Listen to this track by irreplaceable Queen of soul Aretha Franklin. It’s “Respect”, a huge hit for her as taken from her 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. This song, actually a cover version, helped to solidify her status as a giant of modern song.
When people think of this song today, it’s Aretha’s version that immediately leaps to mind, with the signature push-pull between her lead voice and those of her sisters backing her up. That’s a musical dynamic familiar to even the most casual listener by now. Even its writer Otis Redding, who was and is also a giant of popular song, agreed that Aretha Franklin took this song to another place. At his historic appearance at the Monterrey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, he affectionately described it as “a song a girl took away from me”. It certainly captures the vernacular of the time with it’s “sock it to me!” and “take care of TCB!” exclamations being a real high point that helped to make this song what it is. Since, it’s become interwoven into pop culture with references to it being too many to count.
Culturally speaking, Franklin’s take on this song goes even further still even by virtue of the fact that she’s the one singing it. This is not only down to her identity as a woman, but specifically as a black woman. In an era full of conflict and in a society that was coming to a head where all kinds of social structures were concerned, this song is more than just a catchy hit single. It was, and still is, culturally resonant and downright important.
Listen to this track by London-based hit-single generating vocal group All Saints. It’s “Never Ever”, their smash 1997 single as taken from their self-titled album All Saints, their debut full-length. The group had been together since 1993, led by members Melanie Blatt and Shaznay Lewis, along with former member Simone Rainford, after serving as back-up vocalists for ZTT recording studios. With this song, and with then-new members in Canadian sisters Nicole and Natalie Appleton joining them, they managed to score a number one single that would eventually become the second best selling single by a British girl group, just behind The Spice Girls “Wannabe”.
Like their spicy contemporaries, All Saints (named after a road in London) sought to appeal to a pure pop audience with a decidedly R&B flavour. With the kind of hooks their material featured, they were certainly able to get the attention of commercial radio, although perhaps with a bit less cultural impact than The Spice Girls initially. But one thing that All Saints had was an instinct for writing their own material. Shaznay Lewis wrote this song with writers Robert Jazayeri and Sean Mather. “Never Ever” was released in Britain in November of 1997, becoming a smash hit and remaining to be their biggest charting single to date with scores of accolades attached to it.
But like many hit songs, it was based in some very real struggles, specifically on Lewis’ part. Its success and its positive impact on the group struck her as ironic, rooted as it was in the pain of a real break-up. Beyond its undeniable commercial value and appealing pop hooks, there is a lot of darkness swimming below the surface that brings out some pertinent questions about break ups, and how they can very often skew our perceptions of ourselves. Read more
Listen to this track by Atlanta-based hip hop collective Arrested Development. It’s “Tennessee”, the first single taken from their smash-hit debut record, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days In the Life Of … released in the spring of 1992. The group are widely known as being pioneers in southern hip hop and authors of the aural counterbalance to the rise of West Coast scenes during the early nineties, with their debut record as a fine example.
In contrast to the violence and nihilism of a lot of rap at the time, Arrested Development traded in more celebratory themes, while still acknowledging the same burdensome weight of history on black communities in America and the anger and sorrow it justifiably creates. Under the creative leadership of Speech and Headliner, the group concocted a potent blend of musical styles from soul, gospel, dub, funk (this song samples Prince’s “Alphabet Street” prominently), blues, and jazz.
Importantly, this song in particular eschews the braggadocio, posturing, and often very understandable cynicism of a lot of the rap coming out of the West Coast that dominated the field at the time and embraces a brand of vulnerable candour in its place.”Tennessee” is downright humble, being in the form of a prayer. Yet the themes built into this song are not to be dismissed as lightweight. In fact, it evokes much of the same darkness and struggle as is found in any example of socially aware hip hop of the time. Read more
Listen to this track by post-Beatles Paul McCartney songwriting vehicle and bona fide top forty behemoth Wings. It’s “Silly Love Songs” a smash single that appeared on the band’s 1976 LP Wings At The Speed of Sound. The song proved its own thesis by spending five non-consecutive weeks on the number one spot of the Billboard 100. It would be McCartney’s twenty-seventh number one song, helping to place him in the Guinness World Book of Records as the world’s most successful songwriter by 1979.
By this time, McCartney and Wings were on an upswing with a number of hits behind them and with many in front as well before the band ended in 1981. However even during this peak period where chart action was concerned, the songwriter was not without his critics. Even his former songwriting partner John Lennon had levelled an opinion that McCartney had gone soft, writing lightweight, crowd-pleasing love songs rather than turning his talents to more substantial subjects. This song was a self-aware reaction to that. Crowd-pleasing? What’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?
Having said that, there’s something else going on in this song that I think a lot of rock fans had complained about where McCartney was concerned by 1976; that it just doesn’t rock in the way that, say, “Helter Skelter” or Back In The USSR” does. I think there’s plenty to unpack there that reveals something about McCartney the writer, and maybe something about his audience, too. Read more
Listen to this track by Crescent City R&B singer, radio personality, and self-styled “R&B Emporer of New Orleans” Ernie K-Doe. It’s “Mother-in-Law” his 1961 number one single that would become his signature tune.
The song was written and produced by indispensable musical renaissance man Allen Toussaint, although it was something of a throwaway tune from him almost literally. The right take on the song proved to be very elusive during the three-hour recording session. In frustration, Toussaint took the songsheet and threw it away. Luckily for Ernie K-Doe and also for Allen Toussaint, backing singer Willie Hopper fished it out of the trash and encouraged the singer to give it another shot, convinced that the song was a hit. It was.
