In the Broadway version of Jersey Boys, the Four Seasons’ most anonymous member, Nick Massi, described himself as “the Ringo of the group.” It got a big laugh in the theater, but, of course, Nick Massi was selling himself short. (Frankie Valli has said that Massi’s arranging skills were on a par with Don Costa or Burt Bacharach.** He would know.)
If there had been a Broadway show about the Monkees (and why hasn’t there been?) the line could have been handed to Peter Tork and gotten just as big a laugh….and been just as not-quite-true.
Tork answered the audition for a new TV show in 1965 at the urging of his friend, Stephen Stills, who had just flunked an audition himself. When Tork got the part–playing a guy in a fictional rock and roll band–he was surprised (well, shocked actually) to learn his considerable musical skills would not be required. In the end, he and the other Monkees did play their own instruments, with Tork the one who played the most–and the most variety (half a dozen instruments by the time they made Headquarters).
He nonetheless remained the quiet man of the group. It’s easy to think they could have got along without him, just as it has been easy for some to think the Four Seasons could have got along without Nick Massi or the Beatles could have got along without Ringo.
But chemistry is a tricky thing. Take even the most gifted performer out of the context where they rose to Rock and Roll fame and, almost always, something is missing. Take even the most “token” member from a great Rock and Roll group (and the Monkees were a fantastic Rock and Roll group even if many were and are too hidebound by their preconceived notions of what all that was supposed to be to admit it), and, again, something is invariably lost.
And no group, not even the Beatles, needed “all four” more than the Monkees.
Tork’s best musical moment came on Mann and Weil’s “Shades of Gray,” where he shared the lead vocal with Davy Jones.
Given where the world has gone in the years since, it is fitting, perhaps, that they should be the first to go…
**(For evidence, listen to the records the Seasons made between 1962 and September 1965, when Massi departed. Or just listen to the two-sided single “Rag Doll”.”Silence is Golden,” both of which are among the greatest arrangements of the rock & roll era–or, as I like to call it, The History of Arranging.)
This was almost going to be an update to The Story That Never Ends. Recent inductee Steve Miller’s call for more women artists to join him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has evoked a few responses here and there which makes me hopeful there is a groundswell developing that might ultimately benefit some long overlooked artists.
Then again, with friends like these….
Rolling Stone‘s contribution to the conversation is under a title-only-a-committee-of-future-commissars-could-conceive: “Fifteen Women Who Could Be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” (I think we’re about two elections away from whoever came up with that being put in charge of inducing famine in the northern plains’ states…but I digress.)
No, it doesn’t really name “fifteen women”–rather fifteen female acts (several being groups). But we’ll let that pass.
No, it doesn’t limit itself to redressing the legitimate grievance–that a number of actual “rock and roll women” have been given short shrift. It’s littered, instead, with crit-faves from other forms (Joan Baez from folk, Patsy, Dolly and Loretta from country–all good candidates for my recommended category of “Contemporary Influence” but not really credible as rock and roll performers). But we’ll let that pass.
And it does make a pretty good case for the Shangri-Las. That’s always welcome news around here. Admittedly, this phrase is passing strange: “…they’re perhaps the girl group most beloved of critics and rock fans.” I don’t know about fans, but if critics, who make up most of the nominating committee, loved the Shangri-Las more than any other girl group, they probably would have nominated them some time (as they have the Shirelles, the Supremes, the Ronettes and Martha and the Vandellas, all Hall members, or the Chantels or the Marvelettes, both at least nominated in the past). Of course, they should have done just that, but they haven’t, so that part in an otherwise not entirely incoherent paragraph, is gibberish.
But we’ll let that pass.
Have to, for now, because the very next entry is for Dionne Warwick and it reads like this:
Kicking off her career with the wounded, yet stalwart “Don’t Make Me Over,” the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B. Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts. Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks.
