January 27, 1965
“Willow Weep for Me” by Chad & Jeremy
#1 on the Billboard Middle-Road Singles chart, January 23-29, 1965
Last week’s edition of this column, which covered Georgie Fame’s UK #1 hit “Yeh Yeh,” discussed the often overlooked jazz influences in British rock in the mid-’60s. But while Fame and his band delved into the warm, upbeat Latin rhythms that could be perceived as an antecedent of rock ‘n’ roll, the cooler, more subdued side of jazz — the haven of torch singers and mournful brass — also found followers among British artists of the era, despite its less obvious kinship with the rambunctious energy of rock.
Then again, Chad & Jeremy were one of the least rock-indebted acts to emerge from the British Invasion. “Yesterday’s Gone” (1963), the duo’s first single and sole UK hit, bore traces of the Merseybeat sound, albeit heavily filtered through the Kingston Trio’s mainstream folk. It was their biggest hit, the US Top 10 single “A Summer Song” (1964), however, that set the template for the Chad & Jeremy style, blending easygoing, lightly folky melodies, vocal harmonies, and acoustic guitars with a vaguely jazz-tinged orchestral backing.
Chad & Jeremy followed up “A Summer Song” with a cover that made their jazz debt even more explicit. “Willow Weep for Me” had been written in 1932 by Ann Ronell, one of the first successful female professional songwriters. (The following year, she co-wrote “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” for Disney’s Three Little Pigs.) The blues-inflected, melodically sophisticated ballad is one of the weepiest of all torch songs, as the singer pleads to the tree of the title to “bend your branches down along the ground and cover me.”
“Willow Weep for Me” became a hit for both the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra and Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra in December 1932. The song was revived in the late ’40s, thanks to a version by Stan Kenton’s orchestra (with June Christy on vocals) and an instrumental interpretation by Art Tatum. It quickly became a jazz standard, racking up scores of both vocal and instrumental performances throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Seemingly every jazz and vocal pop performer of the era recorded their version of the melancholic ballad, from Thelonious Monk, to Billie Holiday, to Frank Sinatra.
In keeping with their folk-pop style, Chad & Jeremy iron out some of the jazzier aspects of “Willow Weep for Me,” taming the wilder bits of syncopation and omitting Ronell’s complex cross rhythm, in which the bass and treble clefs use different time signatures. Yet the duo maintain just enough of the jazz elements to honor the song’s origins and give their record a sophisticated flair. The soft croons, muted trumpets, and use of blue notes mark “Willow Weep for Me” in stark contrast to the wilder sound dominating the British Invasion. While Chad & Jeremy’s version of “Willow Weep for Me” lacks the haunting melancholy of many previous interpretations of the song, it’s appealing, delicate, and wistful, and strikes an unusual balance between the era’s traditional and contemporary strains of pop music.
Indeed, the success of “Willow Weep for Me” transcended the generational divide. While the record peaked at a respectable #15 on the Hot 100, it climbed all the way to #1 on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart, at the time published under the name “Middle-Road Singles.” Chad & Jeremy were the only group out of the British Invasion to top that chart, which was then dominated by the likes of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and the more ornate ballads of Ray Charles and Elvis Presley. While “easy listening” is often perceived as somewhat of an insult — “elevator music” designed to elicit no strong reactions from listeners — the term fits Chad & Jeremy’s sound quite aptly. Their version of “Willow Weep for Me” is laidback, subtle, and sweet — in short, quite easy to listen to.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.