Mother Nature's Son
by Travis Atria
Ramsey Lewis didn’t want to record a Beatles cover album. It was sometime in late 1968, just after the Beatles released their sprawling, self-titled masterpiece commonly known as The White Album, and Charles Stepney—who would soon produce albums for Earth, Wind & Fire—suggested Lewis cover the album. As Lewis told Mojo in 2012, “I wasn’t a Beatles fan. I’d recorded ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ ‘Day Tripper’ and ‘And I Love Her’ before, but I didn’t really get them. But my producer Charles Stepney told me to think about doing a Beatles covers album. I didn’t think that they had enough songs to do an entire album but he gave me a copy of The White Album and told me to listen. I did, but couldn’t see how I could do anything with it. He was like, ‘You didn’t really listen.’ So he arranged a few songs for me and then it was, ‘I get it now.’”
The resulting album, Mother Nature’s Son, shows just how much Lewis got it. Of course, it’s an old truism of songwriting that a great song will work no matter how you play it, but Lewis and Stepney produced something as timeless as the original—and much like George Benson and Booker T. and the M.G.’s, he did it merely one month after the original came out.
Mother Nature’s Son starts on the title track with some far-out zaps from a Moog synthesizer—an as-yet-unexplored instrument for the most part, and one the Beatles themselves would soon employ—before bursting into Lewis’s distinctive blend of jazz with the soaring orchestral accompaniment emblematic of the Chicago Sound. In fact, the Moog is used expertly throughout, mostly to create texture. But, on “Cry Baby Cry,” it takes the melody while making it seem that a UFO is about to land.
The aspect of Mother Nature’s Son that really commands attention, however, is the funk. Lewis and Stepney have absolutely no mercy on these songs. The take on “Rocky Raccoon” makes Paul McCartney’s silly little Western into the sonic embodiment of cool with a Rhodes tone that is smoother than sculpted marble. “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence” simmer with understated grooves, while “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” retains the raucous, manic energy of the original but pairs it with a rhythm track that prefigures hip-hop.
Ultimately, Mother Nature’s Son succeeds in the same way that Benson’s The Other Side of Abbey Road and Booker T. and the M.G.’s McLemore Avenue succeed—it uses the Beatles as a jumping off point to make a statement that is far bigger than a simple cover, and it retains the indelible imprint of the artist who made it. You might get lost in this one for a while.
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