My Girl the Month of May, Dion’s hymn to her, may have been the flipside of a flop but it inspired two distinctive covers by artists who operated in very different musical milieux yet later become label-mates.
The first cover, hard on Dion’s heels in 1968, was by The Alan Bown, a British soul band fronted by the outstanding Jess Roden. They had just dropped ‘Set’ as the final part of their name and were venturing into a more expansive form of music incorporating elements of psychedelia.
The second arrived in 1972 when Fairport Convention and friends, convening as The Bunch, released an album of rock ’n’ roll classics, with Richard Thompson taking lead vocal on the beauty from the Bronx. The song, with a title which resembles a traditional English folk song, suits The Bunch's treatment well enough, with Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson providing angelic harmonies behind Richard.
However, Roden's rendition is altogether more vibrant and convincing, his almost Middle Eastern scatting at the start telling us that we are listening to an interpretation rather than a copy or a homage.
Here Comes the Song asked the singer – who was to follow Thompson and Denny to Island Records as part of Bronco, The Rivits and as a solo act – for his memories of the song. How did the seven-piece band, a staple of the British soul scene before changing direction, come to make a former American heart-throb’s serenade to his muse a stand-out on their album Outward Bown?
'When I joined what was then The Alan Bown Set in early 1966 and moved from Kidderminster to London, Bob Pridden was the group’s road manager and his mother took me in as a lodger at their house in West London,’ recalled Roden, now a sprightly 71.
‘Soon afterwards, Bob left to manage the road for The Who and on his early tours of America with them, he would return home with suitcases full of records. Given the life-changing selections of the music he proffered, I’m sure that’s how I got to hear My Girl The Month Of May. It was a B-side as I recall and I instantly loved it – the scatting vocal parts seemed to me a new advance on the previous Belmonts' more traditional doo-wop.'
Roden suggested to the band that it would be a good song for them to perform. ‘We learned it and played it at some of our live shows. It was a bit different to a lot of the stuff we were doing at the time but seemed to go down well with our followers. So it was agreed that we should record it. I think our version is very good but I still think the original is the best.
'I was a fan of Dion's vocal stylings and in the early Seventies I discovered an album by him called Sit Down Old Friend. It was quite a departure, strikingly different to anything of his that I'd heard previously. I absolutely loved it and still do. He’d returned as a fine singer, songwriter, musician. Surprisingly, for a fan, I’ve not read a great deal of his history but I believe he had some ‘wilderness years’ prior to his re-emerging with that fine album.'
Around the time The Alan Bown recorded My Girl The Month Of May, Roden was listening to a lot of the records that Bob Pridden had brought back from America. Among them were The Young Rascals, The Association, Paul Revere & The Raiders and ‘loads of others... very diverse’. He added: ‘I managed to persuade the band to do The Rascals’ You Better Run and a few other songs that weren’t straight out of the soul/Tamla genre we were doing in our live show.’
Outward Bown also included an extraordinarily powerful, horn-driven version of All Along The Watchtower, one of the earliest and best covers of the Dylan song. But their take on Dion’s overlooked pearl stands as its equal and the connection that brought Jess Roden and the band to it continues to this day. ‘Bob and me are still best pals,’ he said.
Phil Shaw on Dion: My Girl The Month Of May here
Neil Morton on Jess Roden and Sad Story here