One-take wonders: Musical gems captured in just one recording


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While today’s digital recording technology allows artists to meticulously perfect every detail, it wasn’t always the case. In the 1950s and ’60s, artists still faced limitations in terms of recording time and equipment costs. So “good enough” was the name of the game, and it turns out what was good enough for them is still good enough half a century later.

Here are 10 classic songs that were recorded in a single take.

Elvis Presley ‘That’s Alright (Mama)’ (1954)

The “king in the making” was midway through his very first recording session with Sun Records when, in between takes, he pulled out Arthur Crudup’s 1946 bluesy number “That’s All Right.” The producer, stoked by the upbeat rendition, told Presley to play it again so he could record it. According to Rolling Stone, rock ‘n’ roll was born at that very moment.

Frank Sinatra – ‘My Way’ (1969)

There was a good reason why Frank Sinatra was deemed  ‘One-Take Charlie’ on movie sets,  and he carried the same no-nonsense approach to his recording sessions. With meticulous rehearsals alongside his orchestra, Sinatra ensured everything fell into place when the red light turned on. The pop singer Paul Anka adapted a French song called “Comme d’habitude” and reworked the lyrics with Sinatra in mind. After finishing the grandiose and partially affirming lyrics, Anka wasted no time and immediately played the song for Sinatra. It took mere minutes for Sinatra to connect with the winding melody, and when the recording session arrived on December 28, 1968, he nailed it in just a single take.

Kim Carnes –  ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (1981)

Kim Carnes, a seasoned singer and songwriter, achieved overnight success with her hit song “Bette Davis Eyes” in 1981. Despite her prior experience in Hollywood and the music industry, the raspy-voiced Carnes seemed to come out of nowhere with this infectious and modern-sounding track. Produced by Val Garay at Record One studio, the song was recorded in just one take, capturing Carnes’ captivating vocals and the band’s tight performance. “Bette Davis Eyes” went on to become a chart-topping sensation, earning Carnes a Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 1982.

The Beatles ‘Twist And Shout’ (1963)

The Beatles’ recording of “Twist and Shout” on their first studio album, “Please Please Me”, is a perfect example of a one-take masterpiece. After recording nine other songs earlier in the day, Producer George Martin had The Fab Four tackle the cover of the Top Notes’ 1961 song. Despite John Lennon’s strained voice from a cold and the decision to save it for the end of the recording session, the band poured every ounce of energy into the performance. The result is a rip-roaring, throat-shredding track that still resonates with listeners even after nearly 60 years.

The Animals ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ (1964)

In 1964, The Animals catapulted to fame with their dramatic rendition of the timeless folk song, “House of the Rising Sun.” The band’s decision to perform the song during their tour with Chuck Berry showcased their desire for a distinctive sound. Seizing the opportunity between stops, they recorded the song in a historic 15-minute session, nailing it on the first take. The result? A number-one hit in the UK and the US, and a timeless classic recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of “The 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”

The Kingsmen ‘Louie Louie’ (1963)

In the mid-1960s, among the multitude of teenage garage rock bands, The Kingsmen emerged as a raw and energetic group from Oregon. With minimal studio experience, they ventured into recording their iconic track, “Louie, Louie.” Facing numerous challenges, including disinterested producers and limited recording resources, The Kingsmen had just one take to capture the essence of the song. To make matters worse, lead singer Jack Ely’s recent braces affected his vocals, resulting in an unintelligible performance. Yet, despite the mistakes and the record’s poor production quality, the outcome was astonishing. Unbeknownst to The Kingsmen, their raucous one-take recording embodied a frenzied intensity that resonated with their audience. The crashing drums, enthralling guitar break, and Ely’s distorted vocals unintentionally fueled an urban legend of obscenity, contributing to the song’s success. ‘Louie, Louie’ is often regarded as the first punk song, a testament to its raw energy perfected in a single pass.

James Brown – ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ (1965)

Ranked among Rolling Stone’s “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” this infectious track stands as a pioneering influence in the rise of funk music. The legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown, recorded the groundbreaking R&B/pop crossover in a remarkable one-take performance. Even though Brown hadn’t fully memorized the lyrics, he confidently read them from a paper in front of him during the recording. As the horns prepared to join in, Brown boldly exclaimed, “This is a hit!” And boy was he right.

Johnny Cash ‘A Boy Named Sue’ (1969)

In 1969, Johnny Cash added to his collection of prison concert albums with a powerful performance at San Quentin State Prison. Among the standout tracks from that memorable show was “A Boy Named Sue,” a clever and humorous tale written by children’s book author Shel Silverstein. Prior to the concert, Cash familiarized himself with the lyrics, but opted for an unrehearsed approach. As he took the stage, he relied on a lyrics sheet, improvising alongside his band. The result is a raw and genuine recording, complete with the infectious laughter of the inmates and Cash’s spontaneous chuckling.

Rupert Holmes Escape (The Piña Colada Song)’ (1979)

In 1979, Rupert Holmes released “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” a catchy tune that tells the story of a man seeking excitement outside his long-term relationship. The initial take was intended as a placeholder with temporary lyrics, but when Holmes attempted to re-record the song with revised lyrics, he felt that his voice lacked the necessary enthusiasm. As a result, the imperfect yet captivating first cut prevailed, and it is the version we hear today.

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