As strange as this may sound given the legacy he left behind, I don’t think Sam Cooke came close to reaching his full potential. He left us with many tantalizing possibilities, but died long before his time.
They’ve tagged him “The King of Soul,” a highly misleading label that falls far short of describing his remarkably inclusive approach to music. His catalog contains everything from gospel to blues to rock to calypso to purest pop. He could have been the male version of Mahalia Jackson or a serious competitor to Johnny Mathis with a touch of Harry Belafonte thrown into the mix. I think it’s much more accurate to describe his music as imbued with soul. “You can’t just put in a ‘whoa-oh’ in every song, you got to feel it, man,” Sam told the record label owner who encouraged him to adhere to a formula. While sometimes he did follow a formula (welcome to the music business), played too much to the crowd and too often tried to cash in on the latest fads, his journey through his truncated life can be characterized as a relentless drive to realize a vision of music that was constantly evolving and maturing. He knew he was headed somewhere, and his instincts led him to explore many paths along the way. His early death denied him the opportunity to reach a final destination, but I’m not sure that Sam Cooke would have wanted to go there anyway. He was an explorer, and for the explorer, the meaning of life is in the journey itself.
Portrait of a Legend is a decent travelogue of Sam Cooke’s development as an artist; it only ranks as “decent” because the track order isn’t chronological. This is a particularly crucial issue when it comes to Sam Cooke because the chronology tells you that his progression was not at all linear but an uneven combination of forward movement and regression as he struggled to balance artistry with a strong desire to please the audience. The liner notes by biographer Peter Guralnick are generally informative, but the biography itself (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke) also leaves much to be desired: the lead character and his music are often buried in a barrage of mini-bios on nearly everyone who crossed paths with Sam at one time or another, the narrative lost in dozens of side trips into the workings of the music business and the authenticity of the story compromised with tedious quotes from acquaintances who invariably describe Sam in exactly the same way (nice guy, full of himself, great voice, could charm the pants off a suffragist). I was surprised by this, because Guralnick’s Elvis bios (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love) were first-rate efforts. Perhaps it slipped his mind that a writer can use something called “footnotes,” where curious readers can find additional information without losing the narrative thread. Listening to Sam Cooke is a far more enjoyable experience than reading about him (at least for now), so let’s not waste any time getting to the heart of the matter.
I’ve rearranged the tracks in chronological order (by recording date, if available) to provide a more honest travelogue of Sam Cooke’s amazing journey.
“Jesus Gave Me Water” (1951): Sam Cook (the final “e” came later) began his musical career in gospel at the age of six, singing with his brothers and sisters at the behest of his preacher father in a group unimaginatively called “Singing Children.” By the age of fourteen, he was the lead singer of another gospel group, The Highway QC’s, and from there he reached to pinnacle of gospel by joining The Soul Stirrers, a gospel institution that has survived in various forms for eighty-plus years.
Sam had performed this song with The Highway QC’s, but it was the version he sang with the Soul Stirrers that turned him into a gospel star at the ripe old age of twenty. Even at that very young age, he displayed three talents that would serve him well throughout his career. The first and most obvious is the innate soulfulness he brought to the song—his sense of rhythm and forward movement is remarkably compelling, and regardless of your faith or faithlessness, Sam grabs your attention with his complete command of the material. The ease with which Sam navigates the melody tells you that the man was born to sing, and while there are techniques that every singer has to learn, Sam’s innate ability gave him a huge head start. Finally, Sam understood that gospel music relies on the ability of the singer to tell a great story, and carrying that storytelling talent with him when he made the transition into pop music would prove to be crucial to his success.
“Touch the Hem of His Garment” (1954): This particular number came out of a Soul Stirrers recording session—a song that Sam literally made up on the spot because he hadn’t bothered to prepare anything in advance.
‘Sam, the folks are waiting for you to sing them a song, and if you don’t get yourself together before we get to the studio, what are we going to do?’ So Sam said, ‘Well, hand me the Bible.’ And they handed Sam the Bible, and he was thumbing through it, skipping over it and skimming through it, and he said, ‘I got one. Here it is right here.’ ” At which point Sam put the song together right in front of Bumps’ eyes. “He said, ‘Okay, strike the chords.’ So the guitar started playing these two little chords, and Sam started singing, quoting right from the Scripture, where Jesus was coming into the marketplace and he met the woman at the well, singing ‘There was a woman’—and those chords were coming—‘in the Bible days.’ And [then]: ‘Whoa-oh-oh, She touched the hem of his garment and was made whole.’ ”
Guralnick, Peter. Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (pp. 151-152). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
That natural talent would prove to be both a blessing and a curse throughout his career.
Not giving a hoot about religion, what I find fascinating about this song are the rough edges in Sam’s vocals. At this point in gospel’s development, the Pentecostal style—a more emotional approach to gospel with more volume, shouting and grit—was coming to the fore. The rough edges in Sam’s voice here are reminiscent of the vocals you hear in punk and grunge music, but while those genres use grit as expressions of angst and outrage, gospel used grit to express the joy of immersion in the spirit. Simultaneously with the rise of the Pentecostal approach, the underlying sexuality in the music began to manifest itself more openly, with women and girls rushing to the pews in front to display forms of hysteria akin to Beatlemania . . . and Sam, who would prove to be rather fond of female attention, could charm the pants off just about any broad within visual range. A young Aretha Franklin noted that “if Sam had twenty girls in a room, each one would leave feeling that she was the only one—’he just made you feel like it was all about you.'”
And that natural talent would also prove to be a blessing and a curse throughout his career.
“Lovable” (1956): After a few years with The Soul Stirrers, Sam was ready to cross the bridge into pop. He approached the transition with deep ambivalence because he didn’t want to disappoint his gospel fans, and probably felt more than a twinge of guilt for abandoning the spiritual for the secular. This is why “Lovable” was released under the name “Dale Cook,” one of the worst attempts at subterfuge until the Trump-Putin bromance. If Sam really wanted to sneak into pop through the back door, he should have called in David Seville for a chipmunk tune-up. Have you ever heard Sam Cooke sing a song and ask, “Huh, I wonder if that’s Sam Cooke?” Fuck, no! He has one of the most distinctive voices in recorded history! “Lovable” even features his signature “whoa-oh-ohs,” and nobody could whoa-oh-oh like Dale–er, Sam Cooke. “Lovable” isn’t much of a song and didn’t do dick in the charts, so I guess the Dale character gave Sam the opportunity to put some distance between himself and first-shot failure.
“You Send Me” (June 1957): No one in the studio thought much of this song when Sam recorded it. Clif White of the Mills Brothers played guitar on the piece and said, “I thought it was the most ridiculous song I ever heard in my life. Simply because it wasn’t saying anything. I mean, he just kept on singing, ‘You send me,’ and I thought he was out of his fucking mind. I said, ‘When is the song gonna start?’ I thought he was lost. I said, ‘Hell, I think he forgot the words to his song.’” (Ibid, p. 173). As a composition, it reflects the simplicity and conservatism of a young songwriter just beginning to dip his toes into pop music, which pretty much describes Sam at this point in time. “You Send Me” was released as the B-side to Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and all involved prepared for a life where “You Send Me” was little more than an afterthought.
The dismissive assessment of “You Send Me” ignored one of Sam Cooke’s greatest gifts: “He just made you feel like it was all about you.” DJ’s ignored the A-side and pushed the hell out of the B-side when they discovered a direct correlation between playing “You Send Me” and the phones in the radio station ringing off the hook. Miraculously, “You Send Me” would eventually top the R&B and Billboard charts, firmly cementing the notion of “crossover potential.” Clif White would rethink his position and go on to support Sam in many future recording sessions.
Not much of a song, but what a voice! Sam conveys such deep sincerity and palpable emotion that he even makes me feel that he’s singing directly to me! What’s equally amazing (and a lesson for singers whose performances are marked with deliberately sloppy diction), is Sam’s clean articulation, which sounds completely natural and does nothing to compromise the underlying emotion. The soul that characterized his gospel music comes through loud and clear, and the ebbs and flows of emotion mirror the natural flow of conversation. This is a perfect vocal performance, technically sound and emotionally engaging, and allows you to ignore the atrocious background singers who do their best to turn the song into an Easy Listening bore.
“Summertime” June 1957: The “A” side is one of the better versions of the Gershwin aria, though you’d never know it from its peak chart performance at #81. The highest charting version was Billy Stewart’s manic, cubist rendition in 1966, which destroys any connection to the lyrical imagery in DuBose Hayward’s poetry. When you listen to Sam do the tune, you can feel the Southern heat and humidity, the lure of the cool river and the natural torpor of a hot summer day in the South. Sam over Billy by a landslide.
“You Were Made for Me” (June 1957): Guralnick waxes lyrical about this song in the biography; I find the recitation of perfect fits (fish-ocean, grape-vine, boat-sea) more than trite. Recorded in the same session as “You Send Me,” Sam sounds just fine but those background singers—a white quartet known as The Pied Pipers—-are now a major distraction. If producer Bumps Blackwell’s intention was to make the songs sound whiter to maximize crossover potential, he couldn’t have picked a whiter group than The Pied Pipers, whose claim to fame was their alliance with the sanitized jazz of Tommy Dorsey. Definitely a skipper . . . if it weren’t for Sam’s voice.
