DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Wilbert Harrison Up)

“Let’s Work Together”
Wilbert Harrison (1969)
Billboard: #32
Recommended source: Let’s Work Together

As “Let’s Stick Together,” this number started life as an early sixties’ side by it’s composer, Wilbert Harrison, which paired the odd rhythm and Harrison’s characteristic dry vocal with a standard lover’s plea.

It was one of those records that sounded like it ought to be a big hit some time, for somebody, under some name or other.

In the UK, eight years later, it was. Canned Heat (who held off releasing their version in the States–where it made #26–while Harrison’s was still on the chart) took it to #2 across the pond and, a few years later, Bryan Ferry took it to #12.

Here at home, Harrison’s plaintive turn, by 1969 re-purposed as a call to brotherhood and released as “Let’s Work Together,” stalled outside the Top 30.

It’s probably more famous than most records that suffer a similar mid-charting fate. If so, that’s partly because its quality (rooted in duality–a celebration of the late sixties’ communal ethos by a black man who had more to gain from its acceptance and application than most of its more celebrated practitioners and, perhaps as a result, could not deliver the uplifting lyric with the expected bound-for-the-top smile in his throat) could not quite be denied and partly because, over the years, big name critics like Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus have harkened back to it in famous forums.

I’m glad they did, because that’s how I found it (I wrote about the fine album Harrison made around it here).

What specifically brought it back to mind this week (besides the times we live in, of course…the humor of it all) was running across Canned Heat’s version, also terrific, on YouTube. I post it here for comparison’s sake (it couldn’t qualify as a Diamond fully in the Shade itself because it made the Top Ten in the UK). I promise it’s a treat musically, from a too-often forgotten band. That it features a bunch of Top of the Pops young lovelies (a couple of whom can actually dance, not always a given in these scenarios, then or now) is, I assure you, entirely beside the point. My purpose here is purely educational.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Wilbert Harrison and Dale Hawkins Demonstrate–Yet Again–That the Revolution was Bottomless)

North of fifty, it’s exceedingly rare to find myself listening to anything “new” with the old addictive spirit of youth. This week it happened twice.

The month’s entertainment budget went to acquiring a couple of 1969 releases by one-hit wonders from the fifties, one of which I’d been chasing for thirty-plus years, the other I just heard about a few weeks ago.

Wouldn’t you know they link up, there in the shadows–though not as obviously as I might have suspected if I was into suspecting things.

After “Susie Q” (circa 1957) Dale Hawkins released a string of follow-ups that–after the manner of the insanely competitive times–didn’t go anywhere. His original guitarist, James Burton (all of fifteen when he played “Susie Q”’s classic riff) soon hooked up with Ricky Nelson on his way to Merle Haggard, Elvis and a career’s worth of legend-building session work. Hawkins went behind the scenes (promotion, production, the usual) and knocked around the music industry for most of the new decade, waiting, as it turned out, for his sound to come back in style.

By the late sixties, it had.

Creedence kicked off their staggering run of mind-blowing singles with a revival of Hawkins’ hit. A sub-genre called “swamp rock,” which in theory was updated rockabilly, but in practice reached as far as Joe South and Vegas-era Elvis, was soon in full swing. That–plus his decade’s worth of contacts in the Music Biz–was no doubt why Hawkins was able to convince somebody to let him make an album, called L.A., Memphis and Tyler, Texas, after the three cities he recorded it in.

I never heard about it until a few weeks ago when Kim Morgan wrote about one of its tracks here. Having lived with it a bit now, I can’t say I’m as taken with Dale’s version of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” as she is, but it’s certainly interesting and I’m grateful for her take in any case because it led me to the rest of this. Hawkins wasn’t the greatest singer in the world, but he was committed. His was one of those voices rock and roll had let through the gate and it’s to his credit that, after a decade spent wandering around inside the castle walls, he had not reached a point of taking anything for granted.

You can hear the peak of the result here (I’m pretty sure ZZ Top got their entire career out of the opening riff), but the whole album’s a grabber:

Wilbert Harrison’s path was more than a little similar to Hawkins’. He was a bit older and he was hard-core R&B where Hawkins was hard-core rockabilly, which meant he had a place to go when he, too, failed to follow up an epic hit (“Kansas City”) with any chart success at all. He was able to make a living on the one-nighter-in-the-local-bucket-of-blood trail that is always available to anybody with a hit in their shady past who is willing to stick with it. Eventually he turned himself into a one-man band–presumably to cut expenses–and his persistence finally paid off in a chance to make an album with New York record man Juggy Murray, one of those independent hustler/promoter types who Dale Hawkins might have become with only the smallest twist of the Fate Dial.

I got onto the resulting album, Let’s Work Together, the way I suspect a lot of people did–in the “Treasure Island” portion of Greil Marcus’ Stranded, first published in 1979. There are albums on that list I still haven’t heard but every once in a while, no matter how broke I am, I get in a certain “Hey thirty-four years is long enough and it’s cheap on Amazon” kind of mood. I figured it would make a nice double bill with Hawkins and it does.

But they run in opposite directions.

While Hawkins’ LP is a clear (and successful) attempt to update his basic ethos–to move forward–Harrison went back beyond the beginning.

I don’t know what exactly possessed him to reach back behind the hard-driving, urban R&B that had once made him famous (however briefly) and drop an album-length field holler–complete with a version of Fats Domino’s segregation-era “Blue Monday” that sounds both ancient and prescient, as though Jim Crow had never really ended (ancient) and never really would (prescient)–into the Age of Aquarius.

Maybe it was just good old artistic integrity. It’s sure hard to believe anybody meant to sell records that way in 1969.

But sell records he did.

Despite (I don’t think there was any “because”) a vocal which utterly belies the optimism of its presumed message, the title track became one of the most unlikely hits (#32 on the Hot 100) of the entire revolution and, in its full album version (see below), it, along with the rest of the album, proved one of history’s oldest lessons.

If you want to look forward, look back.

“Let’s Work Together” is the furthest thing from slick imaginable. It makes even Dale Hawkins sound like Mel Torme. Heck, it makes the Wilbert Harrison of “Kansas City” sound like Mel Torme. But, in 1969 and now, it served/serves as a nice reminder that the basics upon which the disco-fied, hip-hopping future would be built went back much further than James Brown, or Fats Domino, or, for that matter, Jim Crow.

And, no matter how well I think I’ve learned these lessons, it’s always nice to be reminded by something that has a good beat to it even if I can’t dance a lick.