I don’t normally do interpretations of cluelessness and Bad English, but since no one can be expected to swallow that whole, I’ll take a shot.
the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B…
Well, no one voice ever “defined the sound of R&B,” not even Fats Domino’s or Little Richard’s or James Brown’s or Otis Redding’s or Aretha Franklin’s. Dionne Warwick came pretty close to defining supper club soul, an honorable, if much derided sub-genre, which she more or less invented and which gave both soul and rock much wider audiences than they otherwise might have expected during the heart of the era when those forms dominated both the charts and whatever part of the culture still had meaning. So why not just say that?
Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David…
Her phrasing and power had nothing to do with how catchy her songs were. The catchiness was provided by the aforementioned writers (Bacharach did the melodies, David the lyrics). She inspired those songs and provided their heartbreak. So why not just say that?
…and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts.
This is what’s called a non sequitur. Actually, since it finishes the sentence begun by the previous phrase, it’s at very least a double non sequitur. It could be a triple non sequitur, since the previous phrase quite possibly contains its own non sequitur (power and phrasing having nothing to do, strictly speaking, with the catchiness for which she was not responsible anyway), but my head already hurts so we’ll leave that alone, too. In any case, the catchiness of her songs has, in this purely linguistic context, nothing to do with her being the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England (which, in turn, has nothing to do with why she should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as the same honor might easily have befallen, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Nancy Wilson or any number of others who also sang catchy songs and exemplified the various ways in which African-American women could be supper club classy without coming anywhere near “rock and roll,” lest you think I was kidding when I said Dionne invented the “soul” part of that equation or that I failed to clarify that it’s the precise reason she should have been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long since), which, in turn, has nothing to do with “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” coming out the same year (that’s best called a coincidence, I think, though other descriptions might apply as well).
[Note: There was a time, not that long ago, when writing like this in a high school English class would have drawn a bunch of red marks and the student would have been required to write it over. There was a time, not that long ago, when the same thing might have happened at Rolling Stone….But we’ll let that pass.]
Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks.
Okay, I don’t really know what any of that has to do with Dionne Warwick’s worthiness for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (except that the writer(s) may have had a nagging suspicion they had somehow failed to clinch the case with their previous points of emphasis). But I think what it basically means is that they believe “That’s What Friends Are For,” godawful even by the standards of “cause-minded tracks,” is greater than this…
…one of the greatest records–and greatest vocals–ever waxed.
Cause enough, all by itself, for this…
The Thirteenth Maxim: Learn English so that thou wilt not make thy reader’s teeth grind and, in true non sequitur fashion, bring about the End of Days!.
Okay, back to the mission here with a new category.
Yes, this past week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles arriving in America, but it also, of course, marks the same anniversary of the beginning of what came, almost instantly, to be called the “second British Invasion” and then came (in the instant after that) to be called the British Invasion.
For shorthand historical purposes, this latter phrase has ever since referred to the tide of British acts who followed immediately in the Beatles path to success in America. Like pretty much every other rock and roll moment/movement between the early fifties and the early nineties, this “British Invasion” was, first and foremost, carried along by singers. It might seem self-evident that this is so, but most of what’s ever been written about the great changes the Beatles (and the Invasion in general) wrought have tended to focus on anything but singing, focusing instead on the rise of self-contained bands, the genius of the best bands being defined as those who wrote the best songs, the veneration of guitar gods, how witty and engaging some of the lads were in press conferences, whether the Beatles really were bigger than Jesus and so forth.
But the British Invasion finally rose and fell on great singing, just like nearly every other significant development in rock history before and after. So I thought I’d round up a list of some of the key vocal performances from 1964–66 that set the standards–and the limits–of just how far this thing proved it could go as commerce and/or art.
I think I included every really formidable singer from the Invasion proper who had any success at all on this side of the pond, though, of course, most of these made many other great records, so bear in mind this is only a representative sample. (I listed lead singers for groups and harmony singers where I thought they added something significant to the record. Also, where possible, I tried to find some interesting live version of the song in question for a link. But if you only want to close your eyes and listen to one, I’d recommend “It’s My Life” which is played off the original 45 and sounds superior to any CD mix I’ve heard.)