“I’ll Come Running Back to You” (November 1957): This was the follow-up to “You Send Me,” a so-so song with production made to order. Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty Records, ordered Bumps to duplicate the sound of “You Send Me” with the same instrumentation and same horrid background vocals. This was recorded before Sam’s “you’ve got to feel it” manifesto, so I’ll give him a pass for being a young kid still learning the ropes.
“(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” (1957): Oh, man, why on earth did they dig up this old turkey? The answer is simple: it fit the early-period formula, where Sam croons simple lyrics in his endlessly charming voice and squeezes every last drop from the so-so melody. In the opening passage, Sam repeats the phrase “I Love You” sixteen fucking times; if a guy did that with me, he’d be out the door on number four.
In this stage of his career, Sam’s reliance on his natural singing talent reminds me of the hot young prospect with a great fastball who wreaks havoc on the league until the hitters realize he’s a one-trick pitcher. They figure out how to time the fastball and start knocking his precious heater into the seats. Sam’s voice could only carry him so far, and his so-so chart performance on this turkey told him he needed to come up with another pitch. In this case, what he needed better was better material, and there was no one more qualified to meet that need than Sam Cooke himself—just give the man a little time to get his songwriting chops down.
“Win Your Love for Me” 1958: Harry Belafonte had turned calypso into something more than a craze, though I doubt very much that the anti-Communist listening audience had any idea that calypso was originally a method of subterfuge, a way for slaves to share information in coded form in defiance of their masters. While the rhythms are irresistible, the more relevant aspect of calypso is its status as a story-telling genre, and Sam would soon begin to balance straightforward love songs that melted hearts with stories that moved hearts and minds.
Written by his younger brother L. C., Sam has no problem navigating the modified calypso beat, imbuing the song with a joyful earnestness reflecting the hope of the narrator in his quest to win over the girl. The mix is a bit off, with Sam’s voice pushed slightly to the rear of the sound field, and I do wish they’d honored tradition by using congas instead of bongoes—but overall, “Win Your Love for Me” is a pleasant listening experience.
“Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha” (January 1959)”: Sam’s first shot at writing song stories is somewhat compromised by the obviousness of the commercial motive to capitalize on yet another dance craze. The story is as corny as hell: Guy takes gal to dance. Everybody’s doing the cha-cha. Gal doesn’t know how to do the cha-cha and doesn’t want to embarrass herself on the dance floor. Guy teaches gal the steps. In the end, gal does the cha-cha better than guy. I keep expecting to hear canned laughter after the too-cute punch line. For the first time on the disk, Sam’s phrasing sounds a bit forced, like the guy who has a great joke and wants to make absolutely sure you get it by telling it so slowly and precisely that you start to feel insulted at the implication that you’re too thick to appreciate the humor. By the time you arrive at the denouement you’re more pissed than pleased.
“(What A) Wonderful World” March 1959: While James Dean captured teenage angst on film, the pop music of the era was more concerned with the lite version: teenage awkwardness. Sam became a solid purveyor of tales of teenage naïveté, often spun with a slightly humorous twist. In “Wonderful World” he took the original version written by Herb Alpert and Lou Adler and tinkered with the lyrics to emphasize the educational theme, creating one of the most delightful and memorable pop tunes of the era. Sam made the recording in March 1959 while still at Keen Records, a session so unmemorable that even his detail-oriented biographer can only speculate that the background vocalists are The Pilgrim Travelers with J. W. Alexander, Lou Rawls and Oopie McCurn. The song languished in demo tape purgatory for over a year; in the meantime, Sam had moved onto RCA. Keen unearthed the demo and released it just in time to compete with one of Sam’s early RCA singles. “Wonderful World” crushed the competition by hefty margin, becoming Sam’s biggest hit since “You Send Me.”
Here the use of African-American background singers pays huge dividends, giving a fairly light song more heft. Sam delivers the lines with sincere humility, playing the part of the boy who is slightly ashamed of his academic shortcomings. The implication is he fell in love with a broad with brains, so good for him! Compared to the cover version by Herman’s Hermits . . . well, there is no comparison. Peter Noone just recited the words; Sam Cooke makes you feel the boy’s insecurity so keenly that you want to get out of your chair, hug him and tell him everything will be all right.
“Only Sixteen” (May 1959): Sam originally wrote this for an up-and-coming singer named Steve Rowland, but Steve’s producer didn’t like the song. Steve was crushed but got over it, going on to produce hits by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, The Pretty Things and others. Sam went ahead and recorded it himself, complete with the softball story line and too-cute resolution (“But I was a mere lad of sixteen/I’ve aged a year since then”). The single barely cracked the Top 30, the B-side was a forgettable tune called “Let’s Go Steady Again,” so the experience served as a wake-up call that over-targeting the white teenage demographic was unlikely to produce consistent dividends. Despite his distinctive voice and first-date appeal, Sam was competing in a very crowded market space, and desperately needed a song that would separate him from the pack.
“Chain Gang” January 1960:
“We was driving along the highway, man,” said Charles, “and we saw these people working on a chain gang on the side of the road. They asked us, ‘You got any cigarettes?’ So we gave them the cigarettes we had. Then we got down the road about three or four miles, and we saw a store. Sam said, ‘Go in there and get some cigarettes for them fellows’—you understand? To take back to them. So I went in the store and bought five or six cartons, and we carried them back to the dudes that was working on the gang, it wasn’t but a few miles—and I asked the guard if it was all right to give them the cigarettes, and they thanked us, and that was it. And Sam said, ‘Man, that’s a good song. Right there.’ And just started singing, and then we went to the hotel and I put in a few words, and Sam said, ‘Why don’t you do it, man?’ But he was so good singing it I never did.”
Guralnick, Peter. Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (pp. 319-320). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.
Elder brother Charles’ description of this detour taken while traveling with his brother through North Carolina speaks volumes regarding Sam’s perspective on life and art: every experience is an opportunity to tell a story, to write a song. Whether it was Lou Rawls’ sister turning sixteen (“Only Sixteen”) or watching family members doing the cha-cha at a New Years’ Eve family gathering (“Everybody Loves to Cha-Cha-Cha”), most of Sam’s best songs are the result of immediate, spontaneous reaction to experience. Encountering these prisoners on the backroads of the Tarheel State was a particularly fortituitous moment because it inspired Sam to write about something other than heterosexual interactions.
While the basic structure and a good chunk of the lyrics came easily, the recording process proved to be more of a challenge, and after twelve takes, they left the song for another day. That space allowed Sam to make some critical adjustments to the lyrics that helped strengthen the empathetic connection to the men on the chain gang. The original first verse contained these lyrics:
All day long they work so hard
Till the sun is goin’ down
Thinking of their women at home
In their silken gowns
You hear them moanin’ their lives away
Then you hear somebody sa-ay
While the male half of the population could empathize with the pain of imposed celibacy, female listeners would just shrug and say, “Men! They’ve only got one thing on their minds!” Sam’s correction universalized the experience, shifting the focus to a subject that everyone can relate to—the drudgery of work:
All day long they work so hard
Till the sun is goin’ down
Working on the highways and byways
And wearing, wearing a frown
You hear them moanin’ their lives away
Then you hear somebody sa-ay
The contrast between the grunts and groans of the men and Sam’s empathetic voice intensifies the listening experience, presenting both the ignoble and noble tendencies of humanity in a single, vivid picture. When Sam slips into the role of prisoner on the final verses, we feel the pain in his muscles, the sweat from the oppressive heat, the ache for his woman and the utter helplessness of the situation:
(Can’t ya hear them singin’)
Mmm, I’m goin’ home one of these days I’m going home
See my woman whom I love so dear
But meanwhile I got to work right here
(All day long they’re singin’)
My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my work is so hardGive me water, I’m thirsty
My, my, my, my, my work is so hard
I’ve never heard anyone ask, “What did the men do to earn themselves a spot on the chain gang?” Sam manages to move us past our ingrained fear of criminals to help us see the men as human beings who caught a bad break. Bottom line: there are few songs in pop music history as dramatic and compelling as “Chain Gang.”
“Sad Mood” October 1960: The title pretty much sums up how Sam and his recording team felt about the song: meh. Literally no one involved liked the finished product. After the brilliance of “Chain Gang,” all Sam had to offer was “I’m sad because my baby left me,” a theme that I believe . . . let me check . . . yes . . . a theme that had been covered by 1,298,337 artists prior to Sam’s meager contribution.
“Just for You” (1961): Guralnick calls this song “bright and bouncy.” I call it “boring and blah.” The record-buying public agreed with me and stayed away in droves.
“Cupid” April 1961: Finding a follow-up hit to “Chain Gang” would prove to be more difficult than anyone expected, but Sam finally made it back to the Top 20 with a golly-gee-whiz-love-sure-is-a-funny-thing song specifically designed to appeal to the zit-infested segment of the population. The funny thing for me is no matter how silly the premise and no matter how trite the lyrics, Sam Cooke’s beautiful voice saves the day. The live version (below) sounds better to my ears, as Sam throws a touch of grit into his vocal to balance the saccharine:
“Twistin’ the Night Away” December 1961: Damn. Here’s Sam again, paying close attention to what’s hot, ignoring the trail-blazing what’s not option and trying to cash in on the #1 dance fad of the 1960’s. All that potential, pissed away in a meaningless competition with Chubby Checker and Joey Dee. Damn.
