I was stopped at the light at Stadium and Pauline one fine afternoon, minding my own business and blasting Randy Tessier’s new CD at ear-bleeding volume out my open windows, when I heard somebody shouting and honking from the car next to me. Expecting the worst, I turned and saw the best: Tessier his own bad self, a look of ecstatic delight on his face as he heard his music filling the air.
I’ve known Tessier for ages. Like lots of folks my age in Ann Arbor, I first heard him playing bass in George Bedard’s legendary roots rockers the Kingpins. He did that for twenty-five years, but now he plays guitar and sings with the eclectic oldies band FUBAR, which torched the Top of the Park in June. His day job is at the U-M English Department, where he teaches writing and has an online rep as “the fairest (most lenient) professor.”
We pulled into the Speedway, jabbered and gesticulated wildly, then settled down to talk about Sugar Town, a super-sweet six-song CD with five originals and one cover. The originals’ influences range from blues to country to roots to rock, while the lyrics look into lust, love, loss, and God.
But it’s Tessier’s love-me-tender cover of the title tune that closes the CD and the deal. His croon doesn’t erase memories of Nancy Sinatra’s sappy but sassy take on Lee Hazlewood’s original–what could? Tessier’s delivery crosses Frank Sinatra with Tom Waits, comingling sensuality with a longing for serenity. It may not be the voice, but it is a compelling one.
Tessier first heard “Sugar Town” as a teenager working at the Marquette Bakery. In an email, he recalls that “the local radio station was WDMJ, located in the same building as the local newspaper, The Mining Journal. One of their shows, ‘Hits for the Misses,’ hosted by a Scandinavian DJ with a Yooper accent, first introduced me to the American popular music catalogue from the 1940s … and catchy contemporary ditties, like–yes–Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Sugar Town.'”
Despite the syrupy title and bubbly tune, he believes Sinatra’s version was totally sincere. With lyrics like “Never had a dog that liked me some; never had a friend or wanted one,” he writes, “Sinatra sounds like she means it. Given who she is and her attitude on ‘These Boots Were Made for Walking,’ these twisted lyrics coming out of her mouth are as believable as they are psychologically interesting.”
Tessier’s own “He Lifts Me Up,” he writes, “represents the joy of my inner altar boy and my love for the Catholic rituals of my boyhood that I once so passionately believed in. In my 30s and 40s I was agnostic. Now I am a deeply devout atheist. There is no Santa Claus.” Maybe– but he sure sounds lifted up.
Though Sugar Town is available online, Tessier’s not performing it for reasons as eccentrically individualistic as he is. “Given my current and joyous involvement with FUBAR, I haven’t really seen a need to present my own music publicly,” he writes. “This CD is very personal. It’s who I am. … expecting to make money has never been my aspiration … I am uneasy with hawking my art–yes, art–for a quick buck.”
Also, much as Tessier loves “Sugar Town” FUBAR will never perform the song. The band’s other singer, Sophia Hanifi, “hates it,” Tessier admits. “One look at Nancy in her pink bikini on YouTube, and Sophia nixed the idea.”