HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN…VOLUME THREE

“Then Came You”
Recorded: 1974
Writers: Sherman Marshall, Philip Pugh
Artist: Dionne Warwicke and Spinners

OR…

Why punk led me not into temptation even though I was an appropriately angst-ridden child of the seventies: Long Theory

At the recording sessions for “Then Came You,” which took place on March 26, 1974, at the Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, Dionne Warwick voiced her displeasure with the proceedings to producer Thom Bell. Whether her problem was with the song, the manner of recording it or life in general has varied over the years depending on who does the telling. What everyone agrees on is that Bell bet Warwick a dollar that the record would reach number one. Then they each took half of a torn dollar bill and promised whoever lost the bet would mail their half to the other.

Warwick mailed her half of the dollar bill to Thom Bell shortly after October 26, 1974, which was the date “Then Came You” became the first number one pop hit for both her and Spinners.

About midway between those momentous occasions, my family moved from Central Florida to North Florida so that my father–already an ordained minister–could attend a bible college with an eye toward entering the ministry full time.

This turned out to be more than a little like moving from Southern California to Southern Alabama.

Momentous enough for me in other words.

I was a week late for the start of the ninth grade so any chance that my arrival would pass blessedly under the radar was doomed from the start. If you were ever in the ninth grade, you probably know what I mean. If you were ever the new kid in the ninth grade and arrived a week after school started–in the middle of second period–you definitely know what I mean.

It turned out in the long run that I took a liking to this part of the state and have lived here ever since. But during that first week the only thing that connected me to home–or any recognizable reality–was Sunday School.

Oh, I don’t mean my new church’s Sunday School looked or sounded or felt anything like my old church’s Sunday School.

Far from it.

For one thing, that first Sunday, there was no teacher. The regular was out sick that week. There was no replacement. Let’s just say that leaving the high schoolers to fend for themselves was not the way they did things where I came from!

No, the only thing that was really familiar was the girls’ skirts. Five girls, five skirts. Three minis–evidently the rough average for high school girls in Baptist Sunday Schools all over the state in 1974. So there was at least one thing that truly bound us together as a people in those halcyon days just before the latest aftershock of the enduring Fundamentalist-Enlightenment divide–which, along with the various issues troubling the rest of Western Civilization, had been rumbling underneath us for a decade or more–arrived to once more split us apart.

I wasn’t too worried about the history or future of Evangelical Protestantism that day. I was the new kid, a lone thirteen-year-old boy thrown into a teacherless room with five improbably attractive girls who, unlike the several improbably attractive girls who had attended my old church, I had not known my entire life.

Unless you’re a born Romeo–which I was about as far away from being as humanly possible–then the only thing your thirteen-year-old self is really thinking about in a situation like that is how to survive long enough for the golf balls to dissolve in your throat and the squirrels to lay down in your stomach so you can relearn the noble art of breathing.

You don’t care much about storing memories.

You do store them. And maybe–just maybe–a day or a week or thirty years later you’re even glad that you did.

But in the heady brew of the moment you don’t think about such things. So I was rather proud of myself for sufficiently overcoming the shock to my various systems–cultural, societal, hormonal–to glean some intelligence for later recall, and therefore discover I was just cognizant enough to conduct at least a pale imitation of what an actual Romeo would have called research.

So…

Along with the five skirts and three minis, the overall picture shaped up thusly:

A long, folding table, which for most of the next hour-that-seemed-like-ten had one set of forearms and an assortment of open purses and closed bibles on it.

I swear I did not drop anything that forced me to duck under the table. I can’t swear I didn’t think about it, only that I didn’t do it. I did not sink to perversion my first day in the new Sunday School.

I kept those forearms squarely in place.

Above the table then…

A senior, a junior, two sophomores and an eighth-grader.

Three blondes and two brunettes.

Two preacher’s daughters (sisters).

One visitor (guest of the preacher’s older daughter).

Three shag haircuts (one frosted–I tell you friend, it was a Golden Age, the likes of which we will not see again before the Last Days).

And one girl–the frosted-shag sophomore visitor wearing one of the minis–singing the chorus to “Then Came You” under her breath from time to time during the occasional awkward silences that are bound to occur when there’s a new boy and no teacher.

Good reconnaissance that.

Of course, it got me nowhere.

In those days I rarely listened to the radio. I didn’t know who sang “Then Came You”–had no clue it was a collaboration between the era’s greatest record man (producer-arranger Thom Bell), its greatest vocal group and one of the century’s most transcendent popular singers (born Dionne Warrick, by then so long famous as Dionne Warwick–the spelling variation supplied by a printing error on her first hit’s record label in 1962–that even I had heard of her, she added the extra “e” from 1971 to 1975 for reasons known only to her before reverting, for reasons also known only to her, to “Warwick”).