But damn if this isn’t the best twist record of them all! Sam rocks as hard as he’s ever rocked before, and his enthusiasm is downright dazzling! As for the competition, the truth is Chubby Checker couldn’t sing worth shit and Joey Dee was nothing more than the Limp White Hope.
“Sugar Dumpling” February 1962: This unremarkable, incredibly sexist song was pulled from the Twistin’ the Night Away album and released posthumously as a single in 1965. The too-busy arrangement seems to want to mirror the pre-Spector girl-group sound but turns out way too bouncy and devoid of gum-popping attitude of The Shirelles. As for the sexism . . . it’s all right there in all its ugly glory:
Oh, whenever I tell her, honey I’m hungry
Now go and fix me something to eat
This girl rushes in the kitchen
And fixes me a dinner
With seven different kinds of meatIf I call her up at two o’clock in the morning
And say, come on over if you can
Before I hang up the telephone
She’s sitting beside me
With a cup of coffee in her hand, oh
“Bring It on Home to Me” May 1962: I covered this song in the Dad’s 45 series, so I’ll take the liberty of quoting myself here: “In ‘Bring It On Home to Me,’ he managed to integrate the feel and structure of gospel into a popular music format, and the result is one of the great songs of the era. Incredibly, the song barely made it out of the gate—Dee Clark turned it down when Cooke offered it to him, and when Cooke released his version, “Having a Party” was the A-side. It’s obvious that both Sam and his old gospel buddy Lou Rawls are in the groove, but they avoid trying to match each other note for note, giving the song a more natural, let’s-sit-around-the-piano-and-sing kind of feel. The song has been covered a billion times (okay, not a billion, but it feels like it) but no one has surpassed the original and no one ever will.”
“Having a Party” May 1962: This was the A-Side? Wow. Doesn’t come close to “Bring It on Home to Me.” This is a party song? With that slow, loping music? Sounds like one dreary party to me! All you got is Cokes and popcorn? No booze? Fuck that shit—I’m outta here.
“Nothing Can Change This Love” September 1962: Nice performance, but the chord pattern is too-close, too-soon in relation to “Bring It on Home to Me.” This was another song that Guralnick thought was the bees knees, but it does nothing for me, and I find René Hall’s syrupy arrangement downright offensive . . . but only half as offensive as one that comes later in the program.
“Little Red Rooster” February 1963: Sam’s version of the Howlin’ Wolf classic is way too slick for my tastes, and Billy Preston’s attempts to channel Perez Prado with animal sound effects on the organ turn this one into something that belongs on Dr. Demento. Sam! Tell me a story! I like it when you tell me a story!
“Another Saturday Night” February 1963: With his looks, bod and irresistible charm, Sam Cooke could have gotten laid within an hour upon arrival in any town in the U. S. A., and the history shows he pretty much did just that. On one occasion he wound up at a prim-and-proper establishment and was informed by management that entertaining ladies in his room violated both decorum and hotel policy. While Sam still managed to get his rocks off that night by relocating to a less stuffy establishment, the experience stuck with him, and through the unusual alchemy in his creative mind, he transformed his inconvenience into an empathetic story of a guy who lacks the means and circumstances to pass the night between the legs of a delectable female.
What I love about the song is that it’s grounded in the world where people live paycheck to paycheck and choose to spend their earnings on having a good time instead of saving for a future they can’t see or a retirement they can’t imagine:
Another Saturday night
And I ain’t got nobody
I got some money ’cause I just got paid
To a single male working stiff with a few bucks in his pocket back in 1963, the first option was always to use the money to impress the chicks in the hope of eventually hitting the poontang jackpot. Plan B was to piss it away doing dumb shit with the guys. Sadly, our hero is an out-of-towner and despite repeated efforts all he can come up with his a blind date with a chick who resembles “a cat named Frankenstein.” Hmm. While I’m uncomfortable with people making fun of other people’s looks (beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all), I’ll accept his status as a product of a highly conformist society, take Sam’s lead and empathize with the feeling of being all alone in a strange town. That fucking sucks, and Sam’s acting performance here makes you want to (again) give the guy a hug. Sam Cooke truly had a gift for awakening the empathetic gene in others.
“That’s Where It’s At” August 1963: If any song could be cited as evidence supporting the “King of Soul” moniker, it’s “That’s Where It’s At.” Sam had written the song a couple of years before for the Sims Twins and wasn’t entirely happy with the semi-sparkling mood of their version. The final recording you hear is the result of thirty-two takes, with Sam struggling to find the right vocal tone, rhythmic integration and horn support. Once Bobby Womack switched to higher notes on the scale with his tremolo guitar and Sam ordered the band to pick up the pace a bit, the song started to come together. Sam approaches the vocal with a combination of grit, gentle humor and heartfelt soul, beautifully integrated with subdued, almost funereal horns and Womack’s delicate guitar work. The result is far more Atlantic than Motown, more Otis Redding than Marvin Gaye, but the final version is a pure soul number that influenced the direction of the emerging genre. Withheld from release for more than a year, “That’s Where It’s At” barely cracked the top 100, but has endured as one of Sam’s greatest contributions to music. Absolutely love it.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” January 1964“: Many consider this song Sam’s masterpiece, and once you get past René Hall’s ludicrous, cinematic introduction that resembles an introduction to a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza, you can understand why. Once the grandiose introduction passes into history, Sam takes over with a beautiful vengeance, his voice peppered with a touch of grit that expresses the exhausting agony of the black experience in the United States as profoundly as any singer before or since.
In the opening verse, he places himself beside a river, that powerful, multi-faceted symbol of American mythology. Here the river is superficially the symbol of journey and escape, but the more important meaning is found in the subtext: the river is also a place where a man can reflect on the journey and his place within the passage of time:
I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
We see the manifestation of self-reflection in the second verse, where Sam expresses not only his deepest feelings but stunningly admits he has begun to question one of his most cherished beliefs: the existence of god.
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
The doubt he experiences is not an uncommon experience for Christians; the four gospels contain several stories of doubt concerning Jesus, from John the Baptist questioning whether or not he was the true messiah to “doubting Thomas” and his refusal to believe in the resurrection until he could touch the wounds of crucifixion. Sam had spent his life immersed in those stories, and knew that Christ never criticized or judged anyone who expressed doubt, instead engaging in dialogue with the skeptic, letting his actions speak for themselves. When you consider the line through that lens, you realize that Sam hasn’t abandoned his faith, but is expressing deep pain caused by the extreme challenges that life often presents to the faithful. In Sam’s case, those challenges included the recent accidental death of his young son Vincent and the perpetual challenge of his blackness in a society steeped in racist traditions.
After attempting to reassure himself that “a change gonna come, oh yes, it will,” he describes the shared experience of the black person in American society (instead of the personal experience of his arrest in Shreveport for “disturbing the peace” a few months before):
I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin’ me don’t hang around
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees, oh
The dehumanizing experience of racism and the violent response of the racist to the cry for help would make anyone doubt there’s a better life ahead. The front-line non-violent soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement lived with brutality and the threat of death every day of their lives, but this was the first time Sam had placed his own career on the line to support that movement. That courageous step leads to the uplifting conclusion, where Sam realizes that one change has already come: the change in himself. He has come to grips with the humiliating experience of the black man in a racist society, releasing his pain through the medium of music, as so many of his kind have done for over a century:
There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will
Curiously, after the song was put to disc, Sam performed “A Change Is Gonna Come” only once in his lifetime, and did so very reluctantly (on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, at the insistence of his manager, Allen Klein). An NPR piece on the song cited a conversation with Bobby Womack that sheds some light on Sam’s resistance: “When he first played it for Bobby Womack, who was his protégé, he said, ‘What’s it sound like?’ And Bobby said, ‘It sounds like death.’ Sam said, ‘Man, that’s kind of how it sounds like to me. That’s why I’m never going to play it in public.'” It is likely that Sam was justifiably concerned that going too far on the “race issue” would alienate his white audience (consider what happened to Nina Simone), but I think it’s equally true that the soul-shattering experience of doubt had as much to do with it as the desire for a reliable revenue stream. Despite his abandonment of the song, “A Change Is Gonna Come” has become one of the most cherished songs in American music, and one of Sam’s most remarkable achievements.
(Ain’t That) Good News” March 1964: The title track from Sam’s best-selling album since 1958’s Songs by Sam Cooke is an exuberant riff on an old gospel song, secularized by Sam to change the pending arrival from Jesus’ second coming to the return of his apologetic squeeze. The exuberance comes in part from Sam’s upbeat lyrics, in part from a snappy beat but mostly from René Hall’s arrangement mingling banjo with horn. As a card-carrying member of The Anti-Banjo League, I have no idea why the banjo works here, but it does!
“Good Times” July 1964: Borrowing a phrase from Louis Jordan’s jazzy blues hit “Let The Good Times Roll,” Sam tries to match Jordan’s enthusiasm and falls far short. Guralnick points out the “elegiac tone” in this song that completely contradicts the lyrics celebrating an all-nighter where “time means nothing to me.” That tone comes from the shift to a minor chord near the end of each rendition of the chorus, an odd choice indeed. Sam’s voice sounds unusually strained to me, as if he’s trying with all his might to overcome the mood he created in the musical structure. Though the single sold well, the song would not fully realize its potential until Phoebe Snow eliminated the minor chord when she covered it on her debut album—her version is sheer perfection.
