“Wake Up Everybody” (Full-length Version)
Artist: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes
Writers: John Whitehead, Gene McFadden, Victor Carstarphen
(NOTE: One of my New Year’s resolutions is to renew my commitment to some of my neglected categories here. This particular category was one of my principal reasons for starting this blog and I’m a little taken aback to discover I haven’t added any new entries for over a year. I’ve got the usual excuse: So much to do, so little time, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah! But I hereby resolve to do better…starting now!)
“Wake Up Everybody” is the closest anyone has ever come to putting a full-blown sermon on the charts.
There’s not a lot of critical exegesis available on the song so Dave Marsh’s take in his invaluable The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made is probably as good a place to start as any:
If uniting opposites appeals to you, then you’ll love this fusion of (producers) Gamble and Huff’s spit-polished and intoxicated disco narcissism and Teddy Pendergrass’s gravelly post-gospel sermonizing. Pendergrass’s insistence that “the world won’t get no better if we just let it be” in the face of the arrangement’s full-blown hedonism amounts to a doctoral thesis discrepancy. None of which implies an effective synthesis, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t get one. For instance, that guitar is fiddling with blues figures and Teddy’s singing matter-of-factly modulates between the Temptations’ David Ruffin and the Dells’ Marvin Junior.
Now there’s a lot I disagree with in that paragraph (though I give Marsh enormous credit for taking on what has never been a fashionable assignment–writing about singles, singers generally, and black singers in particular, as though they are deserving of serious exegesis). But the main place the analysis falls apart is in its clear misunderstanding of what, exactly constitutes “sermonizing.”
Because it’s not narcissism–“intoxicated” or otherwise–that’s at work during this winding-and-building seven minute epic (nor, I should add, in the edited-for-45 version which Marsh was specifically critiquing).
The pursuit of healing-through-ecstasy is not the same thing as hedonism and it’s not the same thing as narcissism.
Teddy Pendergrass’ vocal isn’t at odds with the production, even on the shorter version. And, in the long version, he uses that production as a springboard to vault both himself and anybody who cares to listen into something higher and purer.
Of all the things rock critics tend to misunderstand about the music they cover, their utter incomprehension of “gospel”–as either musical style, life experience or, you know, expression of actual religious faith–surely runs deepest.
When you are after redeeming a lost world, bringing light to the darkness, sustaining hope in the face of personal, communal or societal despair–when you carry the specific personal and communal burden of knowing none of this higher ground will be reached by anyone, ever, unless you reach it first–there are times when you have to abandon sense.
Occasionally, a preacher trying to reach his flock, simply has to find some way of saying, “Free your heart, and your mind will follow.”
So “Wake Up Everybody” is one of the deepest spiritual records ever made despite a lyric that sustains a complete and almost studied absence of profundity.
Intellectual profundity that is.
Preachers are not philosophers. They have to wed the message to the heart.
It’s only then that the head has a chance to follow.
Consider 1976, when this record peaked on the charts.
America had entered a period when peace and prosperity should have reigned but which had, instead, become a kind of national hangover from the nightmares of war and riot and assassination and scandal.
The seeds of our current rot had been planted, most of them (especially the economic ones) quite deliberately and with malice aforethought.
And what Blue Notes’ lead singer Pendergrass was tasked with, on what is arguably Gamble and Huff’s greatest production and Philadelphia International’s surest statement of visionary purpose, was facing down the future.
Blow by blow.
“Wake-up-everybody-no-more-sleeping-in-bed” flows like an old Chuck Berry line, with gospel (not “post-gospel” which is a nonsense phrase) fervor and desperation substituted for wit and wordplay.
And, lyrically at least, the song doesn’t get much deeper or more complicated than that opening line.
That’s because when you are facing down a future that will be very bleak indeed if hearts and minds are not moved in concert (and now…TODAY), there isn’t time for all that. Wit and wordplay are privileges for other times. Those times (say Chuck Berry’s fifties) may not be “better,” but they afford an inherent leisure. Play, “word” and otherwise, is a luxury the evangelist cannot afford.
The world might have been blown to smithereens in those other times, but a world blown to smithereens is an abstraction.
In the pulpit, the preacher cannot always and forever deal in abstractions. Some of the time, his message has to be about the here and now. And the here and now must be attacked fiercely, devoid of irony, that quality which, however sublime, has little mercy and cannot heal the sickness now being confronted.