There was a lot more I didn’t know.

No way I knew what Thom Bell evidently knew–that, however she was spelling her name that year, if you wanted to pair a vocal group with Dionne Warwick in full flight, you’d better have at least two genuinely great lead singers on hand and one of them better be as close to a co-equal genius as Philippe Wynne.

I didn’t know that the record the sophomore in the mini-skirt kept singing and humming to herself was a work of genius, the pinnacle of Bell’s signature blend of the rhythmic and the harmonic, the grand statement and the incisive gesture, the conservatory and the street.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as symphonic intimacy, or that it could sometimes be heard on the radio.

I didn’t know “Sigma Sound” was a euphemism for a temple.

I didn’t know that America’s ever-derided “other”–blacks, women, immigrants, hillbillies–were on the verge of snatching back the rock and roll revolution that had been slid out from beneath them a decade earlier by something called the British Invasion. (Or, more properly, by white, suburban America’s specific and desperate embrace of the Beatles–an embrace that basically stretched from the average ten-year-old’s Dansette to the nether regions of academia and said, with one mighty voice, “please, please rescue us from these…other people“–and has distorted the way rock history is written and received ever since. And, no, that doesn’t mean the Beatles and the other great British acts weren’t all that. This stuff is never uncomplicated.) I didn’t know that, this time around–with only, say, Elton John and the Bee Gees to ride to the rescue–white, suburban America would eventually decide to pick up its marbles and go home.

There at the very first moment in the nation’s history when it seemed just barely possible for the foundational demons to be finally laid to rest, I blessedly did not know the lengths to which we-the-people would go to re-divide ourselves–nor did I understand the extent of the means available to the empire’s handlers to help us along the path to perdition because, as a faithful product of the public school system, I did not even suspect the empire’s existence.

Ignorance was bliss.

I didn’t know all those glorious sounds coming out of the radio in the mid-seventies, of which “Then Came You” was an absolute peak, were already driving the two white-boy demographics most likely to treat each other as dog and cat–punks and hard-hats–so crazy that for one dark, fleeting moment they would reach solidarity and agree that, at the very least, disco sucked.

“How did I live without you?” indeed.

I didn’t know that there would be a day when I actually did know such things.

There was a world of things, in other words–besides how to talk to long-legged, shag-haired sophomores in short skirts–that I didn’t know at the end of August in 1974.

But it didn’t surprise me later–when my family’s move to a distant land three hundred physical miles and a psychic galaxy from what I called home led me to seek increasing levels of solace in the bosom of Top 40 radio–to discover that “Then Came You, ” however encountered, was my idea of spiritual music.

This discovery was not exactly uncomplicated.

The next time I saw the long-legged sophomore (did I mention that she, like every other girl in my new Sunday School, was improbably attractive?–that I had moved to the actual south and that the actual south wasn’t lying when it bragged about its women?)–was a couple of days later. She was wearing a peasant blouse and blue jeans by then and she was walking in the middle of a crowd that was headed one direction in my new high school’s hallway while I was in the middle of a crowd that was moving in the other.

Just as she came opposite me, her face lit up and she said “Oh, hey!” to someone. A few crucial seconds later, after she had been swept out the door making a vaguely disgusted noise that I was just socially sophisticated enough to know was the standard civilized response to rudeness, I realized she had been talking to me.

Talk about improbable.

Look, I prefer to think I wasn’t the reason she never came back to Sunday School. I certainly never blamed her for not speaking to me again (not that there were many opportunities).

Tell the truth, I never got to know much about her, then or later.

I do know she stayed friends with the preacher’s older daughter.

I know that much because the preacher’s older daughter moved away about a year and a half later–by which time she was dating my nephew. It was pretty serious–as to both dating and general social linkage between our families. Her stoner brother stayed behind with us when the family moved away (he stayed until it became obvious that staying behind had not been the answer to his problems–I don’t know how it stands these days but, back then, the overlap between preacher’s sons and stoner brothers was substantial). She sent back actual tear-stained letters which I’m pretty sure my nephew was not supposed to be sharing with the likes of me and I know he was not supposed to be sharing with his grandmother.

Eventually…

The letters stopped. The stoner brother moved out. My nephew stopped getting letters–or at least stopped sharing them–and got married to someone else (all this within about a year or so–so I guess really not all that eventually, though time certainly seemed to move slower then).