“Tennessee Waltz” July 1964: What’s important about Sam covering this tired tune popularized by Patti Page is that it’s entirely out of place in the timeline: it seems to belong in the period following “You Send Me” when he was straddling the line between the R&B crowd and Easy Listening. Given the evidence of “A Change Is Going to Come,” “Good Times” and “Tennessee Waltz,” one can only conclude Sam’s music in 1964 reflected an internal struggle between the desire to please the crowd and the artistic urge for free self-expression. This track appears on Ain’t That Good News, where Sam explored a range of styles and musical possibilities, applying Blake’s wisdom that “Without Contraries is no progression.” Sorry, but this one’s a little too contrary for my tastes.
“Meet Me at Mary’s Place” July 1964: Recorded at the same session as “Tennessee Waltz” and “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,” this tender tribute to the generosity of gospel fan Mary Trapp also appears on Ain’t That Good News. Mary had a roomy place in Charlotte that served as the boarding house for many a traveling gospel troupe, and the song recalls the good-time feel of gospel without a single reference to religion and spirituality. The Soul Stirrers provide the joyous background vocals, and Sam responds in kind. Guralnick hears an “almost indelible atmosphere of regret” stemming from Sam’s departure from the gospel ranks, but what I hear is a semi-nostalgic remembrance of good times and no regrets whatsoever about moving on.
“Shake” November 1964: Guralnick calls this “as unapologetic a pure rhythm number as he had ever cut,” and the rhythmic intensity Sam brings to his vocal is off-the-charts. The immediate inspiration came from Bobby Freeman’s “C’mon and Swim,” but given his sensitivity to emerging trends, it should come as no surprise that Sam had a higher purpose—to move his sound in the direction he felt music was heading:
It was the definition of what Sam kept telling everyone who would listen was the coming trend in popular music and r&b, something that, like James Brown’s raw extemporizations, the Valentinos’ and the Rolling Stones’ rough-edged rock ’n’ roll, was conveyed as much by rhythm and attitude as it was by vocal technique. It used to be, he explained, that sound brought attention to the lyric, but what you needed to do now was to find sounds—as opposed to words—that could emotionally move an audience. And that was precisely what he had achieved here.
Ibid. p. 607.
Channeling the song through my deliciously filthy mind, what I hear is Sam’s unbound libido pouring out through the speakers. “Shake” is the hottest fucking thing he ever did.
It’s difficult to absorb the fact that Sam Cooke would be dead a month after recording a song as vibrant as “Shake.” After years of trying to forge a truce between the often conflicting drives involving the pursuit of commercial success and the motivation to produce work of enduring value, Sam Cooke seemed to be truly coming into his own, expanding the scope of his repertoire and imbuing his music with new-found energy. His late-stage music seemed to open up a universe of possibilities for him, and he was about to enter an era that celebrated originality, artistic diversity and non-conformity. It would have been glorious to experience Sam Cooke truly unleashed, leading the crowd instead of following it, applying his appreciable talent for storytelling and his extraordinarily expressive voice to the creation of music that moved minds, hearts and souls.
Alas, it was not to be.
If you want to hear truly great music from 1959 to 1963, forget about rock ‘n’ roll. Head over to the jazz section instead.
While jazz gave us masterworks like Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, Time Out, Mingus Ah Um, Free Jazz, Sketches of Spain, The Bridge and more, rock ‘n’ roll limped along on life support. While there were some promising developments on the R&B side of life, rock ‘n’ roll had become watered down, maddeningly predictable and dreadfully safe.
The primary virtue of the popular music during this period is that it stands up pretty well when compared to today’s over-produced, over-marketed, over-technologized shit that dominates the airwaves and video channels. The artists seemed more genuine, humble and less full of themselves, largely because few of them could get rich in an era of artist-unfriendly royalty and session payments and a touring system that made it challenging for many artists to break even. I’d take any of these folks over greedy, egomaniac losers like Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry . . . even Brian Hyland and his Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.
My father’s collection during this period was a triumph of quantity over quality. Since there are few lawns to mow in San Francisco and no kid in his right mind would take a paper route that forced you to ride your bike over steep hills through freezing fogs, dad was lucky to have a father with a construction business, enabling him to earn the princely wage of a fifty cents an hour on Saturdays and five days a week during the cold summer months in The City. He spent nearly all his earnings on records, baseball gear and, later in his teens, concerts. The sheer quantity of sides is mind-boggling when you consider that he didn’t start buying his own records until November 1961; the records before that date were either inherited from his brother or the result of sometimes shrewd trading. The best of the bunch are covered here and in my reviews of The Beach Boys‘ Sounds of Summer, Dion and the Belmonts’ Greatest Hits, the Smokey Robinson segment in the Motown Series and in Roy Orbison’s Playlist.
But jeez maneez, there was a lot of crap in that pile! Sugary, sappy Elvis singles. Loads of forgettable dance hits. Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” Jimmy Darren’s “Goodbye Cruel World.” Neil Fucking Sedaka. “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” by Charlie Drake. “Johnny Angel” by Shelly Fabares AND “My Dad” by Paul Petersen. “Hey Paula” by Paul and Paula. The Lettermen, for fuck’s sake.
And no less than four Brian Hyland 45’s, INCLUDING “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.” And he traded for it!
I’m thinking of having that senseless act engraved on his tombstone.
Of the twenty-eight 45’s I selected, only two, maybe three, qualify as rock ‘n’ roll. The best of the rest come from girl singers, girl groups and African-American artists (also heavily represented in the girl singer and girl group categories). Soul was clearly moving into its prime—you can draw a straight line from the music of this era to the golden period of Motown, Stax and Atlantic. On the flip side, if someone had told you back in 1962 that rock ‘n’ roll would soon be rescued from oblivion by four guys from Liverpool, you would have immediately concluded that the guy had a screw loose somewhere. No one—especially no one in the United States—could see The Beatles coming. All the signs pointed to an early demise for rock ‘n’ roll, and none of the artists of this period came close to reigniting its smoldering ruins.
Then again, everyone assumed that JFK would be president for eight years before turning the reins over to Bobby. No one could foresee that America would piss away its resources, its moral standing and more than 50,000 young men in an Asian jungle . . . but we’re getting way ahead of our story. Let’s return to 1959, to the waning days of the Eisenhower administration when Vietnam was a tiny zit on America’s ass and the U. S. A. was a happy, benevolent and generally peaceful place where everything went according to plan (thanks to the C. I. A.) and the future would be one of endless progress as long as those durned Negroes didn’t stir up too much trouble.
“What’d I Say Parts 1 and 2,” Ray Charles, July 1959: The experience of listening to this 45 felt like I’d stepped back into the age of The Flintstones, when Fred had to power his stone-wheeled car with his feet. Because the seven-and-a-half minute recording exceeded the 3-minute max rule imposed by radio, the producers decided to split it up into two parts on two separate sides, whacking a few “shake that thing” passages in a vain attempt to cool down the heat generated by Ray and The Raelettes. Maybe if I had been born in the 50’s I wouldn’t have thought it a hassle to get my ass out of the seat and turn the record over to hear the rest of the song, but this girl found the experience intensely annoying and worthy of the heartfelt “oh, for fuck’s sake” I flung into the ether. The experience was like having a guy bang me with all his might only to suddenly pull out for a minute to trim his toenails.
Tip: Don’t fuck with the 45. Get the full version and have a great fuck.
From the electric piano intro to the visceral sounds of the call-and-response between Ray and The Raylettes, “What I’d Say” works on two levels. For the technical connoisseur, “What I’d Say” is the blessed marriage between gospel and R&B that spawned a new genre called soul music. For the person who seeks enjoyment through music and couldn’t give a damn about origins, influences or classifications, “What I’d Say” is a ringing endorsement of more open sexual expression in music. As Ray famously said, “I’m not one to interpret my own songs, but if you can’t figure out ‘What I’d Say’, then something’s wrong. Either that, or you’re not accustomed to the sweet sounds of love.” The exchange of pre-orgasmic vocalizations punctuated by Ray’s screams of delight express far more sexuality than the clever euphemisms permissible in the era. “What I’d Say” is sexual heat turned into music, and given my active libido, it should come as no surprise to my readers that I fucking love this song.
“You’re Gonna Miss Me,” Connie Francis, August 1959: Concetta Franconero was the girl all the girls wanted to be, thanks in part to the name change that turned her into the more WASP-ish Connie Francis. Like Patsy Cline and Ruth Brown, she entered the public eye after recording a song she couldn’t stand, “Who’s Sorry Now?” She followed that monster hit with a couple of clunkers, then turned to Neil Sedaka for “Stupid Cupid,” a vacuous piece of tripe that cracked the Top 20 and made her the darling of the squeaky clean rock ‘n’ roll set. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” was supposed to be her follow-up hit to the perfectly silly “Lipstick on Your Collar,” but it never charted higher than the low 30’s. Well, screw that! This is my favorite Connie Francis song! Possessing one of the most purely beautiful voices to ever grace the recording studio, what makes “You’re Gonna Miss Me” stand out is her phrasing, full of marvelous off-rhythm lines and subtle pauses that lend a palpable sincerity to her performance. Her repetition of “miss me” in the song’s climax sounds like a woman fighting the pain of rejection with all her might while begging the guy who kicked her to the side of the road to feel some regret about losing her. An exquisite performance!
