Here’s the latest batch of Music Musings and Miscellany’s unapologetically subjective selection of the twentieth century’s best 1000 singles. Yet more I’s.
YVONNE ELLIMAN – If I Can’t Have You / Good Sign (RSO 884 1978)
The Bee Gees jumped on the disco bandwagon with Saturday Night Fever, and in their wake, virtually every desperate pop star did a disco record. It’s little wonder, then, that the genre provoked such hostility when there was so much pap being released. Despite loathing pretty much everything to do with the film and its soundtrack, I’ve always had a soft spot for this song. Perhaps it’s because it’s got a heart. It isn’t cheesy and shiny and plastic. Elliman sings it like she means it – with soul.
GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS – If I Were Your Woman / The Tracks of My Tears (Soul 35078 1970)
MILLIE JACKSON – If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Be Right / The Rap (Spring 155 1975)
In popular love song, the woman’s point of view tended to be either doe-eyed worshipper or wronged victim. Often both. Deeper, more complex emotions were rarely aired. That simplified view of the world began to change rapidly as the sixties became the seventies. “If I Were Your Woman” sees Gladys Knight yearning for a man who’s unobtainable. Millie Jackson has got him anyway, despite the fact that he’s married. Neither is apologetic about their situation, although both recognise that it’s far from ideal.
CURTIS MAYFIELD – If There’s a Hell Below (We’re All Gonna Go) / The Makings of You (Curtom 1955 1970)
Amidst an uneasy hubbub, Curtis spits the opening lines of a song that is a frustrated reaction to racial polarisation, political inaction and corruption, social breakdown and the general descent of society into violence – a long way from the ideals of the Civil Rights movement. There is a deep anger about the general complacency of everyone. The repeated refrain of “Don’t Worry” is sarcastic, not reassuring. Coming from a natural optimist, the despair that oozes from every word is shocking. It remains one of Curtis Mayfield’s darkest, but greatest songs, with an arrangement of uneasy funk that builds a fragile surface of joy over a dark turmoil underneath.
HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES – If You Don’t Know Me By Now / Let Me Into Your World (Philadelphia International 3520 1972)
One of the finest soul ballads of the seventies, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is lush and sad, but at the same time somehow uplifting. Teddy Pendergrass gives one of his finest vocal performances as a frustrated man who can see that the suspicion and jealousy of his partner is threatening their relationship. He’s beginning to wonder if it can ever change, and whether it would be for the best to end it. It’s another example of how soul music had moved from simple boy meets girl, boy loses girl (or vice versa) stuff towards a reflection of the emotional complexities of real relationships.
SPINNERS – I’ll Be Around / How Could I Let You Get Away? (Atlantic 2904 1972)
JACKSON FIVE – I’ll Be There / One More Chance (Motown 1171 1970)
I wrote about the Spinners’ masterpiece here. Both songs cover similar ground – the noble dumpee selflessly reassuring his ex that he’ll always be there for emotional support. Whether she finds that touching or creepily akin to stalking is not recorded. What both also share is an air of steadfast melancholy that is really touching. I don’t think the Jacksons’ ever bettered “I’ll Be There”, even though the sentiments are a little odd coming from a boy yet to reach his teens.
NEW YORK CITY – I’m Doing Fine Now / Ain’t It So (Chelsea 113 1973)
It’s just the way things fell, but here is yet another seventies soul classic. Pretty much one hit wonders, New York City gave a Big Apple take on the Philadelphia sound. Indeed, it sounds more Philly than a lot of Philly records. Despite the suspicions of bandwagon jumping, “I’m Doing Fine Now” is a great song that does the ‘I’m alright even though you’ve gone’ thing refreshingly straight, without the undercurrent of pretence that someone like Smokey Robinson would thread through the subject. They really do sound like they’re doing absolutely fine.
TAMI LYNN – I’m Gonna Run Away From You / The Boy Next Door (Atco 6342 1966)
A Northern Soul favourite, this was reissued in the UK in the seventies and became a hit half a dozen or so years after it was recorded. It’s not difficult to see why it beguiled them at the Casino and the Twisted Wheel. The rhythm is urgent, and there is repeated hook by the backing singers that ensnares the listener immediately.
BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON – I’m Gonna Run to the City of Refuge / Jesus Is Coming Soon (Columbia 14391 1928)
Nick Cave used the song as the basis for his “City Of Refuge” on Tender Prey. It’s not hard to see why he was so drawn to Blind Willie Johnson. Johnson was, on the surface, a bluesman. He sang blues-like tunes accompanied by guitar. But his subject matter was exclusively religious, and he came across like a true apocalyptic fire-and-brimstone type. His earthy growl served only to give him added gravitas. His God was the Old Testament one of judgement and vengeance, not some fluffy happy-clappy type.
FOUR TOPS – I’m In a Different World / Remember When (Motown 1132 1968)
Not generally considered an A list Tops’ song, “I’m in a Different World” ticks all the same boxes for me that their better known songs do. Levi Stubbs sounds emotionally distraught as usual, even if the subject matter is ostensibly upbeat!
PASSIONS – I’m In Love With a German Film Star / Don’t Talk To Me I’m Shy (Polydor 222 1981)
Largely forgotten now, the Passions were a band who never fulfilled their promise. The dreamy, reverb-heavy “German Film Star” is one of the cornerstones of so-called dream-pop (a genre name that I’ve always loathed), with a debt owed by acts as diverse as the Cocteau Twins and Galaxie 500. “Don’t Talk to Me I’m Shy” is faster, more Lush-like.
SKIP JAMES – I’m So Glad / Special Rider Blues (Paramount 13098 1931)
The song’s best known these days through the cover by Cream. Skip James’ original has an atmosphere all of its own that serves the song much better than the over-excited pseudo-metal of Clapton’s group. Country blues fans will attest that he was one of the finest and most original practitioners of the form, but he was stymied by appearing on the scene just as the music industry (and everything else) was disappearing down the black hole of the Depression.
HANK WILLIAMS – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry / My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It (MGM 10560 1949)
Hear the lonesome whiperwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry
I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry
Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry
The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry
Has ever a more perfect paean to loneliness been written? I don’t think so.