A little-known fact is that I am a member of a musical group called the SwUKEstra, more formally known as the Swarthmore Ukulele Orchestra. It’s a bunch of guys, sometimes graced by a female presence, who get together to play and sing tunes, occasionally in public. Our setlist is weighted to British Invasion and Motown tunes, along with some Hank WIlliams (“Jambalaya”), Bob Marley (“Three Little Birds”), Dylan (“Don’t Think Twice”), and who knows what all.
I’m always interested to see which tune is running through my head on the heaviest rotation after a gig. This time it’s “Walk Away Renee,” and the more I hummed it, the more I thought it belongs in the New American Songbook. I had previously only been aware of the song from The Four Tops’ 1968 version, but my bandmates told me what I should have known, that it was originally recorded in 1966 by The Left Banke, an American band that would have just one other hit, “Pretty Ballerina.”
No matter. The song–credited to the band’s sixteen-year-old keyboard player, Michael Brown, and two other guys–is a stunner, with a restrained verse that, in a stately and inexorable progression, leads up to the killer refrain. Despite lyrics that range from adolescent sentimentality (“From deep inside the tears that I’m forced to cry/From deep inside the pain that I chose to hide”) to the pathetic fallacy (“as the rain beats down upon my weary eyes/For me, it cries”), the song packs an undeniable emotional wallop.
One mark of a standard is how often it’s recorded, and allmusic.com lists dozens of covers of “Walk Away Renee,” by everyone from Badly Drawn Boy to Rickie Lee Jones. I like this 2006 version by Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy, from the CD Adieu False Heart.