“Poison Ivy,” The Coasters, August 1959: I’m not a huge fan of The Coasters, as I think most of their stuff crosses the line into novelty. My dad has a few of their 45’s, and I chose this Leiber-Stoller number because it was the least “cute.” I do like the diversity of their voices and their collective energy, and the integration of Latin touches adds a bit of spice. Still, I feel rather blah about the song, and I think Jerry Leiber’s fifty-years-later claim that “Poison Ivy” is about venereal disease is absolute horseshit, a lame attempt to make the pop songs they wrote seem more socially significant than they were.
“Money (That’s What I Want),” Barrett Strong, February 1960: There are two famous versions of “Money,” and both are first-rate performances. The Beatles’ version is lustful, greedy madness; Barrett Strong’s original is more cynical and street-wise—an attitude of “That’s the way the world works, so get over it.” I get seriously hot and bothered by the pounding toms backing Barrett during the verses, and find myself enthralled by Eugene Crew’s distorted guitar licks. This Janie Bradford-Berry Gordy composition turned out to be Motown’s first hit (on Tamla), and for that alone we should be forever grateful.
“Walk, Don’t Run,” The Ventures, July 1960: Instrumental music was much more popular during the 50’s and 60’s than it is in our rap-infested present. Percy Faith’s “Theme from a Summer Place” (1960) and Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” (1962) were the best-selling singles in their respective years. Whether cause or effect, one noticeable cultural difference between those days and ours (noticeable when you’ve spent as many hours I have studying American cultural history through film and television) is that the people back then spent a helluva lot more time whistling and humming. When I shared this hypothesis with my dad, he agreed: “Yeah, when you were working or waiting for someone, you’d either whistle or have a smoke if you were old enough.” In the twelve years I’ve spent in the modern office-bound workforce, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone whistle on the job, and the only person I’ve ever heard humming is me. If true, the many wordless records of the period served a valuable purpose by supplying committed whistlers and hummers with new tunes to keep them sharp.
The instrumentals mentioned above definitely fall into the easy listening camp, but the kids had their instrumentals, too. Those instrumentals largely placed the guitar at the forefront. While the impact of Bill Doggett, Bill Justis, Duane Eddy, Dick Dale and The Ventures wasn’t particularly noticeable during this down period of rock ‘n’ roll, a lot of those guys who became guitar heroes after the British Invasion restored rock to pre-eminence learned their chops by trying to replicate the sounds and moves they heard in “Raunchy,” “Rebel Rouser” and “Walk, Don’t Run.”
The Ventures’ version of “Walk Don’t Run” is vastly different from the original Johnny Smith composition, a cool jazz number that would likely be completely unrecognizable to a Ventures fan. The Ventures based their version on Chet Atkins’ cover, a sweetly-picked, laid-back rendition.
You would never connect the phrase “laid-back” with The Ventures’ version of “Walk, Don’t Run.” The opening rimshot-laden snare roll must have aroused the hell out of listeners used to the sonorous sounds of The Fleetwoods, and once you think things are about to settle down with the shift to the ONE-two-three-four rhythm and a brief rhythm guitar chord intro, Bob Bogle enters the fray and delivers a whammy-bar punctuated, slick-picking extravaganza. The sheer speed of The Ventures’ version is breathtaking, and while they would release multiple versions of the song over the years (including disco and metal versions), the original is the one that influenced a generation of budding guitarists who would change rock forever in the years ahead.
“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” The Shirelles, December 1960: The Shirelles were the prototypical girl group of the era, and my dad has nearly all their big hits. Frankly, I find them the least interesting of the girl groups of the period; their vocals rather dull and flat compared to The Chiffons or The Crystals. I chose this one because of its period-piece value as a story about a girl contemplating a lifetime as a branded slut because she really, really wants to give into her horny teenage companion’s bullshit entreaties. I’m sure the song reflected the genuine angst many girls felt during those pre-pill, pre-liberation times, but the notion that the girl will be the one to experience a damaged reputation while the guy and his pecker get off scot-free is absolutely appalling to me. The girl in the song is terribly naive; when she sings “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes,” I want to scream, “That’s not love, that’s testosterone! Run for your life!” This early Goffin-King number helped make them darlings of the Brill Building and worthy competitors to the Leiber-Stoller empire.
“Runaway,” Del Shannon, March 1961: Geez. If it feels like it took a helluva a long time to get to a genuine, certifiable rock ‘n’ roll song, you’re right! On the other hand, if “Runaway” is all you have to keep the faith, you’re in pretty good shape. This song has everything—a killer arpeggiated guitar intro, a no-holds barred vocal from Del, and the curious sound of the Musitron, the invention of one Max Crook, who had been one of Del’s mates in a band with the incredibly long name of Charlie Johnson and the Big Little Show Band. The song moves like wildfire, never letting up until the fade. “Runaway” is two minutes and seventeen seconds of bliss that makes you want to hear more Del Shannon. You may want to rethink that after flipping the disc to hear “Jody,” where Del sounds like he’s ready for his last rites. The lack of quality material plagued Del throughout his career, but in “Runaway,” he gave us one of the greatest songs in rock history, no small achievement.
“Runaway” was a must at our annual family bashes, with my uncle (the guy who gave my dad his 50’s records) taking the lead vocal and doing a damn fine job with it . . . until the falsetto peak in the chorus. Yours truly stepped in and filled the gap, and after a couple of years they called on us to perform by shouting, “It’s time for Big Del and Little Del!” For a while my dad used that as my nickname until I threatened to forever damage his sexual prowess with one swift kick, so he switched to “sunshine” in honor of my blonde mane and perpetually sweet disposition.
“Mother In-Law,” Ernie K-Doe, April 1961: Not all songs in this era were about loves gained, lost or left at the laundromat. Some songs dealt with genuine threats to social stability, and if you watch the sitcoms of the period, there was no greater threat facing the American people than . . . the Mother-in-Law. Ralph almost lost Alice when he called her mother a “BLABBERMOUTH” and Ricky lived in mortal fear of Lucy’s. The mother-in-law was a comic meme of the period: everyone knew she was the ultimate symbol of evil.
Allen Toussaint’s lyrics are a stinging indictment of this dreaded presence, and (after several takes), Ernie K. Doe finally connected with the bitter, semi-comic animus in those words. Shee-it, does Ernie let her have it! “The worst person I know.” “Satan should be her name.” “Sent from down below.” Whoa, Ernie! His bitterness finally coalesces into an action plan in the last verse when she questions his masculinity. You see, back then, real men had to earn money to validate their machismo:
I come home with my pay
She asks me what I made
She thinks her advice is the constitution
But if she would leave that would be the solution
And don’t come back no more
One more thing: I don’t know who that is singing the low bass refrain but I proclaim now that he’s the greatest singer who ever lived and I want to fuck him.
“Travelin’ Man”/”Hello Mary Lou,” Ricky Nelson, April 1961: Rick Nelson is often dismissed as a relic, a teen idol during a relatively dull period in rock history, a privileged son of show business parents whose fame was based more on regular television exposure than genuine musical talent. You can file that perception into the “bullshit” category, for Rick Nelson not only loved music but took it seriously at a very early age, long before displaying his talents on Ozzie and Harriet. He could have sold millions of records based on fame and looks alone, but instead of settling for mediocrity, he insisted on working with the best musicians and recording professionals of the era (and had the resources to secure their services). While his vocals lack the energy of Elvis or Little Richard, he knew how to work within his limitations. He wasn’t a great rocker, but he did okay for himself.
This was a double-sided hit, and I prefer the original b-side, “Hello, Mary Lou,” to “Travelin’ Man,” for two reasons. First, Rick Nelson has absolutely zero credibility playing the role of a man who journeys around the world bonking babes in every port of call. Second, while he does a yeoman’s job with the vocal on “Travelin’ Man,” it is more than obvious that he is much more comfortable and energetic with the rockabilly sway of “Hello, Mary Lou.” Once he stopped being Ricky Nelson and had a little freedom, he would move decisively in that direction.
“Travelin’ Man” does present us with a question. Why wasn’t Ricky Nelson hunted down by white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan? In “Travelin’ Man” he does the deed with a Mexican chick, an Asian chick and a Pacific Islander. That’s interracial sex! Filthy miscegenation! Sure, he slips it to a German broad, but she was probably a dominatrix! That pervert! And wait, wasn’t it sinful even for a man to have premarital sex back then? Shit, man, if Rick Nelson were alive today and released this song, the Christian Right would be all over his wandering ass!
“Tossin’ and Turnin'” by Bobby Lewis, April 1961: #1 for not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six . . . but seven consecutive weeks! Bobby Lewis had learned his craft from the great blues singers, and he put his lessons to work in an exceptionally energetic all-out performance. The background singers are a bit stiff in comparison but a minor distraction when Bobby Lewis is on fire. The horn section knocks it out of the park on the stop-time bridge in one of the tightest ensemble performances on record. I pronounce myself both surprised and almost elated that such an energetic song could have such a strong appeal to a rather dull generation of Americans.