[Final note: This list is very roughly chronological but it’s really more about the gradual opening up of psychic space, as opposed to dates on a calendar….If you want to believe that’s code for “I’m way too lazy to look up every single one of these recording dates!” well, I won’t exactly give you an argument.]
“I Want To Hold Your Hand”–The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, lead vocals): The kick-starter and a true update of the Everlys, with John and Paul as indistinguishable from each other’s heartbeats as they would ever be on record. They were never able to repeat the magic of this one live because (at least in every performance I’ve seen) they always stood at separate mikes and rather far apart. Fortunately for us, them and the world, the space they clearly needed on stage disappeared in the recording studio.
“She Loves You”–The Beatles (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, lead vocals, George Harrison, harmony vocal): Sheer rhetorical brilliance. Here were the Beatles, on their second big American single, claiming a special kinship (reinforced by the passion and intimacy of the harmonies) with the sort of staunch young female who made them a cultural phenomenon to begin with. It was a kinship they (John in particular, though Paul’s oft-expressed “well-it-would-be-nice-if-they-only-screamed-at-musically-appropriate-times” attitude speaks volumes as well) frequently made a point of disowning the moment it was commercially safe to do so. But the record itself was somehow both thunderous and sublimely intimate in its moment and has remained so in every moment since.
“I Only Want To Be With You”–Dusty Springfield: Dusty hit the charts the week after the Beatles with a record that very likely would have been an American hit in any case, providing, as it did, an instant bridge between the then reigning girl group sound and the blue-eyed soul waiting just around the corner. A solo vocal that sounds like a wave crashing on the beach. Only you, Dusty, only you.
“House of the Rising Sun”–The Animals (lead vocal, Eric Burdon): Maybe it was the JFK assassination or the Beatles on Sullivan. Maybe it was the Stones on The T.A.M.I. Show. Maybe it was something else. But you could stake a fair claim on “the Sixties” really being born here. When a working class English kid could step up to the mike and deliver a blues vocal on a par with Muddy or the Wolf then all bets were off and confusion was bound to continue its reign long after the exhilaration faded.
“Do Wah Diddy Diddy”–Manfred Mann (Paul Jones, lead vocal): Okay, an epic vocal on “House of the Rising Sun” is one thing, but this couldn’t possibly have been what Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich had in mind when they wrote this.
“You Really Got Me”–The Kinks (Ray Davies, lead vocal): Dave Davies’ ripped-and-ready guitar chords get most of the love, but, great as all that is, it’s also mostly a fine variant on things Link Wray and Paul Burlison and Lonnie Mack had already gotten up to (in some cases, years before). But Ray’s vocal really was something new and astonishing, a maelstrom of self-pity turned on its head so that the anger always underlying such emotions comes boiling to the top in what was ostensibly a lyric designed to express the same aching sentiments as, for instance, Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold On Me.” Here, the “sentiment” is basically along the lines of “if you don’t love me as much as I love you, I’ll punch you in the face.” There was one occasion later, on “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” where Ray even topped himself–there, he sounded both more plaintive and more dangerous at the same time. But this was the breakthrough. (UPDATE: My bad. It was brother Dave on the lead vocal for “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” though Ray wrote it.)
“I’m Into Something Good”–Herman’s Hermits (lead vocal, Peter Noone): This swept aside Earl Jean’s version on its way up the charts. One of the uglier aspects of the British Invasion was that it temporarily brought back the practice of “cover” versions–i.e., a white version very specifically designed to sublimate the air play of a black original–which the original rock and rollers had laid to waste. Just to complicate things a bit further, though, some fair amount of the time the record by the highly marketable English lads was just as good (see the Moody Blues’ version of “Go Now,” co-opted from Bessie Banks, or Manfred Mann’s “Sha-la-la,” co-opted from the Shirelles, for other convincing examples; see the Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” co-opted from Irma Thomas, for one among many not-so-convincing examples). Case in point is that, at least on this record, Peter Noone actually sounded like a male version of a girl group singer. For a solid year after–and despite Noone’s more usual penchant for sounding closer to an especially adenoidal Music Hall escapee (“No Milk Today” and “Must To Avoid” very much excepted)–the Hermits battled the Dave Clark Five for second place among British acts on the American charts. Evidently, young women were not entirely immune to hearing a cute boy sing themselves back to themselves.
