wichita lineman no. 6: sergio mendez & brazil ‘66, “wichita lineman” (1969)

As mentioned in Cassandra Wilson, this is another version of the song sung by a woman, whose name, alas, I cannot discover on Allmusic.com. She is the anonymous singer of Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, who, in 1969, released their cover of the song on Ye-Me-Le. It was enough of a hit that it was rereleased as one of Twenty Easy Listening Classics. Ye-Me-Le is mostly covers of popular pop tunes of the time – it’s followed up by “Norwegian Wood”. This version feels a bit perfunctory, maybe with some historical reason: I have 11 other cover versions from 1969.

It’s quick: 2:47. There’s a spritely intro full of Latin percussion for ten seconds, then things slow down, for the verse, speeding up again after the chorus. What’s nice is that this start-stop dynamic is carried through the song: you can neatly divide it into three sections. Just before the third section starts, there are orchestral flourishes. The third section is followed by the glorious full-speed ending, with scat singing, probably improvised. This is the best part of the song – it could go on for another three minutes and I’d be quite happy. Probably this would have been a better song-as-a-song if they cut the first two choruses and verses and started with the orchestra at about 1:30.

The lyric here (sung in English) is quite honestly disposable. As mentioned previously, the position of the singer does get switched up in the first two lines (“He is a lineman for the county / And he rides the main roads”) but this isn’t followed up in the rest of the song. She goes back to the original “you” in “I can hear you through the wires”, and soon afterwards “I know I need a small vacation”. There doesn’t seem to be a connection made to the song’s switch to the third person later, which Cassandra Wilson makes. I don’t think this is particularly thought-out – it’s an easy cover version.

There’s undoubtedly something to be said about the cultural context of this version, but I don’t feel qualified to say anything about how Brazilian musicians covering “country” songs would have been received in the United States in the late 1960s. Were Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 seen as a novelty act? From the evidence of this song, I’d say they saw themselves as entertainers rather than artists, but it’s hard to tell.

Is this cover a novelty song? It’s certainly a jolly rendition of a sad song. I’m not sure that it’s being disrespectful to the song, however, so much as it’s using it as a base to play with. There’s a clear joy in how the song takes off when it leaves the choruses, which I think is the real worth of this rendition. Rather than a novelty, the cover might be being used as a Trojan horse to get that in the door.

4 thoughts on “wichita lineman no. 6: sergio mendez & brazil ‘66, “wichita lineman” (1969)

  1. REM do a version of it on one of the singles from the New Adventures In Hi-Fi album (I think) …. great posts on a great song, but I think you’re wrong to describe Galveston as the weak link in the trio. That’ll definitely be on my in-car compilation for my road trip across the States!

  2. The answer to the question, “Who is that woman?” is an easy one. The lead singer of SM&B66 is Lani Hall. Technically, there were two female singers — Lani and Janis Hansen. Lani was better known as Mrs. Herb Alpert. Janis, who was always a little miffed that Lani stole the spotlight, finally got her chance on the remake of the Bachrach classic, “The Look of Love.” However, even these days, many people remember the song and think it was Lani who sang it. Sometimes you can never win!

  3. In fact, Lani Hall accompanying singer on this recording was not Janis Hansen anymore, who left the group in early 1968, but Karen Philipp.

  4. i thought that karen philipp was the perfect replacement for the exceptionally talented janis hansen,also she provided a professional rhythmic quality in live shows.As a professional trumpet player playing for many groups,shows,and all kinds of sideman gigs,stagecraft is not easy.In most cases it’s mostly natural and in Karen’s case she just was a natural performer.It’a a gift.God bless her.bishop Rod VonPackal

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