A man who had 12 children by 9 women may not have been lonely that often. But he could sing about loneliness. Georgia native Ray Charles could take on any subject and make it convincing. Such is the case with his 1968 version of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”
Eleanor Rigby was a lonely woman. She lived alone and died alone. Father McKenzie, who spoke at her graveside, was also lonely. The loneliness seemed to bother him less than it did Eleanor but the song doesn’t explain why. The world’s indifference to people like them is common; that’s not analyzed either. What’s told is a story of two people afflicted with different degrees of sadness. Ray Charles and The Beatles deliver the same story but not in the same manner. Reviewing the differences in the two renditions is almost as interesting as the story of the song’s characters.
It was by way of Paul McCartney’s vocal on The Beatles’ version that we first heard Eleanor’s plight. The song was released in August of ’66. It was yet another hit single for The Beatles (the flip side was “Yellow Submarine,” a reminder that the group never wanted to be taken too seriously). It was the second song on their groundbreaking Revolver album. The subject matter of the song was groundbreaking for the time as well. The Beatles had already blazed new trails in popular music with lyrics that were smart and engaging. They brought different perspectives to the subjects of love and loss. Some of their songs depicted bitterness and alienation. All the while, a rock band was not likely to plot such sad scenarios as found in “Eleanor Rigby.”
The song’s first verse tells of Eleanor picking up “rice in the church where a wedding has been.” Immediately we gather she’s a spinster and this is one of many weddings she’s attended. There will be more weddings but we assume none will be hers. She “lives in a dream,” hoping one may call on her as she waits at the window, “wearing the face she keeps in a jar by the door.” Already the story conveys dashed hopes.
Soon Father McKenzie enters the story. We find him alone in his study, writing a sermon that “no one will hear.” He’s gotten used to that. After writing his sermon, he darns his socks. He realizes he is quite alone. He knows the world is a cold place. He’s not sure what to make of it but he’s learned to live with it.
In the last verse the two characters meet, after a fashion. Eleanor Rigby “died in the church and was buried along with her name.” Father McKenzie officiated at her funeral. Nobody came to the service. Nothing new there. McKenzie simply wiped the dirt from his hands and walked away after the burial. There’s no soul to save. It’s all in a day’s work.
The Beatles put a lot of work into “Eleanor Rigby.” The inspiration for the song was McCartney’s but the final product was a group effort. There was a brainstorming session by the band to finish the song. While John Lennon claimed the first verse was written by McCartney “and the rest are basically mine,” Ringo Starr had the idea of Father McKenzie “darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody’s there.” The name McKenzie was one McCartney found in the phone book after first dubbing the character Father McCartney. Lennon’s boyhood friend Pete Shotton sat in as the group brainstormed. He proposed the song end with the clergyman and Eleanor united in the funeral scene. The idea was used though Lennon first dismissed it. McCartney and George Harrison came up with the song’s opening line, “Ah, look at all the lonely people.”
A year earlier, on “Yesterday,” The Beatles employed a string quartet to accompany McCartney’s vocal. On “Eleanor Rigby,” a string octet was called upon. Featuring a string arrangement scored by producer George Martin, the song possessed a classical framework. McCartney depicts the drama of the song calmly, singing with compassion but some detachment. It’s a beautiful recording. Listening to it today reminds those of us alive then how each new work by The Beatles was so eagerly awaited.
As noted above, both The Beatles and Ray Charles deliver the same story, but differently. Charles seems more taken by the sadness in the lives of the song’s characters. Despair is in his voice when he sings the chorus, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” He really ponders the questions. His take on the story is more involved than McCartney’s. Charles recounts the events as if he knew about them personally or had learned of them from a friend. He understands the isolation so strongly that one believes he could stand at Father McKenzie’s pulpit and testify about it.
Ray Charles’ version does not have a classical aura. It’s a little bit rhythm and blues. That’s not surprising, considering Charles’ role in the shaping of that musical genre. His version is also a little bit jazz, another genre influenced by Charles. There’s a gospel tone as well. The strings and horns in the background add dramatic flair to the song but not enough to overwhelm Charles’ bluesy and heartrending vocals. He tells the story with great zeal and empathy. One must take notice. The story has stuck in Charles’ craw. The same goes for the listener.