“Needles and Pins”–The Searchers (lead vocal, Mike Pender, harmony vocal Chris Curtis): A rare great harmony record by a Liverpool band other than the Beatles themselves (more about that below), and perhaps more noted now for its influence on American folk rock via twin six-string guitars that presaged the twelve-string jangle of the Byrds’ early hits. But the vocal shouldn’t be sold short, marking as it did a kind of link between the American folk movement and the folk rock that would explode a year later.
“Is It True?”–Brenda Lee: A bit of a cheat but only a bit. Obviously Brenda’s not British. But this was recorded in London with Mickie Most (likely England’s greatest record producer)** at the console and Jimmy Page (yes, that Jimmy Page) on guitar. No way any of that was happening without the Invasion and, based on the evidence, the LP Lee reportedly planned to make in England that never materialized is a great loss indeed. Beyond its own considerable value, notable for providing proof that British vocalists would not have to rely on American studio expertise when it was time to make great records on the assembly line. If the locals could hang with Brenda Lee, they could hang with anybody.
“Glad All Over”–Dave Clark Five (Mike Smith, lead vocal): The seeds of Power Pop and Glam. Also, about as subtle as a sledgehammer–an approach well-noted by many after it started making a whole lotta money. And lots of other people did make money going down this same path–though relatively few made similar magic.
“Downtown”–Petula Clark: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Suddenly, Brits other than Dusty Springfield (i.e., Brits who weren’t geniuses) could do Bacharach-style Orchestral Pop. Now things were getting serious! It turned out that–other than Dusty Springfield–really only Petula Clark could do it and that even she could only do it so transcendently this once. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it made a lot of American session pros a great deal more nervous than “I Want To Hold Your Hand” ever did. (And just how Pop was it? Well, I first heard it in a shopping mall when I was five, with Christmas decorations festooned all around…and I promise you it changed my life.)
“My Generation”–The Who (Roger Daltrey, lead vocal): Not a big hit in America initially but an anthem an awful lot of people took to heart precisely because of its stuttering vocal. A sixties’ version of the semi-articulate angst-ridden ethos James Dean had spoken to (and for) in a much more artificial context a decade earlier. (For an even more exhilarating version of the same basic world view, see “The Kids Are Alright.” For an even nastier one, see “The Good’s Gone.”)
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”–The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, lead vocal): The Stones had made some good records before this. Mick Jagger had even waxed a few really fine vocals. But, for the most part, the fuss they kicked up in the first year and a half of the Invasion is–musically speaking–a little hard to hear these days. The band smoked from the beginning, but early Jagger generally sang as though American English (especially black American English) was a foreign language he had learned phonetically. This is where he sold his soul to the Devil so he could complete with his idols, perhaps even surpass them. Compete he did. Surpass them he even perhaps occasionally did. Beginning in about 1973, the Devil got payback–he always does, whatever you decide to call him–but it was beyond belief while it lasted and it really did begin here.
“He’s Sure the Boy I Love”–Lulu: This was a remake–not simply a cover (as it was not designed to compete with the original on the charts and was not even released as a single)–of a Crystals’ hit on which Darlene Love had sung lead. Make that, the mighty Darlene Love. No way was Lulu supposed to dig in her heels and blow past Darlene Love (even if she was greatly assisted by a superior arrangement). But it happened. On a bit of album filler no less–and it is out of such miracles that cults are born and raised. Proof, if anybody needed it, that the Brits had a pretty deep bench.
