John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Que Sera Sera

No, not by Doris Day. Sly and the Family Stone’s remake is a classic.

By - May 23rd, 2014 10:34 am
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If you are browsing pop history looking for cultural non sequiturs, you might not find a bigger one than this. It’s almost too absurd to imagine, but today we contemplate Sly and The Family Stone’s remake of the Doris Day hit, Que Sera Sera (heard here in an interesting alternate take).

They’re as unlikely a pair as you’ll ever find. Doris Day, a lovely, blond and bland-ish star, with no small amount of talent, represented the status quo in the ‘50s. She was as Hallmark and Norman Rockwell as they came and I have only recently come to appreciate her as an actress and a singer. Apparently I have stopped trying to be cool, but I do get it now. The song, a real gem, has a mangled French/Spanish title, and it’s a waltz, the least funky rhythm on the planet. Doris’ version was all milk and honey and rated PG 13.

Sly & the Family Stone

Sly & the Family Stone

Sly Stone, on the other hand, was the ‘60s personified. At the end of the decade, he and his band were unrivaled by anyone or anything. They owned the airwaves with their joyous, life-affirming funk, as exciting as any music ever made. Their influence was arguably comparable to The Beatles or Dylan, so powerful that artists like Miles Davis stood up, took notice, and quickly changed directions. His band was wonderfully diverse in gender and race, and tighter than a marching snare. The bassist, Larry Graham invented popping and slapping, for heaven’s sake! Even though I’m not sure anyone else should have done it after him, that says something.

Everyone in that band could sing, but Sly had a stupefyingly great voice. He sang the choruses on today’s song with a whole lot of Ray Charles on the surface and enough emotion to make you wonder what the hell was going on with him. I still wonder. His sister Rose provides the charm on the verses, setting up his soulful choruses. It was the only cover they did in their initial configuration. (Later on I heard a version of The Kinks’ You Really Got Me that confirmed my suspicion that he could have been a first class song thief.)

After Fresh, the album this track is from, the band split and for all intents and purposes, so did Sly. It was the last hit for the band and reports on Stone’s personal life were not encouraging. An addict’s addict with a king’s ransom of royalty money, it had to try pretty hard to burn through it. Most others would be in the obituaries before they got down to the depths he was reported to have sunk to — he must have a strong constitution. My friend Phil Lee was driving cab in L.A. during those days and swears he picked Sly up, along with the TV he was trying to sell to raise money. Phil exaggerates a little, but other stories corroborate a fall that was steep and tragic.

Sly and Doris met once at her home. That was all that was needed to start strangely persistent rumors of an affair, but none of them were true. What did happen is her son, Terry Melcher, a producer and scenester, befriended Sly and took him home to meet mother. She was headed upstairs when she heard him playing her hit song on the piano with the same churchy feel he later employed on the record and she joined him to sing it. This created a disconnect right up there with Alice Cooper and Groucho Marx, who were known to golf together.

The song itself is an interesting transatlantic concoction. The title is taken from Italian, translated into bi-lingual nonsense in a couple different languages. By now I think it’s been around long enough to be a certified American exoticism like chop suey. Written by the Jay Livingston and Ray Evans in 1956, it was sung by Ms. Day in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. She also starred in that film with James Stewart. Those are some kind of bona fides, who knew a second chapter waited a few years down the line?

This song, like Is that All There Is, tackles a very elusive philosophical concept. It’s hard to understand life’s mysteries, even more so to distill them perfectly into a three minute pop song, but that’s what we have here. The summing up begins with a conversation between a little girl and her mother.

When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother
What will I be
Will I be pretty
Will I be rich
Here’s what she said to me

Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que sera, sera
What will be, will be

When I grew up and fell in love
I asked my sweetheart
What lies ahead
Will we have rainbows
Day after day
Here’s what my sweetheart said

Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see

Que sera, sera
What will be, will be

Now I have children of my own
They ask their mother
What will I be
Will I be handsome
Will I be rich
I tell them tenderly

Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que sera, sera
What will be, will be

Que Sera, Sera

Writers are always advised to pay attention to the beginning, middle and end. This song takes care of those rudiments in a graceful way, yet in the end, tells you nothing about the young girl’s fate. We do know she has children, but is she happy, are there rainbows everyday? I suppose in the Doris Day’s version there would be. But a song that starts with Hitchcock and ends up with Sly Stone? That version might be a little more complex. That complexity comes across in the Family Stone’s treatment. There may be other ways to sing this song, but I can’t imagine them; This is the spectrum at its widest, from Doris to Sly.

I once saw Sly perform, of all places, at a former Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Kenosha. It was the eighties, and he had already been a ghost for a long time. When I heard he was playing my home town, I hopped in my car and drove down to the place where I first legally drank way too much beer. Sly had been spending time in Chicago and had a serviceable band to play his hits. True to form, he left them on stage for about an hour before he strolled out, looking slightly disengaged. He then gave us about 45 minutes of his time, managing to sing I Want To Take You Higher twice in the same set. Perfunctory? Yes it was. But it also ranks as one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. His talent was unaffected by years of neglect.

Ever since, I’ve had a weird daydream that has kicked around in the back of my head: Me and two or three hefty Wisconsin boys kidnap Sly. We take him to the North Woods for a little chill-out time. Let’s say it takes a year or two for him to clean up and regain his form before we spring him on an unsuspecting public. His talent and fire are completely restored and we are given medals at the White House for the daring operation that saved him from himself. Just a daydream, I know, never gonna happen. Maybe we can get Doris to talk to him.

 

0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: Que Sera Sera”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hearing the first few notes of the Sly and the Family Stone version of Que Sera Sera made me think that I was about to hear A Whiter Shade Of Pale. Thanks also for printing the lyrics, which seem so different on paper than they do when sung in a lilting voice by Doris Day. And as to your ending (about the weird daydream), please remember that you can never save anyone from themselves (and often they can’t do it either)!

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