“Quarter to Three,” Gary U. S. Bonds, May 1961: It may not be garage rock, but it’s got the primitive sound and unrestrained energy of “Hey Joe” by The Leaves (which I’ll cover in Part Four). Gary competes with Bobby Lewis for Most Energetic Vocal of 1961 and gives him a good run for his money. One of many songs in this period recorded in a party atmosphere, what separates the song from the other party songs of the era is . . . you really want to be at this party! Step aside, folks, I’ve got to shake my thing! Do the Mashed Potatoes! Twist like we did last summer! Bartender! Another highball on the rocks!
“Stand By Me,” Ben E. King, May 1961: I was totally pissed when I found my father’s vaunted collection did not include my #1 favorite Ben E. King song, “Spanish Harlem,” but it’s hard to stay mad when your back-up is “Stand by Me.” King wrote this with Leiber-Stoller (they were EVERYWHERE in the 50’s and 60’s), using what would be called the “50’s Progression,” a I-vi-IV-V pattern you hear in dozens of songs, from Rosie & the Originals’ “Angel Baby” to the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” “Stand by Me” masks the pattern somewhat with a subtle arrangement opening with bass and handheld percussion, later supported by strings that are poured on a little too thick for my tastes. But I don’t listen to “Stand by Me” for the string arrangement, but for Ben E. King’s jaw-dropping vocal. Man, if ever a guy deserved to leave a group and go solo, it was Ben E. King. Ben used Sam Cooke as a model for his vocal, and his passionate plea for unconditional love combines the best of gospel and R&B. The timelessness of Ben E. King’s version is unquestioned; it was a top ten hit in two separate decades with a 26-year gap between releases.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, November 1961: Forever honored as my father’s first music purchase, I asked him to describe what appealed to him about the song. “The guys singing ‘Wimoweh.’ I just loved those syllables and the way they snapped out the word. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.” The Tokens transformed an old South African folk song into a doo-wop masterpiece, and even this anti-silliness chick found herself getting caught up in the excitement generated by the arrangement. And there in the background, without much in the way of credit, you can hear the lovely voice of opera singer Anita Darian on counterpoint. Damn fine piece of work.
“Shake Your Money Maker,” Elmore James, December 1961 (uncharted): The crown jewel of dad’s collection of this era, I was absolutely stunned to see the orange and black Fire Records label in the pile. “How did you get your hands on this?” I screamed. “You’re not going to believe it,” he laughed. “I was walking through the Fillmore one day and found this half-assed yard sale—a bunch of junk spread out over the front stairs—and I caught a stack of records leading against one of the steps with Elmore James right on top. I picked up the record and the woman who was running the sale said, ‘That’s the devil’s music. You take it away, white boy, you take it away and you go to the devil.’ I thought she was giving it away and so I took it and started to leave and she screamed, ‘Five dollars!’ I didn’t have five dollars, but I gave her two bucks and some change and she seemed okay with it.”
That now makes four times my dad got lucky: meeting my mother, having me, winning an Aretha Franklin record on a call-in radio promo and finding an original Elmore James single.
I had been planning to do a full review of Elmore James’ The Best of the Fire Sessions, but every time I started to write it, it sounded more like porn than a music review. Yes, even I have my limits.
Elmore James was fire personified, and his sessions with Fire Records were absolutely fierce. The covers of this song not only pale in comparison, they fucking vanish. This song rocks with such intensity that it takes your breath away . . . and it ends way too soon. Legend has it that Elmore and his band, The Broomdusters, would play this song for thirty minutes straight and leave the crowd begging for more. Shit, I would have come at least fifteen times! The band is tight, the rhythm rollicking and Elmore’s slide substitution for the dirty deed is an irresistible tease. Some feminists may object to the prostitution implications, but most feminists are women in need of a great fuck to get them back in touch with their moneymakers. It’s a source of power, you idiots! I made my dad promise me he would leave me “Shake Your Moneymaker” in his will when he kicks the bucket. Goddamn, what a song!
“Duke of Earl,” Gene Chandler, January 1962: The only way to explain “Duke of Earl” to the aliens is to tell them that it’s a testament to the attraction of human voices melding together in song, because the lyrics are flat-out silly. In the role of self-proclaimed Duke of Earl, Gene Chandler’s regal arrogance is patently absurd, and we’re not exactly sure what this dukedom of his is all about. Is it a fantasy of a struggling nobody or the ravings of a megalomaniac? I mean, Gene actually sounds like he’s strutting through his country estate wearing his dukely robes (or whatever dukes wear), pointing out the sweep of the landscape to the girl he intends to transform into a duchess. Ridiculous!
Okay. To listen properly to “Duke of Earl,” you have to shut down the analyst in your brain completely. You cannot question Gene’s sanity. You have to believe he is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Shh! Shh! Just sit back, relax and listen to the voices.
Cool, huh! I bet you started singing along with the second round of “duke-duke-duke-of-earl!” You can’t help yourself! And yes, when Gene ends the verses with the “yay, yay, yay, yay,” you try to belt it out along with him! And now Gene doesn’t sound silly—he’s a man completely immersed in his role, and his goal is to make his life sound as grand and enticing as possible so he can secure his duchess for all eternity. What a romantic!
It also helps to remember that “Duke of Earl” started out as a joke. Once upon a time there was a guy named Eugene Dixon who sang with a group called The Dukays, was warming up his voice with a “do-do-do-do” pattern along with another Dukay named Earl Edwards. Eugene started riffing on the pattern, and thinking of the name of his singing buddy, out came “du-duke-duke-of-Earl.” The pair then worked out the full song with songwriter Bernice Williams and The Dukays recorded it. The record company refused to release it under The Dukays’ name, but gave Eugene the option of releasing it as a solo artist. He then slipped into a phone booth, changed into a duke’s costume and out came Gene Chandler, The Duke of Earl.
Okay, I lied about the phone booth, but the rest is true.
“Duke of Earl” works because the singers were fully committed to making it work; it is the wonderful sound of human voices uniting to create a compelling tapestry of sound.
If you’re still having a hard time explaining this to the aliens, show them this clip from the NYPD Blue episode, “Large Mouth Bass.” I used to watch the show religiously when I was a teenager because I loved the character of Andy Sipowicz and I had a serious crush on Jimmy Smits. If the aliens don’t get it after watching this scene, you can assume that they’re really dumb aliens and you don’t have to worry about them taking over the planet.
“The One Who Really Loves You,” Mary Wells, March 1962: The artistic marriage of Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson produced a string of hits for Mary, all the way up to and including her signature song, “My Guy.” My dad has all her hits, and I had considered doing a piece on Mary for my Great Broads series, but it was just one too many depressing female life stories for me to deal with in a series full of depressing life stories. Choosing one single was challenging, and originally I had planned to do “Two Lovers” based on my extensive experience with simultaneous multiple intimate relationships. Sounded like a natural for the altrockchick! The problem I ran into is that the song isn’t as daring as the title implies, for in the end you find out that there aren’t really two lovers but one lover with a split personality.
I chose “The One Who Really Loves You” for Mary’s commanding vocal, supported by Smokey Robinson’s brilliant production featuring deep-voiced background vocals from The Love Tones and instrumentation from the original Funk Brothers, who would provide most of the great supporting music during Motown’s peak years. As is true with most Smokey Robinson songs, the chord structure is far more interesting than most of the songs of the era, with verses that begin in C major resolving to a Dm7, and a very clever pattern on the bridge that winds up on G major to create a more natural link to the verse. The premise that you can talk a horny young guy out of wanting to bang every piece of ass that comes his way is profoundly silly, but Mary sells it with her extreme confidence in herself.
“Bring It On Home to Me,” Sam Cooke, June 1962: While Sam Cooke’s pop songs are a mixed bag, I’ll take “Wonderful World” over most of the pop in that era because even when the material is spotty, that’s Sam Cooke singing, and it doesn’t get much better than that. In “Bring It On Home to Me,” he managed to integrate the feel and structure of gospel into a popular music format, and the result is one of the great songs of the era. Incredibly, the song barely made it out of the gate—Dee Clark turned it down when Cooke offered it to him, and when Cooke released his version, “Having a Party” was the A-side. It’s obvious that both Sam and his old gospel buddy Lou Rawls are in the groove, but they avoid trying to match each other note for note, giving the song a more natural, let’s-sit-around-the-piano-and-sing kind of feel. The song has been covered a billion times (okay, not a billion, but it feels like it) but no one has surpassed the original and no one ever will.
“The Loco-Motion,” Little Eva, June 1962: Yes, my dad has most of the dance records from this era. He’s got Dee Dee Sharp doing the Mashed Potatoes, he’s got Bobby Freeman doing The Swim, he’s got The Orlons Watusi-ing around the dance floor, and yes, he’s got Chubby Checker, twisting, pony-ing, limbo-ing and twisting, twisting and twisting himself into a pretzel.
I loathe them all.
The shining exception to the Dance Tunes Suck rule is Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion.” Another tune from Gerry Goffin and Carole King, they pitched the song to Dee Dee Sharp as a follow-up to her smash hit, “Mashed Potato Time.” Adhering to the limited culinary norms of the time, Dee Dee decided to stick with mashed potatoes and went with a song called “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)” that pierced the Top 10 and is completely forgotten today. Running out of options, the pair turned to their babysitter, who had recorded the demo, and Eva Boyd of Belhaven, North Carolina, became Little Eva, pop star.