“Mother-in-Law” scored the number one spot on the R&B charts in May of 1961 and stayed there for a week. Ernie K-Doe (born Ernest Kador, Jr.) would trade on this song for decades, singing it during live appearances until the end of his life in 2001. As much as it was signature for him, being his best chart showing by far, the song itself can be viewed as a mark of the times out of which it came, too. Read more
Listen to this track by Atlanta Georgia R&B pop proponents TLC. It’s “Waterfalls”, a smash hit single and signature track featured on their second record Crazy Sexy Cool which went an incredible eleven-times platinum. The song made monumental waves on the charts, and was also notable for becoming the number one video on MTV, holding that position for a full month. TLC was the first African-American group to hold that position by 1995.
“Waterfalls” is notable for many other reasons besides this, of course. For one thing, it was the best song that Prince never wrote, complete with a full-on Sly & The Family Stone-style vibe matched with hip-hop aesthetics a-plenty. Group member Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes can be thanked for writing it, with a co-write credit to Marqueze Etheridge of Organized Noize who also produced it. Another notable trait about this song is its subject matter, dealing in the dangers of drugs and unprotected sex, very vividly represented in the aforementioned video.
Maybe a third aspect of this song in the light of that is that it should really sound more preachy and judgmental than it does. It certainly seems to have a political edge to it, being among the first to deal head on with the AIDS epidemic. Maybe too, it reflects something of its writer’s inner voice as well.
Listen to this track by soul music master architect and supernaturally gifted vocalist and songwriter Sam Cooke. It’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, a B-side to his single “Shake” that would also become a celebrated civil rights anthem. The song would also appear on the 1964 album, Ain’t That Good News, his last album during his lifetime. The song would also appear posthumously on 1965’s Shake.
The sheer magnitude of this song is almost impossible to measure, with countless cultural associations, cover versions, samples, and all around influence attached to it. It’s almost impossible too to decide which aspect of that influence is the most significant. Maybe the most obvious one is the sheer rawness of expression it represents, written by a black man celebrated as a peerless artist in one context, from the perspective of one regarded as an object to be reviled in another; at a movie and going downtown, where someone keeps telling him not to hang around, knocked to his knees when he asks for help. Nineteen sixty-four is still not so far away from today, even if the rules have changed on the surface. People of colour are still treated as members of a mass, not as individual representatives of their own experience.
Coming from a pop singer like Cooke, this multilayered song was unexpected even by Cooke himself who purportedly received it fully formed and not sure what to do with it. Full of complexity, it did more than just call out a culture for its prejudice and cruelty. It had a pretty big hand in changing pop music itself, too. Read more
Listen to this track by mighty Motown hit machine Diana Ross & The Supremes. It’s “Someday We’ll Be Together”, a smash hit single from 1969 and found on their LP Cream Of The Crop.
The song has the distinction of being the last number one single on the R&B charts of the 1960s, while also being the first number one single of the next decade, too. It was also the group’s swan song, with Diana Ross leaving for a solo career by 1970. This gave the song’s refrain a kind of weightiness that seemed to go beyond the story depicted in it.
The song had actually been recorded previously in 1961 by doo-wop group Johnny (Bristol) & Jacky (Beavers), the team who also wrote it. Bristol oversaw the Supremes recording too. You can hear him singing backup, although that session was meant to be a demo with Bristol’s interjections as vocal encouragement in order to get the right take. When Motown honcho Berry Gordy heard it, he liked Bristol’s backing that offset Ross’ lead voice. Ironically for a swan song of a massive pop group like the Supremes, or “Diana Ross & The Supremes” as they became known, Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson aren’t featured on the track. This was indicative of the state of the union of the group at the time. Besides that though, this song always struck me as a swan song of another kind; that of childhood itself. Read more
Listen to this track by New York-based, twenty-first century funk-soul standard-bearers The Dap Kings as led by vocal powerhouse Sharon Jones. It’s “This Land Is Your Land”, an American folk anthem as written by fascism-fighting songwriter Woody Guthrie, re-positioned here as a sweaty soul jam in a minor key. The track is featured on their 2005 album Naturally, their second.
Guthrie wrote this song in 1940 in response to a certain strain of American jingoism that papered over the disenfranchisement experienced by many during the years of the Great Depression. Despite it’s jaunty feel and kid-friendly reputation, by the late forties and early 1950s in the McCarthy era, Guthrie’s song was considered dangerous due to some redacted verses that criticized American life directly. This song was about claiming a birthright, and being blocked while trying to do so. It revealed cracks in the facade.
When multi-racial soul band Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings recorded it in the mid-2000s, their version wasn’t entirely removed from the intent of its author during an era of ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, and a second term for George W. Bush. How has the politically charged relevance of this song changed since then, stylistic textures aside? Given that it was written by one who stood openly opposed to fascism, the answer is a very discouraging “not very much”. Read more
Listen to this track by underappreciated blues and rock architect Big Mama Thornton. It’s “Ball and Chain”, a cut that Thornton wrote in the early 1960s, recorded by the end of that decade and can be heard on the Ball And Chain compilation album. The song provided the runway for her resurgence as a performer at that time, too.
This particular rendition was recorded for public television in 1970, including Buddy Guy and his band behind a very formidable Thornton. The two artists had worked together on live shows in Europe in the mid-sixties, the musical rapport they create here perhaps indicating how simpatico they are. During her intro, Thornton mentions Janis Joplin who also had massive success with this song, inspired as she was by the elder singer’s powerful and heart-wrenching original version. Joplin would later invite Thornton to open shows for her.
Yet, Thornton was the pioneer while Joplin trod her path. This being the music industry, and being our world in general, that path was fraught with perils for someone like Big Mama Thornton. The first casualty was her own fame, or lack thereof. Read more