“A Song For You” was written by Leon Russell for his first solo album that was released in 1970. I don’t know that I have a favorite song, but if I had to choose, I would have no qualms with this song being it. And I don’t know that I have many thoughts about it, but I know the thoughts I do have are significant and heavy and substantial. I love this song, but it’s only because I can’t think of a verb stronger than to love. I love a lot of songs, too many, to be honest. But then, in the circle of songs I love, there’s a campfire where all of A Song For You’s contemporaries sit with one another.
I first heard this song as a cover by Michael Buble. I absolutely loved the massive production and arrangement for it. I couldn’t get over the swells and ebbs of the movements together. I didn’t know when I heard it that it’d be one of my favorite songs, and I also didn’t know it was a cover (but I presumed so because most of that album was). And the Chris Botti solo. Man. MAN. And then his fills during that iconic line after the solo. The last thing I expected was to happen upon another cover of that song and somehow love it more. But then I heard Donny Hathaway.
Donny Hathaway’s cover is a stark departure away from the grand and voluminous arrangement of Buble’s cover. It’s spartan and poignant and it did those things so well. And the way that Hathaway’s voice just envelops the lyrics. It reminds me that the voice is an instrument and you can be really, really good at playing it. And he is outstandingly good at playing it. This song uses silence and sustains to do the same thing that Buble’s big band feel does: make you feel the song. I didn’t think I could like a cover of this song more than Buble’s, but here we are. And then something happened. Another came along.
It wasn’t until years upon years after having heard Hathaway’s version for the first time that I discovered that Russell had 1) been inducted in 2011 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and 2) performed this song live for the audience in attendance with 3) one of my biggest musical influences playing fills and, in my opinion, one of his best solos (and he has many, so this is a big deal). When I found the video, probably sitting in my recommended to the side of some random John Mayer cover video, I was kind of at a loss for words. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Here was a song that, against all odds, was so good that two very different versions of it were both part of the list of my favorite songs. And here it was, being played by the person who wrote it. And here it was, being accompanied by the guy who 1) is the biggest musical influence of the guy whose videos I watched to learn playing guitar and 2) would eventually become one of my biggest musical and guitarist influences. What are the chances? 0% are the chances. I can’t use English well enough to properly articulate this rendition of the song, so just find it on Youtube it and hear for yourself. (Small tangent, this also brings me to a very important thing about music to me, which is that music is not just an aural experience. Watching people play music is an experience inseparable from hearing them play music.)
I was never too into The Carpenters’ or Amy Winehouse’s or Ray Charles’, etc., versions. They’re all good in their own right, even if it’s just because the song is so good, but these three versions are the ones that make me feel things. I think there’s value in the order that I’d heard them. I was inundating myself more consciously with more jazz and swing influences, and I had a lot of energy. So Buble’s cover was paramount to keeping that flow of energy going. And then I eventually calmed down a little and turned a little more often than before to introspection, so Hathaway’s cover spoke to me. And then when I thought that I was close to feeling fully realized as myself, I heard Russell sing his own song with Mayer backing him, and it felt like resolution.