“The Loco-Motion” was an unusual dance song in one key respect: the dance did not exist when Goffin and King wrote the song. Little Eva covered for them and made one up on the fly. I suppose they had to have a dance to go along with a dance song (duh), but I’ve listened to the song a hundred times and never once felt motivated to do the Loco-Motion or even bother to learn the moves. What makes “The Loco-Motion” a great song is a fabulous arrangement combining sax drone, an ass-shaking beat, spot-on background vocals (featuring Carole King) and Little Eva’s enthusiastic, confident and unpolished vocal—and I mean “unpolished” in the most positive sense of the word. Little Eva sounds like Everygirl, just like Danny Rapp sounded like the kid you knew from high school on “At the Hop.” No one tried to Eliza Doolittle-ize her by cleaning up Eva’s accent or sharpening her pronunciation, and she sounds marvelous.
“The Loco-Motion” is the only song to make the Top 10 in three different versions in three different decades. Grand Funk Railroad’s version topped the charts in 1974 and Kylie Minogue’s rendition made it to #3 in the late 80’s. That’s a tribute to the strength of the song itself, but Little Eva’s version will always be #1 in my book.
“If I Had a Hammer,” Peter, Paul & Mary, August 1962: My dad has always been something of a folkie. His daughter isn’t—at least not an American folkie. I love folk music, just not American folk music. The exceptions to the rule are artists who were a bit quirky, like Phil Ochs and Malvina Reynolds. My favorite folk traditions are British, Irish and Bulgarian. I find nearly all the American folk heroes you care to name too preachy, too political, too sentimental or too obvious.
I had to pick one single from the mix to acknowledge the existence of the folk revival in the early 60’s, and I liked this one the best, primarily because Mary Travers takes the lead vocal and the two boring guys with the beards are relegated to the background. I find the lyrics to this Pete Seeger-Lee Hays song completely inane, and that’s coming from a confirmed socialist. The line I find most absurd is “I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.” People! The day when we all put aside our differences and love one another ain’t ever gonna happen! Do you even like everyone you’ve met in your life? I don’t! And even if I could learn to like the grumpy old woman who runs the boulangerie or the guy who ripped me off by selling me my piece of shit first car, I’m never going to love Donald Trump, members of ISIS or Jimmy Swaggart! Not in the realm of possibility! It’s already hard enough to get people to accept other people with superficial differences like skin color or buy into the fact that there are different ways for adults to manifest love and affection. Personally, I’d hammer, ring and sing about having the freedom to live my own life in peace without having to be afraid of getting my head blown off by some mentally ill religious wacko who has been programmed to believe that I represent evil because I wear lipstick and reveal my cleavage. I’ll take that freedom and run with it!
“He’s a Rebel,” The Crystals (er, The Blossoms), September 1962: Phil Spector deserves credit for the technical advance known as the Wall of Sound, which provided more depth and oomph to records in an era when a producer had to deal with the severe limitations imposed by AM radio and monaural sound. He was also a flaming asshole who treated artists like shit. “He’s a Rebel” confirms his status as both a trailblazer and major league jerk.
Gene Pitney (a much better songwriter than a singer) wrote “He’s a Rebel” for The Shirelles, who took a pass. Phil Spector was interested in having The Crystals record the song, but heard through the grapevine that a version by Vikki Carr was in the works, and damn it all, The Crystals were out on tour and couldn’t possibly make it into the studio before Vikki stole Phil’s thunder. Such a conundrum presented no problem for a man with no sense of ethics, so Spector had a local group named The Blossoms record the track and then released it under The Crystals’ name.
That’s called balls, and if I’d been the lead singer of The Crystals, Phil Spector would be missing his.
That lead singer, Barbara Alston, couldn’t mimic the sound of Darlene Love, the lead singer of The Blossoms. Truth be told, Barbara wasn’t really all that comfortable as the front girl, so she stepped aside in favor of fellow Crystal Dolores “La La” Brooks. The shift would bear fruit in 1963, but jeez, what a shitty way to implement a personnel decision.
Despite the hoo-hah, I love the song and the production. The message was intensely appropriate for a culture hell-bent on conformity:
He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good
He’s a rebel ’cause he never ever does what he should
But just because he doesn’t do what everybody else does
That’s no reason why I can’t give him all my love
You go, Barbara . . . er, Darlene!
“Up On the Roof,” The Drifters, November 1962: There has never been a group with a name so suited to their history. The Drifters were as much a concept as a real group due to innumerable lineup changes over the years. Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King are best-remembered as lead vocalists, but “Up On the Roof” featured a guy named Rudy Lewis, who would later sing lead on the mega-hit “On Broadway.” Rudy died right before The Drifters were scheduled to record “Under the Boardwalk,” at the age of 27. His vocal on this Goffin-King urban fantasy is superb: you can hear the relief in his voice when he reaches his hideaway after a hard day at work; you can hear his voice expand as he surveys the expansive rooftop view. It’s a fine piece of work, but I find it curious that a song describing an experience limited pretty much to New York and a few other big cities could touch the hearts the millions of listeners whose families were part of the great white flight migration from the cities to suburbia that would continue for decades to come.
“The End of the World,” Skeeter Davis, January 1963: If you’re looking for evidence that American teenagers of the era were narcissistic drama queens capable of manufacturing tragedy from trivia, look no further than Skeeter Davis’ monster hit about getting dumped. This girl is in serious need of long-term therapy:
Why does the sun go on shining?
Why does the sea rush to shore?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
’cause you don’t love me anymore?
Why do the birds go on singing?
Why do the starts glow above?
Don’t they know it’s the end of the world
It ended when I lost your love
Whoa! You expect the whole world to stop functioning just because your pimply boyfriend decided to take a powder? You think you’re the only person in the history of the world who has experienced rejection? Out of billions of guys on the planet, only this one adolescent can give your life meaning? I knew that the parents of Baby Boomers were famous for coddling their kids and trying to give them things they couldn’t have when they were kids, but this broad doesn’t need parental patience and understanding—she needs a virtual whack upside the head!
I asked my dad why he bought this horrid confessional so diametrically opposed to the way he and my mother raised me. He snapped, “She has a nice voice. Don’t read too much into it.” Translation: dad had a crush on Skeeter Davis. He’s always been a sucker for the lost puppy act.
“Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home),” The Crystals, April 1963: Okay, these are the real Crystals . . . I think. I really don’t trust Phil Spector. Anyway, this is a great Wall of Sound recording with some very intense drumming that foreshadows the more energetic styles that would emerge after the British Invasion. As for the lyrics, all you need to know is Phil Spector co-wrote the song and he never wanted lyrics that would draw attention away from his production.
Skeeter wasn’t the only narcissist on the scene.
“Hello Stranger,” Barbara Lewis, May 1963: Blissfully we move on to a female vocalist with talent equally as impressive as the more famous and feted Connie Francis. Barbara Lewis has one of the few voices that melt me. For those of you unfamiliar with period vernacular, when someone melts you it means that someone’s presence, scent, moves, voice or touch ignite a swooning feeling that sets your heart all a-flutter. Barbara Lewis does it to me every time with her unique voice that combines depth, sweetness and sensitivity. The choice between this piece and “Baby I’m Yours” was a coin flip—I love both songs with all my heart, and both songs make me swoon in ecstasy. “Hello Stranger” has stronger backing vocals, and the deep baritone voices contrast beautifully with Barbara’s alto. My love and I often slow dance to Barbara Lewis after a romantic evening, a sweet and tender experience that balances the delicious aggressiveness of our style of lovemaking.
“One Fine Day,” The Chiffons, May 1963: “He’s So Fine” may be the more iconic hit, but I find the “doo-lang, doo-lang” riff intensely irritating. This second “fine” song, also written by Goffin and King, was produced by The Tokens of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” fame, and boy, did they do one helluva job! The rhythm is more intense, the doo-wop syllables are better balanced by harmonies and the arrangement encourages lead singer Judy Craig to soar to the heavens. While I’m getting pretty tired of boy-meets-girl-now-we’re-gonna-get-married songs at this point in the story, I can’t deny the genuine joy in The Chiffons’ performance.
“Be My Baby,” The Ronettes, August 1963: Brian Wilson was obsessed with this song and admitted to playing it over 1,000 times. Brian Wilson apparently has a lot more stamina than I do, because I could barely stand to listen to it three times, my minimum listening requirement before I place my fingers on the keyboard. Yes, I get the whole Wall of Sound thing, but this is a boring song with insipid lyrics and Ronnie Spector can’t sing worth shit. All the other lemmings in the music business followed Brian over the cliff, with Rolling Stone ranking it #22 in one of their greatest songs of all-time lists (a list that changes frequently in accordance with updates to their marketing strategy). “Be My Baby” is another addition to my “influential records that suck” list (which includes some works by Brian Wilson).
“Louie, Louie,” The Kingsmen, November 1963: YEAHHHHHHHHHHHH! Finally! Sloppy, sassy, cheeky, who-gives-a-fuck rock ‘n’ roll! A certified, FBI-investigated act of rebellion!
