Here’s an esoteric music trivia question: what do the songs The Sounds of Silence (Simon and Garfunkel), Sunny (Bobby Hebb) and The Warmth of the Sun (the Beach Boys) have in common?Answer: although none of them refer to it overtly, all three were inspired, at least partly, by the assassination of John F Kennedy, which happened 50 years ago this week.
As it happens, they’re also three great songs. Though it was never a hit (it was the flip side of the rather less impressive Dance, Dance, Dance, which went to No 8 in the US), The Warmth of the Sun is an early example of Brian Wilson’s genius, marking the point at which he raised his sights from songs about hot rods and surfing to more ambitious, melodically complex stuff. Wilson and fellow band member Mike Love began writing the song before learning of Kennedy’s death, but it has a melancholy, elegiac quality that captures the mood of the moment. (Incidentally, that’s not the Beach Boys you hear playing on the record; it’s the fabulous Los Angeles session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew, one of whom was Glen Campbell.)Black singer Bobby Hebb’s Sunny sounds like a love song but was written as a response to two tragedies: Kennedy’s death and the fatal stabbing of Hebb’s brother outside a Nashville nightclub. Paradoxically, it’s an optimistic song that draws hope from the restorative quality of love. Although written in 1963, it didn’t become a hit till nearly three years later. It rose to No 2 in the US and No 16 in New Zealand in mid-1966 and went on to earn enduring popularity as a staple in both easy-listening and soul repertoires. Hebb, who died in 2010, never had another major hit, but it’s worth checking out his follow-up to Sunny, a sublime soul treatment of the much-recorded country song A Satisfied Mind. (I never found out who the bass player was, but he was hot. Sunny and A Satisfied Mind were two of the first pop songs I can recall in which the bass insisted on being heard.)
Like Sunny, The Sounds of Silence took its time becoming a hit. In fact it attracted little attention when Simon and Garfunkel first recorded it as an acoustic folk song for the 1964 album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. It was only after their producer, Tom Wilson, decided to soup the song up with electric guitars, bass and drums – provided by New York session musicians who had just finished working on Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone – that The Sounds of Silence took off. Astonishingly, the overdubbing was done without the knowledge of Paul Simon, who wrote the song. But it did the trick: the new version, released in September 1965, went to No 1 in New Zealand as well as the US, and set S & G on their way.Anyway, give the songs a whirl. It’s as good a way as any of marking Friday's anniversary.