“Look Through Any Window”–The Hollies (Alan Clarke, lead vocals, Graham Nash and Tony Hicks, harmony vocals): One interesting, little-noted fact about the Invasion was that, having been made possible by a great harmony vocal group, it produced relatively little great harmony singing aside from the Beatles themselves. While the Fab Four’s own vocal impact in America was enormous (with implications that stretched from the Byrds in ‘65 to Buckingham/Nicks’ era Fleetwood Mac in the seventies to the Bangles in the eighties, and that’s just scraping the surface), only one of the British harmony groups who arrived in their wake were remotely in their league. This was their best early record and if they–or anyone–bettered it later on, it wasn’t by much.
“Gloria”–Them (Van Morrison, lead vocals): Displaced Irishman on his way to becoming the Invasion’s greatest singer howls at the moon and gives every garage band in the history of the world from that moment forward a reason to exist–not to mention hope. (Not to mention a break from playing “Louie, Louie”!)
“It’s My Life”–The Animals (Eric Burdon, lead vocal): “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” was just as great and certainly more iconic–it’s still the go-to record for anyone who wants to short-hand Viet Nam-as-nightmare. But I’m going with this one because it’s possibly the angriest vocal ever recorded. By the end of it, Burdon actually sounds like somebody who might stab you in the throat–but only if you get in his way.
“Gimme Some Lovin'”–The Spencer Davis Group (Stevie Winwood, lead vocal): The first instance of a popular record that involved speaking in tongues. Can’t say the idea caught on, but it’s still out there, waiting….
“Help” (John Lennon, lead vocal, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, harmony vocals) and “I’m Down” (Paul McCartney, lead vocal, John Lennon and George Harrison, harmony vocals)–The Beatles: Two sides of a 1965 forty-five. Side A featured John the acerbic rocker at his most vulnerable (he said in later interviews that he should have done it as a ballad). Side B featured Paul the romantic doing his crazed Little Richard imitation (and matching the original). All of which helps explain just how they were able to stay on top of this incredible wave for its duration.
“Friday On My Mind”–The Easybeats (Stevie Wright, lead vocal): Although an American studio confection who called themselves the Strangeloves made some classic, self-consciously primitive records while pretending to be Aussies (to exploit the Invasion, naturally), the first real Australian hit (albeit one recorded in England) was this garage-style classic from sixty-six. The only thing stranger than the combination of passion and opacity suggested by too much contemplation of a line like “Even my old man looks…good” is hearing Wright actually sing it. I might be delusional but, at this distance, I swear at least a hint of everything that bubbled up from down under afterwards is contained in this record: the Bee-Gees, Olivia Newton-John, AC/DC….whatever. I tilt my head this way and that and I hear it. Every bit of it. No really.
“Season of the Witch”–Donovan: A droogy, starry-eyed Scottish lad–who never did anything else even remotely similar–defines the future and names the era we’re still living in. Let’s just say that the psychological distance between this record and what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “the present,” is considerably less than the distance between this record and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” which had been recorded two years earlier. (Note: I reserve the right to pick this one again when I do my inevitable “Greatest Folk Rock Vocals” post!)
**(Most produced five of the records on this list and his range went from the Animals to Herman’s Hermits. Later on, his range went from “To Sir With Love” to “You Sexy Thing.” He really should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)
Since at least the early seventies, the phrases “Philly Soul” and “The Sound of Philadelphia,” which, given the city’s rich musical history might have meant any number of things, have meant something very specific. Namely, the vision put forth under the umbrella of the producing, writing and business genius of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (often aided and abetted by their frequent collaborator Thom Bell, who, in addition to all of the above, also vied with Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson for the unofficial title of “greatest arranger of the rock and roll era”).
Because of their massive success and influence, Gamble and Huff are most frequently referred to by the standard Rock and Soul narratives as the true, seventies-era successors to Motown, the most massively successful and influential soul label of the sixties.
There is certainly some validity to that.
