Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sutherland Brothers & Quiver: Arms of Mary

Something got me thinking of this song the other day and I am not sure why – perhaps I was mourning over my misspent youth. When this song came out, I was not quite 21 – a senior in college and not really sure what I would be doing the next 30 odd years. In 1976, I never could have predicted the direction my life turned. Oh yeah, back to the song.

The Sutherland Brothers and Quiver were actually two groups that merged to create the sextet they had at the peak of membership. The two groups you ask? Uh, the Sutherland Brothers merged with Quiver. Lasting only through the decade of the 70s – SBQ was doomed by not having a large following in the US. Due to the lack of airplay, I doubt if one American in a hundred could name this song in connection with the band’s name or vice-versa.

Hit or not, there was something about Iain Sutherland’s vocals that made me love this song. Every time my friends and I would go to the local Pizza Hut across from campus, “Arms of Mary” was one of the tunes I would select from the jukebox – sometimes playing it twice because it was so short. It’s strange, but I never bought this single or even the album, “Reach for the Sky” when they were originally released. I do, however, own a copy of this song from a compilation series that CBS Records issued in the early 1980s that featured singles from the UK.

While it was a colossal hit “across the pond” where it peaked at #5, it didn’t do as well here in the States. “Arms of Mary” only charted at 81 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and performed a little better on Cashbox’s Top Singles at 71. This was a record that should have been a hit, but for some unknown reason it didn’t generate that much attention in the US. Whether it was poor promotion on the part of Columbia Records or just bad timing for the American release of the song, it is hard to say.

I can only remember hearing this song on one radio station during the fall of 76 and that was WKEE (AM 80 / FM 100.5) in Huntington, WV. KEE generally played records earlier than its competitors, so you tended to hear a greater variety of top 40 than you did from WKAZ in Charleston, WV and stations elsewhere. I am not certain if its nearest format challenger, WAMX in Ashland, KY, ever played the tune. If they did (and I expect they eventually did), it certainly wasn’t in the list of approved oldies when I worked there as a part-timer from 1978 to 1980.

When I moved to Beckley, WV to work for WCIR in 1981, I discovered that they too had played the single and it generated some moderate interest. Like KEE, CIR in those days had a very liberal format and the station had a reputation for creating hit records.

To my knowledge, the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver only had two songs ever to receive only a modicum of airplay on US radio. Although “Arms of Mary” was their biggest hit internationally, their 1972 release “(I Don’t Want to Love You But) You Got Me Anyway” charted higher in the US at #48 on Billboard’s Top 100. I like that one as well and have it on the same compilation series from CBS. Since I remember this song from when it was released, it must have received some airplay in the Pittsburgh market (where I lived until August 1973).

Here's SBQ's 1972 semi-hit, “(I Don’t Want to Love You But) You Got Me Anyway”:

As an aside, there is a question about the "Arms of Mary" video, “Is it live or is it Memorex?’ Well, it’s Memorex, although the vocals might have been done live as Iain Sutherland appears to perfectly aligned with his own voice (often difficult to do, but not impossible). I am, however, leaning towards lip sync on this one. The rest (if not all of the audio) is pre-recorded and there are some tell-tale signs of this.

First, there are missing instruments (acoustic guitar, flute, and keyboards) among the band members that are present on this recording. Second (and a little harder to spot), unlike the microphones, the guitars and bass are not plugged into amps (or anything else). If you check out some of the poorer quality videos of live performances of the this song, you will see the band mates playing through Orange brand amplifiers connected to the instruments by a quarter inch guitar cord. Third, there is no variation from the arrangement on the single. Most bands will do a song live slightly different than the recorded version for a variety of reasons. This one is exact.

With that said, the audio is cleaner than the actual live versions one finds on You Tube and much more interesting to watch than a static picture or someone’s 45 spinning on the turntable. For those of you born 1978 or later, that big thing as a prop behind the band is a reel-to-reel tape deck. Nice touch.

Unfortunately, you won’t be hearing this song on oldies radio any time soon. Tightly formatted oldies stations only seem to play the major hits from the past in rotation – nothing as insignificant as a song charting at 81. This is a shame, but it is the kind of world in which we live in that has created one size fits all restaurants (i.e., McDonalds), stores (i.e., Wal-Mart), and even radio (i.e., most every commercial station).

As a testimony of how this song has struck a chord with others besides me, note the number of legitimate cover versions of “Arms of Mary” that exist. I counted at least 13, which included a disco version – quite different I might say. A song of marginal interest would have never generated this much popularity. SBQ – two thumbs up in my book.

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