More than half a century has passed since Walk Away Renée first entranced radio listeners and record buyers. Fifty-one years – and yet, as the lyric says, it still finds a way to haunt me.
The original version, by the fresh-out-of-high-school New York group The Left Banke, appeared as a single in July 1966, days before the Beatles unleashed Revolver.
For many, the definitive treatment was by the Four Tops in 1968. For all the disparate artists who have covered it, from Southside Johnny to Linda Ronstadt via Rickie Lee Jones, Billy Bragg, Terry Reid and Cyndi Lauper, it’s hard to recall a disappointing version.
Two mysteries surround Walk Away Renée. One concerns who actually wrote it; the other centres on the subject the mournful title line – was Renée a real person, or the figment of the writer’s, or writers’, imagination?
Michael Brown, the Left Banke’s classically trained keyboard player, contributed rippling harpsichord to their rendition and is said to have chosen an alto flute for the instrumental break after hearing the solo on the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’.
It is widely assumed Brown also penned the lyric at the age of 16. In his youth, before he became a reclusive figure, his story of the song’s gestation was that he had an unrequited, nay unspoken, crush on band-mate Tom Finn’s girlfriend, Renée Fladen.
The writing credit, however, is to Brown/Calilli/Sansone. Tony Sansone, now 78, maintained in a Catholic newspaper last year that he not only came up with the words but also the stunning arrangement. Quite a boast: only a few groups had experimented with baroque and chamber instruments – e.g. the Yardbirds with For Your Love, the Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull with As Tears Go By, while one of Revolver’s stand-outs, Eleanor Rigby, featured four violins, two violas and two cellos. Bob Stanley, the music writer and member of St Etienne, has hailed Walk Away Renée as ‘the first bona fide baroque pop hit’.
Sansone said he had chosen the name Renée after hearing the Beatles’ Michelle, reasoning that if they could go French, he would too. Michael Brown, alas, was not around to contest his assertions, having died in 2015, aged 65.
One of Brown’s band-mates, Tom Finn, characterised him in a 2003 radio interview as ‘a mad genius and consequently hard to work with… like Brian Wilson, but more extreme’. Brown, he added, was ‘one of the greatest pop melody writers of the 20th century, up there with Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney”.
Finn thought Sansone had contributed, but another Left Banke original, George Cameron, used Facebook to denounce Sansone’s claims as ‘utterly untrue’, saying he was ‘a liar’ who had ‘nothing to do with the music’. The fact that Brown and Sansone identified different settings as the inspiration for Walk Away Renée’s opening line – the place where ‘the sign that points one way’ was in Brooklyn according to Brown, whereas Sansone located it in the Bronx – adds to the enigma. Where Bob Calilli came into it, no one has ever really explained.
Suffice to say that Brown went on to write other mesmerising, delicate, melancholy songs similar to Walk Away Renée – notably the follow-up single Pretty Ballerina (Renée was then as aspiring dancer) and a third, gloriously catchy, piano-driven paean to the object of his desire, She May Call You Up Tonight. In 1967, he gave us the equally exquisite Shadows Breaking Over My Head and Desirée. Sansone has written for Billy Jon Coogan, Gjorgi and for Christian projects. Listeners/readers must draw their own conclusions.
As for the arrangement, Cameron cites the influence of the late John Abbott. Brown’s father, classical and jazz violinist Harry Lookofsky, co-produced and surely had a big say in the instrumentation, which announces itself with the descending chords of the eternally recognisable intro.
Brown’s muse resurfaced in California, now known as Renée Fladen-Kamm, and in her 69th year she is director of an operatic repertory company in San Francisco. She has resisted all attempts to tease out her story and Finn urges fans and media to respect her privacy. Cameron, angry that Sansone had essentially declared Renée did not exist, countered: “A smitten 16-year-old Michael Brown would beg to differ… she is very real and very beautiful.”
None of which helps us understand Walk Away Renée’s enduring appeal. Rolling Stone magazine listed it at No 220 in its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2004, not bad for a single that peaked at No5 in the US for the Left Banke and No14 for the Four Tops (a UK No3).
The original holds a special place, I contend, among a handful of tracks which render the achingly sad – songs of yearning and loss that transcend the thousands of my-girl-said-goodbye numbers – upliftingly beautiful. It stands alongside These Days by Jackson Browne, the Beatles’ For No One, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More by the Walker Brothers, the Temptations’ I Wish It Would Rain, Tracks of My Tears by the Miracles and Roy Orbison’s It’s Over.
There’s a cinematic quality to the lyric. No wonder people want to know if there is/was a real sign ‘that points one way’ – a phrase which hints at there being no turning back, no second chance, for the fantasy relationship. When you picture ‘the heart upon the wall’ in which the would-be lovers’ names were inscribed, it is not a cute image but a dark, dank one that springs to mind. The physical features described in the song also serve as metaphors for the singer’s pain; for the ‘empty sidewalks’ read the emptiness he feels. And if ‘the rain beats down upon my weary eyes’ rhymed with ‘For me it cries’ sounds a tad sixth-form, we should remember that Brown was in his mid-teens.
The melody line, harmonies and chord structure also tug at the emotions, helping the song resonate with a young audience at a time when rough-edged rock, rather than elegant baroque, was becoming predominant. The band’s singer, Steve Martin Caro, infused the lyric with a restrained, resigned sense of sadness.
When the Four Tops covered it, Levi Stubbs’ impassioned tenor took the song to new depths of desolation. A song of teen infatuation – or maybe it was about bidding farewell to adolescence and moving on into adulthood? – became one of crushing loss.
Marshall Crenshaw sings the song on his live album I’ve Suffered For My Art, Now It’s Your Turn, and at the start of this year Cameron posted a clip of Brown’s sister playing his most famous tune on violin. Still beautiful, still haunting after all these years, Walk Away Renée’s brilliance lives on.