“Try a Little Tenderness.” Composed by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, and Harry Woods (1932). Recorded in London on December 1, 1932 by Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans with vocalists Maurice Elwin and the Carlyle Cousins. Columbia CB-546.
Personnel: Carroll Gibbons-p dir. Bill Shakespeare-Billy Higgs-t / Arthur Fenoulhet-t-tb / Paul Fenoulhet-tb / Sam Acres-tb / George Melachrino-cl-as-vn / Laurie Payne-cl-as-bar / George Smith-ts / Ben Frankel-vn / Sid Bright-2nd p / Harry Sherman-g / Jack Evetts-sb / Rudy Starita-d-vib-x / Maurice Elwin-The Carlyle Cousins (Cecile Petrie-Pauline Lister-Irene Taylor)-v
Some musical compositions have inherent flaws, while others, as a result of their success, acquire unpleasant associations over time. I would argue that “Try a Little Tenderness” actually falls into both categories. By making overly general psychological observations about women, it risks sounding patronizing and heavy-handed. Moreover, there is something about the tune and the lyrics that encourage saccharine performances.
Some renditions appear to be more than a little aware of the song’s cloying tendencies. I think particularly of the intentionally awkward title sequence of Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, in which a rather syrupy instrumental version of the tune is played over images of a nuclear bomber being fueled by another plane’s flying boom in a manner inviting Freudian interpretation. Then there is the 1958 recording of Dragnet star Jack Webb speaking the lyrics in his trademark stiff, dead way over overproduced orchestral music (by way of a joke, presumably, although it is not clear that Webb himself was in on it). These sorts of offbeat uses of a tune can be very entertaining, but they can also forever ruin our ability to enjoy it unironically.
Carroll Gibbons’s 1932 version of “Try a Little Tenderness” rescues the song for me, serving as a sort of musical palate cleanser and reminding me of what was good about the original composition. The whole recording is imbued with the elegance one expects from the Savoy Hotel Orpheans, and Maurice Elwin is exactly the right singer to deliver the song’s prescriptions for harmonious human behavior. His tone of sincerity and sympathy brings out what is admirable in the lyrics, and the alternation between his voice and those of the Carlyle Cousins is sweet, light, and playful.
Other British dance bands who recorded “Try a Little Tenderness” in 1932-1933 were Jack Payne and His Band (v. Jack Payne), Ray Noble and His Orchestra (v. Val Rosing), Ambrose and His Orchestra (v. Sam Browne), Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (v. Pat O’Malley), Billy Cotton (rejected by Regal Zonophone), and Syd Roy and His R.K.O.lians (v. Sam Browne), and Oscar Rabin and His Romany Band (v. Sam Browne; on Sterno and 4 in 1).