I’ve been meaning to write this post ever since Bobby Womack passed away, given that his version of ‘California Dreamin’‘ is one of my favorite arrangements of that song, but I’ve been pretty busy. Today, however, I made the time. The song is immensely popular and has been adopted by a number of different genres, from pop, to rock, to jazz, to funk, to punk to metal, to techno, and, unfortunately, even to country. Below is a list of my five favorite version of the classic pop song.
5: Baby Huey
There is something magical about the Baby Huey version of this song. Though it is not one that I go back to frequently, it is one I enjoy immensely. The arrangement starts out with a peaceful and mellow flute that lulls the listener into a false sense of security that makes one think they are in for rendition of the song that might be only slightly better instrumental version you hear when getting a $40 massage at the local Asian massage parlour, but about a minute and twenty second into the track, it simply erupts into a funkadelic anthem that mixes flutes and horns with some up-tempo drumming that makes it sound as if it were written as dance song. The flute playing is exceptional, especially since it is competing with an assertive drum arrangement and some potent horns and still comes away as the dominant sound. The flute jumps all around, adding a few pleasant trills on its way up and down the scale, while the organ that is accompanying the flute makes the Baby Huey’s interpretation close to perfect.
4: The Mamas and the Papas
While it might seem like blasphemy to some to rank the original version of the song any lower at the very top of the list, there are simply other versions of the song that I enjoy more because they step outside of the typical pop sound adopted by The Mamas and the Papas. That said, the original version is absolutely amazing. There have been any number of other pop groups to record the classic hit, but they all seem like imitations of the original. Some do little to change the original arrangement, like The Seekers, and others who are guilty of over production, such as The Beach Boys, whose electric guitar and squawking sax fail to capture the somber tone of the lyrics and distract from the melody of the vocal track. The instrumentation of the version done by The Mamas and The Papas is perhaps unoriginal in terms of style (though it is the original version of the song), but it is well suited and allows the lead vocals to shine and the harmonious backing melodies to complement and enhance the melody, likely because the group were masters at creating harmony. The flute used during the bridge is also a nice touch.
3: Sungha Jung
At a very young age, Sungha Jung proved a prodigious guitarist, recording a host of renditions of popular songs that he arranged before the age of ten. It was his cover of ‘California Dreamin’ that I heard first. There is no vocals and no instrumentation other than the guitar that he is playing, but somehow he manages to create a depth of sound and melodious harmonies are a full as the original. The bass line and rhythm, the lead melodies, and the backing harmonies are all present, though Jung is playing only one guitar. And this is just not an exercise in deft guitar playing by a child prodigy; it has a mature, full emotive sound. When his guitar hits the notes that are sung so mournfully by the likes of Bobby Womack and John Philips, he manages not only to hit the right note, but play it in a way that exudes the kind of sombreness that one would think could only be made by a human voice. Pretty amazing from a musician who wasn’t even yet ten years of age when he recorded the song. The video is below, but I recommend going to his YouTube channel and taking a listen at a number of the arrangements he’s put together. It is an amazing collection.
2: George Benson
George Benson’s jazz/rock fusion style won him a lot of fans, especially after the release of his landmark album White Rabbit, featuring a cover of the Jefferson Airplane song of the same name. On the album was a cover of ‘California Dreamin’’ that pulled the song from its original pop context and made it sound as if the song had jazz standard for decades. The song, which is devoid of any vocals, begins with some guitar work that is reminiscent Latin music, making the melody sound more like an example of musica Espanola than an America pop song, even more so than the Jose Feliciano version. The song builds up the layers of melody and instrumentation, re-creating the harmony of the original with instruments in place of vocals and creating a unique sounds that is at once familiar and refreshingly original. Ironically, Benson wasn’t entirely happy with the production because the album’s producer had the musicians come in at different times and lay down their tracks individually, bringing them all together in the editing room rather than having all the musicians play the track live in the studio at the same time, which was Benson’s preference. Still, it is easily one of the best versions of the song, and one of my favorite jazz arrangements.
1: Bobby Womack
I am ashamed to admit it, but the first time I heard this version of the song was relatively recently. It was featured in the soundtrack for the film Fish Tank, starring Michael Fassbender, so I came across it when catching up on Fassbender’s filmography a couple years ago. In the film, Fassbender’s character plays Womack’s classic rendition of the song for the daughter of his girlfriend, who he later seduces. This version strips way the vocal harmonies and replaces it with a soulful leading vocal and a mellow jazzy arrangement backing the vocals that include some deft guitar work and horns. The result is even more melancholic sound than the original and soothes the listener whilst simultaneously playing on their heart strings. Though it was saddening to hear of Womack’s passing this year, we are fortunate that he left behind such a beautiful legacy for music fans in the form of his recordings.
The Four Tops: The Four Tops recorded a version of the song that was absolutely beautiful, no only for its soulful vocals, but for is minimalist arrangement. It doesn’t focus as much on the harmonies, but it is still one of the best versions and likely better than the Baby Huey version, but with Bobby Womack recording a version of the song that is similar in spirit to The Four Tops version, put Baby Huey’s version in for the sake of variety.
Melanie: Perhaps even more minimalist than The Four Tops version is the one done by Melanie, which prominently features Melanie’s lead vocals along with some nice piano work. When she hits the crescendo near the end of the song, her vocals transform into a ghostly reincarnation of Janis Joplin. Not quite as good as The Four Tops version, but still worth a listen.
Eddie Hazel: Eddie Hazel‘s version of the song sounds like the love child of Bobby Womack, Prince and George Clinton. Funkadelic from start to finish, this version has little in common with the original other than the lyrics, but it nice to hear a version that isn’t simple mimicry, even if its experimentation with the source material isn’t as compelling as some versions.
Versions you ought to avoid:
Jack Frost: Jack Frost’s ‘doom’ metal version is interesting to listen to the first time, but even before you finish it, the echoes that sound as if they were recorded in an emptied industrial complex grow tiring.
Mower and Pennywise: I think the melody of the song would be perfect for a punk cover, but none of the versions I’ve heard seem to do the song justice. Particularly bad are the versions by Mower and Pennywise. They just sound as if the groups just thought singing/yelling the lyrics loudly made it punk.
Scala & Kolancy Brothers: Scala & Kolancy Brothers arranged a choir/piano rendition of the song that sounds great on paper, and the voices and piano playing are quite beautiful, but the piece lacks any sort of original arrangement. The arrangement sounds pretty much as if one group of the girls in the choir sang the lead, and the others sang the backing harmonies, but with that many vocalists, I would have preferred to see more creativity with the arrangement. A missed opportunity.
The Beach Boys: The Beach Boys recorded what is, perhaps, the worst cover of the song. Noisy guitar, uninspired vocals, squawking sax and overzealous drums make the song sound as if some overenthusiastic producer were trying to make a wall of sound with an 80’s production style. California dream? No. It’s a nightmare!
Benny Benassi: Just as I craved a great punk cover of this brilliant melody, I likewise have always wanted to hear a great techno remix, so when I found out that Benny Benassi (of ‘Satisfaction’ fame) had a cover, I was all over it. Sadly, it is a train wreck that doesn’t use nearly enough of the melody, and when it does, it is as if he simply dropped in The Mama’s and the Papa’s version in by itself and then waited a few second to add a random beat to it before turning it off. Another missed opportunity.