Benny Spellman R.I.P.

Though he had mostly been out of the music business for decades, the legacy of the great R&B vocalist, who passed away at 79 on Friday (June 3, 2011), endures for a least two reasons. When his running partner and occasional collaborator Ernie K-Doe was at his most effusive he once claimed that at the end of the world only two songs would remain—“The Star-Spangled Banner” and his biggest hit, “Mother-in-Law.”

In a sense, K-Doe, who passed in 2001, was right. Everyone knows the tune, but what is less known is the fact that Benny Spellman’s voice is the bass  in the chorus that for many listeners is the truly memorable hook of the song.

Spellman was from Florida where he passed away, but became a big part of the fertile New Orleans Rhythm and Blues scene when he hooked up with the writer and producer Allen Toussaint.

In 1962, Minit Records released Spellman’s biggest hit, a 45 rpm single, as was the norm at the time, of two songs from the pen of Toussaint. The A-side was the classic ode to infidelity “Lipstick Traces (on a cigarette) But it was the B-side that would eventually become Spellman’s most enduring contribution to music.

The song was called “Fortune Teller.” It is a whimsical tale of an unlucky-in-love young man’s visit to the gypsy. The lyrics are some of the best that the prolific Toussaint ever penned with a final twist that is still memorizing hundreds of listens later.

After being told on his first visit that soon “you’ll be looking into her eyes,” he surmises that he has been made a fool when he doesn’t meet a girl. Yet he returns to the same witchy woman, “As mad as I could be, I told her I didn’t see nobody, Why’d she make a fool out of me?”

But fortune strikes on the second visit- “While looking at the fortune teller,  I fell in love.”

The resolution of his story still raises goose bumps after hundreds of listens—

“Now I’m a happy fellow, Well I’m married to the fortune teller, We’re happy as we can be, Now I get my fortune told for free”

None other than the Rolling Stones covered “Fortune Teller” just over a year later. Mick Jagger’s vocal adds some salaciousness to what was originally a simple poor boy’s lament albeit with a spectacularly incredulous happy ending.

Since then, the song has been covered by dozens of artists including its recent inclusion on the Grammy-award winning album, Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Allison Krause.

One of my favorite covers is by the local band the Iguanas. They slow it down and create an otherworldly vibe that complements the supernatural elements in the tale.

A daughter, Judy, who is also a vocalist, survives Spellman. The funeral will be in Pensacola, Florida on Friday.

Listen to Spellman on “Mother-in-Law”-

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  • Dumbo the Heffalump

    just because a gerund is a noun, don’t mean it can do tricks like memorization, nor become incredulous.
    -= copy-editor-at-large

    • Jay Mazza



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