Hence, this sermon, titled “Wake Up Everybody,” is concrete in its banalities: “Dope dealers….Stop pushing that dope! Dope users….Stop using the dope!”
And, from there, it proceeds to the abandonment of even literal sense.
“Preachers…stop teaching what you preach!”
Or is it, stop preaching what you teach?
Or start teaching what you preach?
Pendergrass’ choked reading is barely decipherable. I can never quite hold it in my mind, would trust no lyric sheet to set me straight, because, however I hear it–or remember it–I always find a disorienting absence of linear sense.
But I know exactly what he means.
And I suspect “everybody” else does, too.
Even the people who saw a world where the ripe fruit of the American Experiment was sucked to a dry husk–you know, the America they’ve made come to pass–as a dream to be fulfilled rather than a nightmare to be avoided.
They might turn their heads–boy did they, boy do they–but they can still hear.
So Teddy Pendergrass, the preacher, keeps shouting.
The way he lifts off in the temporizing part of this record–the part that makes for the “long edit” which, in those days, was usually understood to be strictly for dancers–makes it harder to ignore at the very moment most “disco” records have the non-dancer in me either nodding out or focusing strictly on what the bass player is getting up to.
The sermon goes on and on, then. It ebbs and flows.
But the spiritual underpinning never dissipates.
Instead, it starts firming up.
Then it starts rising, lifting the listener–he who WILL LISTEN RIGHT NOW–to the preacher’s own higher ground.
Teddy Pendergrass was the rare urban singer who was completely at home with southern-style testifying. Here, Gamble and Huff add to this already electrifying blend by double-voicing the lead (i.e., overlapping the end of one line with the beginning of another without switching vocalists–a form of speaking in tongues, by then becoming commonly available to modern studio wizardry, which every Pentecostal preacher then living might have benefited from investigating had they not been so busy denouncing both the music and the technology as tools of the Devil, often while seeking corporate sponsorship, of course). This has the effect of riveting we, the listeners–locking us into the message–at the very moment when we could reasonably expect a release to shout “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!”
So, yeah, it’s a sermon. Sure it is.
But none of the folks involved here ever forget they’re also making a record.
A record they expect to be a hit, even if–black radio having no real equivalent of white radio’s long formats, something that would, say, allow a bit of Celtic mysticism like “Stairway to Heaven” to be played as incessantly as a three-minute hit single and keep on being played (all nine minutes of it) for forty years and counting–they have to chop part of it off.
A hit record just the same, though, and one that will have a chance to bridge gaps in understanding. In this case, a hit record that constitutes a call, from the mouth of a Black America forever seeking existential justice (here, as so often, rooted in the New Testament evangelism which is the closest thing the two races have to a truly core, truly common culture), to the ear of a White America which has permanent difficulty getting past the particulars of whatever individual case is presently in question.
Hello, this year’s headlines.
This past year’s, of course.
But, really, any year.
Because, after double-voiced Teddy Pendergrass and the classically trained white orchestras Gamble and Huff arranged so seamlessly and magnificently into the sound of their street level politics (and, yes, Sunday morning sermonizing), have journeyed to the mountain top and taken us along–after somebody (lyricist, producer, singer, Holy Ghost) has nailed “You businessmen” with the one hammer blow (“Stop cheatin’!”) amongst all these “simple” remedies to evil that keeps repeating (six times to be exact–this after even dope got no more than a double-blow), because somebody wants to remind “everybody” just where the root of all that evil lies–this seven-and-a-half-minute record comes down, in its final minute, to Pendergrass alone, sounding like a man who can’t lie down and can’t take another step, caught between Heaven and Earth, Faith and Sin, looking yonder into the Promised Land, which is close enough to touch and a thousand miles away, saying just this:
It don’t matter…
Oh, what race…
Creed or color…
We need each other.
Here on Earth, there’s no more powerful reminder of the gospel’s twin purpose–to search for higher ground while providing shelter from the storm–than this record, which reached #12 on the Pop chart and #1 R&B, in 1976, when it must have seemed that we wouldn’t–couldn’t–possibly ever need its message more.
These days, when we’re living with the consequences of not having listened, I guess the hopeful New Testament evangelists of “we need each other” could wearily add an Old Testament coda.
“Don’t say you weren’t warned.”