Certain Songs #1060: Lyle Lovett – “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”

Album: Release Me
Year: 2012

This one gets extra points for the degree of difficulty.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but despite the fact that anybody who’s played popular music in the past 60 some-odd years has probably played at least one Chuck Berry song at some point, there exist very few actually convincing covers of his songs.

That’s because — for the most part — when people do a Chuck Berry song, they usually do it in a Chuck Berry style. And at that point, even the greatest performers — including The Beatles & The Stones — aren’t quite going to cut it.

Which is why Lyle Lovett’s arrangement of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” is so genius: instead of even remotely coming close to the guitar-driven sped up arrangement of the original, Lovett’s is slower and swampier and based on an easy rolling bassline and unconventional drumbeat.

In essence, he breaks the song apart while retaining the melody — and most of the spirit — of the original.

And, of course, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” — originally the b-side to “Too Much Monkey Business” — is one of those songs that has become one of Berry’s most-beloved, as the lyrics are an expression of racial pride in a way that was covert enough for the 1950s but utterly overt if you even thought about it.

Way back in history, 3000 years
In fact, ever since the world began
There’s been a whole lotta good women sheddin’ tears
Over a brown-eyed handsome man
‘s a lot of trouble for a brown-eyed handsome man

And indeed, the way that Chuck Berry sings it is with a knowing wink — damn straight he’s that Brown eyed handsome man — which, of course, is not the way that Lyle Lovett goes at it. Instead, Lovett sings it with a whole lot of admiration, rattling off the verses while almost shaking his head with wonder, especially the final verse.

Two-three the count with nobody on
He hit a high fly into the stand
Roundin’ third, he was headed for home
It was a brown eyed handsome man
That won the game, it was a brown eyed handsome man

Of course, when Chuck Berry wrote that verse, brown eyed handsome men had only been to win MLB games that way for less than a decade, and while that verse was probably about Jackie Robinson, I’d like to think it was about Willie Mays and will note that Lovett interjects “like Henry Aaron” when he sings it.

Meanwhile, Release Me is the last record that Lovett has released to date. That was five years ago, and while he still tours, who knows when he’s going to record another album?

“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”

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