But in purely musical terms, G&H (with or without Thom Bell) owed more to the Chicago soul scene that thrived under the aegis of Curtis Mayfield.
That was the other scene that had been built largely on the unshakeable foundation of the nonpareil, heartbreak vocals provided by one Jerry Butler, Mayfield’s “big brother” from the Chicago streets (and the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers) in the doo-wopping (and church-going) fifties.
Butler’s career could be parsed a lot of ways. He was a major presence, either as participant, influence or both, in every major black vocal style from the fifties to whatever point in the future when the suits and their machines win their final victory over the human voice and “style” goes away for good.
But I’m going to focus on the sessions he recorded with Gamble and Huff in the late 1960s, all now collected on Jerry Butler: The Philadelphia Sessions, a single-disc collection released in 2001 that includes Butler’s two epic, game-changing albums of the period, The Iceman Cometh and Ice on Ice, plus singles and extra tracks he cut for a third collaboration (which was scotched when Butler’s then label, Mercury, tried to stiff Gamble and Huff on the royalty agreement–for yea, verily, I say unto you, the suits are with you always and the tactics, they do not change).
Like every other survivor of the fifties and early sixties, by 1968 or so, Butler was faced with the daunting task of negotiating the sea-change that had taken place in America, culture-wise and music-wise. Unlike nearly everyone else but Elvis–unlike singers as great as Ray Charles and Brenda Lee and Jackie Wilson, to name but a few–Butler not only survived but triumphed. The late sixties were a kind of golden age for epic vocal sessions: Elvis’ mighty comeback, Aretha’s early Atlantic period, Dusty Springfield hanging out with the Memphis Boys (Gamble and Huff would take particular notice of that one).
Even in that company, Butler’s “Philly” sessions (not all of which were actually recorded in Philly, though the strong majority were) stand tall.
To say they were a commercial success is an understatement. The twenty-five sides, most recorded in roughly a twelve-month span during 1968 and 1969, produced a run of eleven chart hits, including six that went top ten R&B and four that went top twenty Pop. Not overwhelming numbers for the Beatles perhaps, but impressive by any other contemporary standard and basically unheard of for a pre-Beatles R&B singer who represented a degree of musical, emotional and even political maturity (that dread word in post-war American life) which few of his contemporaries (certainly not the Beatles, for instance) could hope to match.
As usual, when something extraordinary happens, there were reasons.
The times certainly played a major role, as did the behind the scenes talent. Gamble and Huff were up-and-comers. They had already produced a big hit for the Soul Survivors (the blue-eyed soul classic “Expressway to Your Heart”) and some early successes for the Intruders, a modestly effective soul group led by Sonny Brown who were already signed to the duo’s early Gamble label (a forerunner of Philly International, their seventies behemoth).
According to the liner notes from The Philadelphia Sessions, Butler had heard the duo’s records–and heard something he liked.
“‘Kenny came up to me and told me he and Leon had cut the Intruders’ ‘Cowboys to Girls,’ and I said, ‘Man I like your sound.’ Butler recalls. ‘So they said, “Come on over.” When I did, Leon sat down at the piano and we wrote three songs right away–‘Beside You,’ ‘Lost’ and ‘Never Give You Up.’’”
What transpired over the ensuing months was an amalgam–equal parts unlikely and foreordained–that became one of those rare moments that bridge past and future. Butler himself called it “the marriage of jazz and the sanctified church.”
What he did not say–because he wasn’t that sort–was that he was almost certainly the only singer alive who could have made it stretch so far and mean so much.
* * * *
For one thing–and for some obscure reason this has gotten lost in the same shuffle that has unfairly placed Butler a notch below his great one-name-is-all-that’s-required soul contemporaries: Otis, Aretha, Smokey, Stevie, Marvin, Curtis–he was a genuinely great writer.
