” is a roaring work of psychedelic garage rock. Usha’s vocals on this are really strong; she has no problem rocking as hard as the band. Plus, as the blogger at Seven 45rpm pointed out, there are some very interesting lyrics in this song, and we can pretty safely conclude that Usha, herself, wrote them.
Just as Usha Iyer was no stranger to psychedelic rock, she certainly was no stranger to folk rock and and other music that came out of the 1960s folk revival. The 1972 album Usha Sings Love Story and Other Hits is a testament to that fact. “Where Do I Begin (Love Story)” is actually the least interesting song on the album, but I can only suppose that it was made the title track because the film Love Story was popular at the time. Some much more interesting songs on the album include her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” (which is very good – as I expected it would be) and the spiritual number “Sinner Man,” which had been performed previously by Nina Simone, the Seekers, and the Weavers. The one song from this album that really fascinated me was “White Winged Dove,” which is a pure anti-war song originally done by the American folk singer Mark Spoelstra, who, per Wikipedia, had sung right beside Bob Dylan when Dylan first came to New York City. This artist is a little before my time, so when I heard Usha’s version, I had to go to Spoelstra’s version just to hear what the original sounded like (because I was not quite sure if I ever had before). And after I did that, I realized that I don’t like the original nearly as much as I like Usha’s version. Curiously, when I went back to find Usha’s version of this song again, I happened upon a performance that she did of it in 2014. That was surprising, but I don’t see why she wouldn’t do it in 2014, since it was just as relevant then and it is just as relevant now – in the U.S., where Spoelstra wrote it, in the UK, in India, and everywhere else.
Also in the general area of folk-rock and mellow ballads that you might find most easily in the ’60s and ’70s, I wanted to close with this other film song, “Love Is Just Around.” There’s some orchestration in this song, but it is also quite simple and laid back, and very catchy. Out of all the Usha songs that I considered for this post, this song was the one that got stuck in my mind the most. It’s in a different category from the other film songs, because it’s from a Malayalam film, “Chattakari,” from 1974. The music for this film is composed by G. Devarajan, who I understand to be one of the great music composers of Malayalam cinema. The film won a bunch of awards in its day and also was remade in 2012. I definitely like the look of this clip, too, and I’m going to make sure to see this movie some day.
I think that 1974 is the latest point where I want to go with Usha Uthup/Iyer right now. I know that a short time later, she started working with Bappi Lahiri, so there must be plenty of Disco Usha that I will need to catch up with sometime. And I know that there is plenty more that she’s done over the years, and I suspect that she is singing somewhere right now, at the age of 73. But if I wanted to do an adequate summary of Usha Uthup’s incredibly diverse repertoire, I’d probably end up writing a book. So I guess that for now, I’m just going to stick to the part that would be the first chapter – a few of her performances from this early, five-year period that have splendidly and perfectly matched my musical mood of the moment.