Reason to be Cheerful: Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe”

[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue #53]

Tim Hardin’s song ‘Reason To Believe’ has a remarkably simple structure, but within that simplicity is a universe of emotional complexity. The lyrics are steeped in the pain of betrayal by a lover, worsened by the inability to stop justifying the lover’s deception. Hardin gave very few interviews during his short lifetime, and apparently never spoke specifically about the origins of ‘Reason To Believe’ – but it is one of the Hardin songs that Charlie Gillett characterizes as “achieving the elusive balance between personal miseries and universal suffering”.

‘Reason to Believe’ was written in ’65, and debuted on Hardin’s ’66 album Tim Hardin 1. It was instantly singled out as one of the best tracks on the LP, because Hardin’s performance is so deeply affecting. His tremulous vibrato – a vocal style he picked up from listening to jazz singers – adds vulnerability to the poignant lyrics. Hardin claimed that the strings on the album were added without his knowledge, but it can’t be denied that Artie Butler’s graceful arrangements contribute to the sense of melancholy.

Hardin’s career was derailed by his turbulent personal life, scarred by drug addiction, broken relationships, and emotional problems. A series of bad business deals meant that he lost out, by his own estimate, on tens of millions of dollars in royalties – and much of that amount likely would have come from cover versions of ‘Reason To Believe’. My Internet search produced references to 82 different versions of the song, from Hardin’s original version in ’66 to Neil Young’s reading in 2014.

The first major artist to cover ‘Reason To Believe’ was Bobby Darin, on his ’66 album If I Were A Carpenter. The link between Hardin and Darin was record executive Charles Koppelman, who produced both If I Were A Carpenter and Hardin’s second album. Koppelman encouraged Darin to record ‘Reason to Believe’ and two other Hardin songs: the title track (which became a Top 10 hit for Darin in both the US and the UK), and ‘Red Balloon’, which Hardin himself had recorded but not yet released. Hardin reputedly believed that Darin copied not only Hardin’s vocal style but also the style of the “orchestrated folk-rock” arrangements on Hardin’s records. While there are definite similarities between Hardin’s and Darin’s versions of the song, Darin’s version includes rather startling random bursts of bongo beats, and Darin’s vocal is sweeter and smoother than Hardin’s.

Other artists who covered ‘Reason To Believe’ in ’66 were the duo Just Us, featuring ‘Wild Thing’ songwriter Chip Taylor, and folk/blues singer Karen Dalton. Then between ’67 and ’70 the floodgates opened. In those three years, ‘Reason To Believe’ was covered in a wide range of styles: easy listening (Andy Williams, the Sandpipers), folk-rock (Ian & Sylvia, Peter, Paul & Mary, Youngbloods, Mason Williams), bluegrass (the Dillards, Hearts & Flowers), country (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Glen Campbell), and pop (Jackie deShannon, the Critters, Rick Nelson, David Hemmings). ‘Reason To Believe’ also was covered in French, as ‘Les Choses de l’Amour’, by Natacha Snitkine and Sylvie Patart.

Richard and Karen Carpenter recorded a demo of ‘Reason To Believe’ in ’68, but didn’t release their version of the song until their second Carpenters album, ‘71’s Close To You. ‘Reason To Believe’ was somewhat overshadowed by the two huge hits from that album, the title track and ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’, but Richard Carpenter has said that ‘Reason To Believe’ is one of his favourites of all of the Carpenters recordings. While the country-flavoured arrangement is a little perky, Karen Carpenter’s beautiful contralto vocal brings the needed tone of wistfulness. Listening to Karen sing ‘Reason To Believe’ now, it’s hard not to hear it as a foreshadowing of her later personal struggles.

Two other recordings of the song from this period deserve special mention. Inspired by Darin’s career revitalization, jazz singer Peggy Lee’s record label encouraged her to record ‘Reason To Believe’ in ’68. While Lee liked the song, and “connected with its angry words”, the single flopped, and a live album including the song was withdrawn soon after its release (although it’s now available on CD). In ’69, soul singer Maxine Brown covered ‘Reason To Believe’ on her album We’ll Cry Together; the daringly slow arrangement sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does – and Brown’s powerful, passionate vocal makes this one of the most memorable versions of the song.

Then in ’71 Rod Stewart released what is probably the best-known cover of ‘Reason to Believe’, on his album Every Picture Tells A Story. Before Stewart’s career veered into disco, supermodels, and desecrations of the Great American Songbook, he was regarded as a discerning musical connoisseur with an unerringly accurate ear for good songs. In the words of journalist John Pidgeon, “You didn’t become as successful as Rod did by being a tosser, and he wasn’t one”. With an arrangement driven by Pete Sears’ piano and Ian McLagan’s Hammond organ, and embellished by Dick Powell’s jazzy violin licks, Stewart takes some vocal liberties with Hardin’s straightforward melody, but convincingly conveys the song’s weariness and resignation.

‘Reason To Believe’ was the A-side of the first single from Every Picture Tells A Story, and reached #62 in the US charts and #19 in the UK charts. But then radio DJs started turning the single over and playing the B-side, ‘Maggie May’. The response to that song was so immediate and strong that the single was reissued with ‘Maggie May’ as the A-side. ‘Maggie May’ went on to become Stewart’s first worldwide #1 single and one of his most successful records ever. However, ‘Reason To Believe’ is still one of Stewart’s signature songs. In ’93, Stewart performed the song in his Unplugged…And Seated MTV television special, accompanied by Ronnie Wood on acoustic guitar. The single of the MTV performance went to #19 on the US charts, giving Stewart the rare distinction of having two hit singles 20 years apart with the same song.

Stewart’s ‘Reason To Believe’ generated new interest in the song. In subsequent years, it has been recorded by, among others, Cher, Lynn Anderson, Skeeter Davis, Jerry Vale, Johnny Cash, Billy Bragg, Vonda Shepherd, Ron Sexsmith, and Wilson Phillips – artists that probably have absolutely nothing else in common. ‘Reason To Believe’ also made its way into the live sets of Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Denver, John Stewart, Jesse Colin Young, Barry McGuire, Cliff Richard, Kim Carnes, and the Jayhawks. But astoundingly it took until 2013 for a Hardin tribune album to be released – and it speaks to the reputation of ‘Reason To Believe’ that the song’s title was also chosen as the title of the album.

The Sand Band from Liverpool were given the honour of covering ‘Reason To Believe’ on the tribute album; their low-key rendition, with mournful steel guitar and harmonica, is heartfelt and sincere. The album contains many other excellent renditions of Hardin songs, including Mark Lanegan’s ‘Red Balloon’, the late Gavin Clark’s ‘Shiloh Town’, and Okkervil River’s ‘It’ll Never Happen Again’. That songs written several decades ago can sound so contemporary is a testament to Hardin’s enormous talent and to the lasting impact of his work.

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