The standard caveat that interpretive singers aren’t truly “creative” is utter nonsense, of course, and that’s a frequent topic here. But in Butler’s case it’s even greater nonsense than usual. For starters, he co-wrote (with Arthur and Richard Brooks) “For Your Precious Love,” the record that put him (and the Impressions, and Curtis Mayfield) on the map where they–and, except for Dion DiMucci and Marvin Junior’s Dells among their major doo-wop contemporaries, they alone–were destined to remain.
As a second act, he collaborated with Mayfield on a series of records that made him a big solo star in the early sixties (“He Will Break Your Heart,” “Find Another Girl,” “I’m A Tellin’ You”).
As a third act, he co-wrote Otis Redding’s signature record “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” (and later tossed Redding the key line that turned into “Respect,” which, after Aretha Franklin recorded it, became the signature song for all of soul music.)
Well, for that, he wrote or co-wrote every single side of the G&H Philly sessions except the epochal “Got to See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” (about which, more later).
Other than that I guess he just sat around looking cool and earning his nickname.
Put it this way. The guy who wrote “For Your Precious Love,” “He Will Break Your Heart,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Moody Woman,” “Never Give You Up,” “I Stand Accused,” and “Only the Strong Survive,” for starters is as important a songwriter as Burt Bacharach or Henry Mancini (both of whom he interpreted brilliantly, along with everybody from Randy Newman to Don Covay to the team behind the Strangeloves, not to mention, you know, Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding and Thom Bell and Gamble and Huff).
Frankly, there are “non-performers” in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who have achieved considerably less.
And what’s really amazing is how much all of that pales next to Butler’s accomplishments as a singer.
Having pushed–I think that’s the fairest word–Curtis Mayfield into building a bridge from the fifties to the sixties, he now pushed–still the fairest word–Gamble and Huff into building a similar bridge from the sixties to the seventies.
We shouldn’t really be surprised.
That’s the sort of thing that happens when great writer/producers come up against the challenge provided by great voices–a challenge that no doubt acquires an extra layer of possibility and excitement when the singer is a great writer himself.
I’m betting five minutes after Leon Huff sat down at that piano, he knew what Curtis Mayfield had probably learned back in the Cabrini-Green projects and Otis Redding had learned on the chitlin circuit.
If you wanted to hang with Jerry Butler, you better be ready to bring it.
* * * *
So what about the “Iceman” sessions themselves?
Well they certainly played to Butler’s main strength. He was the master of the gentle ache. One need only think of the main lines from his two early signature hits–
…“Your precious love, means more to me, than any love that could ever be,”
or, better yet…
“He don’t love you…Like I love you.”
Can’t shoot an arrow any straighter than that.
But even when he was assertive it was from the shadows. “Find yourself another girl,” he sang on another early hit. “Who will love you, true, true, true.”
Instead of singing from the perspective of the stud telling his girl’s male friend to get lost–what we might expect from the first part of the line–he turns in the middle and seems to reveal a completely different position–that of sad experience advising a friend. Then the song takes yet another turn and, suddenly, from the position of one friend advising another, it turns out the singer is quoting the advice his own mother gave him, singing it back to himself over and over, all this accomplished with an ease and economy that the Gershwins might have envied.
In that respect, Butler hadn’t changed his position when it came to the Gamble and Huff collaboration and confronting the late sixties–only deepened it. In its reliance on motherly wisdom about the eternal search for true love as a stand-in for something larger, “Find Another Girl,” in fact presages “Only the Strong Survive,” the signature record of these particular sessions, by nearly a decade.
Of course, things had changed dramatically in that decade. Patience wasn’t the painfully necessary watchword in Black America that it had been prior to the legal triumphs of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-sixties. There were plenty who insisted it was no longer even a virtue at all.
And it was within this state of being, caught in the permanent state of tension bound to forever exist between the cautionary tales Black America had told itself to survive three hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow (the tales which were Butler’s natural metier) and the seductive attractions of the emerging militancy of the period of these recordings that the Philadelphia Sessions took on their added significance.
