- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
Was there ever a real Renée from “Walk Away Renée,” and was the sad story true about her devastated lover sending her home? Renée did exist, but the rest of the tale? Sadly, it was simply the figment of a forlorn 16-year-old’s imagination.
Renée Fladen was an aspiring teenage ballerina whose boyfriend, Tom Finn, played guitar in a New York City rock band called the Left Banke. One night, Finn brought Fladen to a rehearsal. Michael Brown, the group’s keyboardist/songwriter, fell instantly in (puppy) love with the tall, striking blonde.
In agony from his unrequited crush, the highly strung, emotional wordsmith started writing love songs about Fladen. Brown would later confess to Bob Shannon in Behind the Hits, “I was just sort of mythologically in love.”
When he wrote his band’s future million-seller, Brown wanted to set his fantasy-crush story in a real place. As a boy in Brooklyn, he had sometimes hunted praying mantises in a vacant lot at the corner of Falmouth and Hampton avenues.
It was there that Brown pictured Fladen and himself standing together in the rain below a “one way” sign on Falmouth:
And when I see the sign that points one way
The lot we used to pass by every day
Just walk away Renée
You won’t see me follow you back home
Brown’s violinist father was Harry Lookofsky (Brown’s real surname). Lookofsky co-owned New York’s tiny World United Studios, where his son and his pals often hung out after school.
The Left Banke members weren’t skilled instrumentalists, but Lookofsky realized that they could harmonize well and in the style of the then-popular British Invasion groups.
Lookofsky had the quartet tape a couple of songs to see how they’d sound on a record, but nothing worked until the night Renée Fladen sauntered into World United.
For the 1966 recording of the tear-soaked, minor-key lament “Walk Away Renée,” Lookofsky brought in a string quartet to create a moody, “baroque rock” atmosphere. He also added a lilting flute solo inspired by the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”
Lookofsky then hit the streets to pitch the unusual song that featured reedy lead vocals by band member Steve Martin Cano. Smash Records liked the tune, released it that fall, and watched in amazement as “Walk Away Renée” catapulted to No. 5 on Billboard’s singles chart.
Two years later, the Four Tops took a soulful Motown remake to the Top 20.
The Left Banke hit big once more with Brown’s second Fladen-inspired composition, the hauntingly ethereal “Pretty Ballerina,” which continued Brown’s infatuation with the blond beauty:
Her hair so brilliant that it hurt my eyes
And Fladen, that unintentional heartbreaker? As Renée Fladen-Kamm, she forsook ballet to eventually become a highly respected classical singer and vocal coach in the San Francisco Bay area.
Undoubtedly to her chagrin, though, she will be forever linked to the tune that, during the ’80s, was certified as one of history’s few pop songs to ever receive more than 1 million radio airplays.
Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.