Manfred Mann – Complete Greatest Hits of Manfred Mann (2012)

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Look past the doo-wah diddies (though that formed a memorable hit in 1964) and Manfred Mann — part of an early 1960s wave of Answers To The Beatles — is your basic renaissance hipster doofus. Known by turns for playing jazz and R&B-based stuff, but also blues knockoffs, and later for pop and progressive rock, Mann was all over the map.

Unjustly slighted, though, in the wake of the 1970s chart topper “Blinded by the Light” is their first period, when Mann’s band was all weird eyeglasses and goatees. They made pop that was hard to resist because of these groovy organ fills and informed, boppy guitar lines.

A startling array of folks were, in fact, part of the group’s early configurations or its immediate antecedents — including Jack Bruce (who played bass on “Pretty Flamingo”; only to be replaced by Fab Four associate Klaus Voorman) and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. The results ended up as a largely ignored shotgun marriage of improvisation and every-day pop artistry.

Searching, it seemed, for a niche, Mann also tried acoustic numbers — producing a hit in 1968 with Dylan’s “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn),” this vaguely psychedelic folk-rock tune. Mann, a talented keyboardist, dipped back into overtly jazz-oriented music over a two-album span around 1970. He then formed Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which had a No. 1 hit in 1977 with that muscular version of Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light.” (The original drummer, Chris Slade, subsequently played with Asia and AC/DC.)

Mann (real name: Manfred Sepse Lubowitz) was like a walking jukebox. And always a hoot: This is a band, you’ll remember, that actually had a hit with a tune called “5-4-3-2-1.” Later, Mann gave away a piece of land in Wales with each copy of 1973’s “The Good Earth,” which focused on ecological concerns.

Even the swing records, which at first blush seem to make no sense, work. Mann, see, studied classical music at the University of the Witwatersrand in his native South Africa, playing jazz piano as a youngster in a series of Johannesburg clubs. (He has said that he initially changed his last name in tribute to legendary jazzer Shelly Manne.)

Thirty years later, much of the original ’60s line-up reformed as The Manfreds, minus Mann himself. He’s never stopped performing with the Earth Band. Still, Mann somehow didn’t regain the mainstream platform of nostalgia-based retrostars like Herman’s Hermits, Paul Revere and the Raiders or the Monkees. His records are just too interesting.

That’s fitting, I suppose, for a group best known for a ’77 bestseller about a songwriter struggling to attract an audience. Even there, though, Mann worked the shadows — becoming known now mostly for a memorably misunderstood lyric from “Blinded By the Light.” (It’s revved up like a deuce — that is, a 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe.) You get the sense that Mann never gave up as an aspiring jazz/R&B player. Still, it meant a larger, mainstream audience would always have trouble connecting, because of his waivering allegiances. Fans couldn’t even get the words right.

Straddling so many genres certainly made them more interesting, but it likely cost this group a chance for true superstardom. Perhaps sensing that, later solo projects by Mann (the man) were issued under the title “Manfred Mann’s Plain Music.”

It’s always been anything but.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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