The long-legged sophomore may or may not have become a junior. I never saw her at school after a certain point. She saw me once at a baseball game. I was fifteen then, the last year I played. I was sitting in the dugout during an exhibition game for a summer league I never actually played in because my family had to go back south for the summer to earn the money to stay in bible school another year. She came over and asked her cousin (who had gone out to meet her behind the dugout–if there was a signal I didn’t see it) who I was.

I heard that much.

I heard him tell her my name.

“Is he any good?” she said.

He assured her I was. (He was batting third, I was hitting cleanup.)

She made a noise that seemed to express both surprise and disappointment. Maybe even a little disbelief.

Then she turned around and left.

Never saw her again.

Never had that chance to explain that I had always assumed was bound to come some day in such a small town.

Where I had come from, I routinely passed people in the hallways at school who I had known my entire life without anybody even thinking about speaking to anybody. There was no rule about it. That’s just the way it was.

With me and with everybody else.

So it might as well have been a rule.

There were might-as-well-have-been-rules in the new place, too, but it took me a long time to get used to them. I’m not even sure I had really fully absorbed them nearly two years later, sitting there in that dugout, feeling like a heel all over again.

Funny the things that you learn from. Little, hidden mistakes mostly.

I think the reason I always regretted the misunderstanding so deeply, though, was rooted in that Sunday morning.

In her choice of music to hum–a choice she had no doubt long forgotten by then.

You see, when the storms came–in the world at large, in my church, in my country, in my own mixed-up head–and some sort of stance had to be taken internally even if I never announced it to the world, I was like everybody else.

Subject to my experiences.

On the surface, I should have been easy pickings for the coming punk bohemian ethos. Brother did I have the deep-seated self-loathing for it.

But I kept noticing that if they really meant what they said, these new messiahs, then they really were rejecting everything. That without that extremism, there was no there there.

And I kept thinking that if rejecting everything included, among many, many other good things, Dionne Warwick and Thom Bell and Spinners and Sigma Sound and girls who said “hey” to people they had only met once, then it wasn’t for me.

Oh, I know none of that was included, officially. Who didn’t think Philly Soul was cool? Who didn’t think Thom Bell was cool (he wasn’t really “disco” after all–just a bridge to it)? For that matter, who didn’t think girls who said “hey” were cool?

Nobody probably.

Problem was–and is–that ducked the issue.

Either Johnny Rotten meant what he said–or he didn’t. Either nothing mattered…or some things did.

And either way, I knew I was rejected too.

Mind you, none of that kept me from having my feet lifted off the ground by the Clash’s first album. I was made wary, not stupid.

It just meant I kept a weather eye, even on them.

Looking back, that was the right approach for me.

Other people had their lives saved by embracing punk and more power to them. I don’t begrudge anybody their taste, let alone their life. I certainly never saw punk as the enemy.

But I stayed alive by keeping it at arm’s length.

“Then Came You” wasn’t the whole reason for the stiff-arm–there were Sunday mornings and watching my parents become missionaries when they were pushing sixty and learning that stoner brothers needed prayer just like everybody else and finding out I really could adapt to small town life and not making the major leagues (or even my high school team) and realizing that the possibilities for a new Great Awakening that had once seemed so imminent had not only died on the vine but been perverted into the bitterest fruit imaginable and smashing rulers to the beat of  “Death or Glory” and four or five thousand other life lessons that I didn’t know were saving me until they did–but it was part of the reason.

And it was probably somewhere very near the core.

Quite possibly even the one irreducible moment that can’t be changed without changing everything else.

Or not.

I lean towards the Enlightenment myself.

Never was much of a strict Calvinist.

But if somebody gave me the chance to do it all over again and said the only thing different would be that the long-legged sophomore in Sunday School would be humming some other tune….I wouldn’t take them up on it.

Thus ends the Long Theory….Short Theory tomorrow!

 

5 thoughts on “HOW MUCH CAN ONE RECORD MEAN…VOLUME THREE

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  4. Holy cow. This is another great piece of JWR writing, in which I was especially interested because I don’t know nearly as much as I’d like to know about that parallel history of soul, that often overlooked river of music that ran alongside Motown and Stax, called Philadelphia.

    Regarding the bigger picture in your prose above — the zoomed-out sociological context — the key sentence in the whole piece (to me) is the brilliantly articulated “I blessedly did not know the lengths to which we-the-people would go to re-divide ourselves.”

    I’m very glad that you’ve recently linked these entries. Such great stuff!

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