Which version is better? The Van Morrison original, or Dusty Spingfield’s cover version?
“Tupelo Honey” is one of my favourite love songs. It’s sentimental, idealistic, mushy-as-hell. Yet, I love it. It reduces me to a quivering mess, if I’m caught unawares. It is hard to imagine that a song so eloquent, poetic, wonderful could have come from the grouchiest man in rock, yet so it did. Morrison melds soul and gospel into a tune that must have been inspired by the Solomon Burke school of plaintive-and-passionate delivery. This is a love song which scales the heights, seeming to reach the loftiness of its subject matter in an effortless manner. Love in this song is of the old sort – “knights in armor/intent on chivalry” indeed. And the figure at the centre of it is “an angel of the first degree”, making this love the stuff of high-spirituality as well as that of legend and myth.
The song was first released in 1971 on Van Morrison’s album of the same name, Tupelo Honey, soon to be covered by artists ranging from Irish folk singer Brian Kennedy to contemporary jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson. But, a notable version was by British pop-soul singer Dusty Springfield. The question is: which one does it for you, good people?
Morrison’s love of soul music shines through on this track, one of a number of tunes on the album which bares its name. Morrison was living in Woodstock at the time, and had marital and domestic bliss on his mind when writing the album. His then-wife Janet inspired this idealistic vision of love to such a degree that Morrison sounds downright overwhelmed on this track, with an almost epic poem approach springing out of him on this one.
The old meets the new here, with legendary knights and the evocation of the birthplace of the King rolling forth on equal ground. And his voice starts as a whisper, and grows into a soulful outpouring in probably one of the most passionate performances of his career, which is certainly saying something.
Springfield knew a thing or two about soulful delivery herself, and her version of the tune follows pretty closely to the original, but for a few minor differences – a new verse, and a gender shift – “he’s as sweet as Tupelo Honey”. The song was featured on her 1973 album Cameo, which borrows from some of the lessons taken from her earlier album Dusty in Memphis, recorded at Muscle Shoals. Springfield’s voice is light as air, yet funky too.
Where Morrison’s fiery delivery makes the song a proclamation to the heavens, Springfield’s is a forthright sermon to the earthbound. And the horn arrangements on this version seem to have been magicked by the spirit of Otis Redding.
So, good people. Which is your preferred brand of Tupelo Honey? That of the Belfast Cowboy? Or is it soulful chanteuse Springfield?