That tension would, in fact, inform Gamble and Huff’s entire enterprise going forward–often overtly, sometimes awkwardly or even ham-handedly so. None of this emerged on the Butler sessions, because, whoever was nominally in charge of the studio when Jerry Butler sang, he remained a supremely covert artist.
His lyric specialty was lost–and occasionally found–love. The import of his vocal style was even more understated than that. Go on and have your riot, he seemed to say, over and over. When you’re finished, I’ll still be here, ready to get down to the business of surviving.
Hearing that in his voice, I think “Got To See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)” stands as not only one of the strongest vocals in a decades-long catalog that does not include anything approaching a weak one, but as a supreme political statement–stronger perhaps, than even “Only the Strong Survive.”
It seems an unusual record to bear that weight. Its story is presumably pure corn-pone–more likely to have emerged from country music or the teen tragedy boom of the early sixties than deep soul. Maybe so, but Butler simply made any such notion of “categorization” irrelevant.
“I can’t go through life remembering alone,” he sings, after lining out the details of an early marriage, hardship, the pains of childbirth and backbreaking labor and his wife’s decision to leave him and his children. That’s a line that might well have drowned in self-pity, even in the hands of the great country singers it might well have been written for. But Butler never quite lets loose. He keeps his mighty instrument–as strong as any in the history of recorded music–in check and makes the first-person story not truly about himself but about the woman who–long before the singer arrives at the bridge she’s thrown herself from–we already know won’t survive to tell her children that, well, only the strong do. The irony might have been lost on those who were going through Bob Dylan’s trash in those days, looking for the meaning of life, but I doubt it was lost on Butler or his core audience.
A truly mature society might have used something like the Iceman sessions (and the other great vocal sessions of the period) as a means of drawing together.
Ours did not.
After the great voices of the fifties, Fats Domino to Clyde McPhatter to Ray Charles to Elvis Presley to Little Richard to the Everly Brothers to, yes, Jerry Butler, the opportunity was there, staring us in the face. After the political triumphs of the sixties, it was still there.
But it wasn’t guaranteed. It was going to take work.
What I hear in the Iceman sessions now–in a month when the decades-long attack on the hard won “permanent” changes of the sixties have, for the first time, been officially rolled back–is Butler, using the unique authority of his unmistakable voice, the voice of someone who had seen the worst of everything and still, somehow, clung to hope, telling us the most cautionary tale of all.
It took three hundred years to get here, he was plainly saying.
Don’t throw this away.
Don’t throw US away.
In 1969, with revolution all around, Jerry Butler’s greatest sessions were there to remind us–not just Black America, which had good reasons to find specific, deep resonance in the great vocalists of that moment, among whom Jerry Butler stood second to no one, but all of us–that even the most incremental progress is tenuous and that it remains so no matter how much the passage of time creates the illusion of permanence.
It’s obviously a reminder which, on the day when the Supreme Court has effectively gutted the key element of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we still desperately need.
And because it’s a particularly appropriate–and painful–reminder on this day, of what might have been…sung from the other side of that same mountain that almost didn’t fall on us:
“Without these limitations….Suddenly you know…Hello! She can go that high. And she can sing that low. She’s that flexible and she can sing that strong and that loud and be so delicate and soft, too. And the more you saw that, the more I was exposed to that, musically, the more risks, the more chances I could take.”
(Burt Bacharach, discussing Dionne Warwick, The Songmakers Collection DVD, 2001)
As I’ve stated before on this blog, any narrative of rock and roll which moves singers and singing out of the center is a false one. The great voices matter most. The great voices don’t date. The great voices were by far the most powerful element that was set free by the rock and roll revolution. And, in rock and roll, the great voices set the parameters and imaginitive limits for the great writers and producers–not the other way around. This is about as bluntly as I’ve ever heard his particular truth put (though Shadow Morton has said similar things about Mary Weiss in recent years and Phil Spector and Brian Wilson said similar things about Ronnie Spector once upon a time).