The Kingsmen version is indeed a sloppy mess, and just like a big juicy cheeseburger slathered in oodles of catsup and mustard, a thoroughly satisfying sensual experience. The essential immediacy of the song accounts for its timeless appeal. What you hear is the first and only take. There are no overdubs or engineering tricks—it’s like you stepped into their garage just as they ended the countdown. About a minute into the song, the drummer drops a stick and yells, “Fuck!” The lead singer comes in too early on the last verse and the drummer covers for him. The rest of the band is thrown off by the mistake and shifts to the chorus a line early. All kinds of fuck-ups! Just like a real garage band! I love The Kingsmen!
The slurred lyrics have created a slew of mondegreens (misheard or misinterpreted lyrics that are unintentionally funny). My dad still insists that the line, “See Jamaica, the moon above,” is really “Stick my finger in the hole of love.” The FBI investigated the song and failed to find any of the obscenities they had hoped to expose. Apparently, they couldn’t understand any of the lyrics! Your tax dollars at work! And dig this—I read the FBI file on the investigation and noted several redactions where passages are crossed out with a big fat Sharpie. Wow! “Louie, Louie” had national security implications! Well, knock me over with a feather! The Kingsmen were true subversives of the highest order, for they wanted us to forget our stupid problems, get down and party. Take that, historical stream of American Puritanism!
Speaking of patriotism, when I lived in Seattle and attended Mariners games (yeah, they sucked but they were the only team in town), they’d play “Louie, Louie” after the traditional “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch. I would always jump out of my seat and and dance, and once they flashed me on the big screen! My 5.6 seconds of fame! I would argue that “Louie, Louie,” devoted as it is to the good American tradition of party-til-the-cows-come-home, is much more patriotic than the despicable “God Bless America,” a song that should be banned forever for its violation of the principle of separation of church and state.
So yeah, no matter how many times I hear “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen, I get energized, I shake and shimmy, and I feel completely, wholly, absolutely and unconditionally thrilled to be alive.
“Dominique,” The Singing Nun, November 1963: As soon as I picked up the disc, my dad leapt to his defense. “Before you start ragging on me, remember—I was still a practicing Catholic and I’d just gone through Confirmation the previous summer. This came out right after JFK’s assassination, so I was feeling pretty religious around that time.” “Okay, dad,” I said, having no idea what to expect since I hadn’t heard the song since I was a kid and had forgotten all about it.
So I gave it three spins, did some research and finally had a reaction: what the fuck? “Dominique” was a worldwide hit, climbing to #1 in several countries, even countries where Catholics were a distinct minority and French speakers were even more scarce. Just like The Beatles, The Singing Nun (aka Jeanne Deckers aka Soeur Luc-Gabrielle aka Soeur Souirire aka Sister Smile) appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (though there was a noticeable absence of screaming during her performance). How on earth did a mini-bio of St. Dominic set to music with lyrics that only a small percentage of buyers could understand take the world by storm? I mean, it wasn’t like she was one of those hot nuns you see in gothic porn fantasies, smoking cigarettes and brandishing whips—she was a rather plain Belgian lady completely devoured by her habit and free of any sinful lipstick or blush. The song is rather boring, with six verses and a chorus repeated seven times, all combining to tell us how St. Dominic humbly waged war against liars and other assorted sinners.
The best explanation I’ve read was that the song’s success was some kind of mass atonement for JFK’s murder. I had no idea that Catholic guilt was so contagious. From now on, I’ll cross the street if I happen to stroll by a Catholic church and run like hell if I see a nun.
The phenomenon of The Singing Nun didn’t end with a hit single. There were movies, some sanitized, some spurious. Jeannine Deckers, bless her heart, became something of a rebel, releasing a song in 1967 that celebrated the advent of The Pill. Departing the convent, she moved in with another woman and commenced a long-term lesbian relationship. Desperate for cash after the Belgian government socked her with a huge tax bill, she tried to rekindle her fame with a disco version of “Dominique” in 1982. It bombed, in large part because all she did was sing the same song with the same phrasing in the same rhythm with a cheesy disco music track in the background. Facing financial ruin, she and her lover committed suicide in 1985.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. The Singing Nun’s supporting album was unceremoniously excommunicated from the top of the charts by the blessed arrival of The Beatles . . . who would soon be more popular than Jesus!
“You Don’t Own Me,” Lesley Gore, December 1963: My dad made a surprising comment when I pulled this record out of the sleeve: “You wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Lesley Gore.” That remark ignited a long conversation between father and daughter, and because I found his story so intriguing, I asked him to summarize what “You Don’t Own Me” meant to him and how it changed his life:
This song came out after a couple of years of puberty, at a time when the sexes were pretty segregated. I went to an all-boys Catholic school, and we’d really only see girls when the parish held a mixer. So all the guys hung out together and the two big topics of conversation were sports and girls. With girls, we were passing on the myths handed down to us by our parents and often reinforced in the pop songs of the day. Stuff like, “You gotta keep a girl in her place,” and “You can’t let a woman make a fool out of you.” The basic attitude was that girls needed us more than we needed them, and that all they had to do is look pretty, don’t say anything stupid, or even better, don’t say anything at all. There was a definite implication that girls were the lesser half of the species—pretty things to have around and show off to your friends, but not to be taken seriously.
Just try to imagine me trying to get close to your mother with that kind of attitude. I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. I may not be alive!
Even though I went along with the guys and repeated the same old bullshit, part of me knew that the myth didn’t jive with my experience. I’d met a lot of girls who were smart, had interesting things to say and were pretty damned competitive. I was caught in between expectations of what it means to be a man and the nagging truth of my own experience.
Lesley Gore straightened me out. When I first heard that song, I froze—I don’t remember what I was doing, but I just froze and listened. Hell, the way they clear the scene for her, you can’t help but pay attention! When she sang those lines–“And don’t tell me what to do/Don’t tell me what to say/And please, when I go out with you/Don’t put me on display”—with such feeling and clarity, it was like having a vacuum cleaner suck out all the gunk from my brain. And when she turns the tables and says, “I don’t tell you what to say,” that hit me in the gut, and I realized that everything I learned about girls was not only bullshit, but flat-out wrong. I swore I’d treat any girl I knew the way I’d treat anyone else, and that gave me a definite advantage when your mother came into my life. I was about 80% free of sexism when I met her, and your mother took care of most of the rest. All thanks to Lesley Gore.
It’s easy to dismiss Lesley Gore as the teenage soap opera queen from her hits, “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” That is certainly what her handlers wanted, so it took a lot of courage on the part of Lesley and Quincy Jones to record this song. “You Don’t Own Me,” interestingly enough, was written by the two guys who wrote “At the Hop,” who will reappear in Part 3 as card-carrying patriots. Their goal was to write a hit about a girl telling a guy off, but as we know from listening to great singers like Billie Holiday or Patsy Cline, the message of the lyrics can be enhanced or even countermanded by how the singer approaches the subtext—the way a singer holds a certain note, shortens a note, emphasizes a word, inserts a caesura or any number of variations to the expected pattern. Great singers uncover rich subtexts.
And Lesley Gore was a great singer.
She maximizes the darkness-and-light contrast of minor and major keys throughout the song. In the minor key verses, her voice is shadowed with righteous but controlled anger at the thought of becoming a possession; in the major key verses, she cries out for and celebrates liberation and self-worth. The dramatic shift is accomplished almost entirely by Lesley’s voice; Quincy Jones wisely lays back when most producers would go for overkill. “You Don’t Own Me” is simply one of the great vocal performances of all time.
What makes “You Don’t Own Me” a feminist liberation message with as much power than The Feminine Mystique all comes back to the emotional subtext Lesley Gore created through her performance. Here’s an excerpt from The Feminine Mystique germane to the period that we can use for our compare-and-contrast exercise:
In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor. They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children’s clothes, kept their new washing machines and dryers running all day. They changed the sheets on the beds twice a week instead of once, took the rug-hooking class in adult education, and pitied their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamed of having a career. Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought for the unfeminine problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “Occupation: housewife.”
This is an accurate description of the status of women at the time of “You Don’t Own Me,” and I am certain that the description of the experience and its impact had a huge effect on women. My mother, who lived through the era and experienced both excitement and exasperation when engaging feminists in dialogue, has often pointed out that the problem with The Feminine Mystique wasn’t Betty Friedan’s writing ability but that very few men bothered to read it. She once said to me, “Feminism is hard work. You can pass laws, but to truly change things, you have to change the world one man at a time.” She understood that equality of the genders required not only a major cultural shift but a major personal shift for every single woman and every single man.
This is why “You Don’t Own Me” is a powerful tool for change: Lesley is trying to change the world one man at a time. Betty Friedan worked on the systems level; Lesley Gore on the personal level. Both are valuable, but I have to say I’ve seen a lot more in the way of results when educating men on a personal level that I expect nothing less than full, equal treatment.
I admire Lesley Gore in many ways, as an activist, as a talented composer and songwriter, as a woman who came out of the closet way back in 1982 and had a loving relationship with her partner for over thirty years. But above all I admire her as a woman who had the courage to sing about human rights for women at a time when defiant women—those who refused to conform to society’s limited expectations—were often scorned and ridiculed. “You Don’t Own Me” may be a contradictory exclamation point to mark the end of this era in music, but more than any other song of its era, it foretold of the musical revolution to come.