1. Hey, Western Union Man
2. Can’t Forget About You, Baby
3. Only the Strong Survive
4. How Can I Get in Touch with You
5. Just Because I Really Love You
7. Never Give You Up
8. Are You Happy
9. (Strange) I Still Love You
10. Go Away — Find Yourself
11. I Stop by Heaven
Reflections on the Romantic Darwinism of Jerry Butler
Tomorrow is “Dia dos Namorados” where I live, a day for lovers, Brazilian Valentine´s day. As a person with each foot on a different continent this means I have to suffer through this godforsaken holiday twice in one year. Fuck.
I’ve been told that you don’t get over a heartbreak until you meet someone new, someone special who comes into your life and on and on, that you don’t forget one love until you find new love. Alright, cool, that’s all good and well but my question is — What am I supposed to do in the meantime? My solution has been: listen to tons of classic soul music. And play it loud. And make a lot of it Jerry Butler.
So I am dedicating this post to all the other lonely people, and those lover’s we can’t seem to get over.
These two albums hail from the historic pairing of Chicago soul doyen Jerry Butler and Philadelphia writing and production team Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Had they continued this partnership I think they would have taken over the world, put an end to world famine, and brought down the Berlin Wall long before Ronald Reagan could take credit for it. “The Iceman Cometh” in particular is Jerry Butler’s finest hour, at his emotive best.
The ‘Collector’ Choice’ label reissue of these two albums is a mixed blessing. It’s criminal to think that they were ever out of circulation (they were packaged together for another collection called “The Philadelphia Sessions”, which I haven’t heard), but these albums deserve better in the way of mastering and presentation. There is however a decent set of liner notes based largely on recent interviews with the man himself that make me like the guy even more, in spite of the fact that he still won’t respond to my emails about *this album*… The sound is a mixed bag, and it’s hard to say why since all the songs were recorded around the same period in the same two studios. But a number of the songs were released as singles a year or so before they appeared on these long-players, so consistency becomes too confused for me to form an opinion about. The fact that “Ice on Ice” sounds MUCH more crisp and present makes me think they may have lost the master tapes for ‘The Iceman Cometh’, which would truly be criminal….
“Hey Western Union Man” is a nice, smart, upbeat number to get things moving. The attentive will notice its mixed in mono, as well. It’s clever and great and a lot of you have probably heard it at least once in your life. But things start really clicking for me in the confessional take of internal obsession and external denial that is “Can’t Forget About You, Baby”, which is just pure genius. A midtempo stride with beautiful, straightforward lyrics, kick drum and high hat intro with a short snap of snare drum, you know that Motown and Stax are feeling the heat from these guys after ten seconds of this magic. It basically tells my story for me. It probably tells yours, or will someday. Butler’s voice soars sweet one moment, turns a blue note the next ….. changed my life, completeleeeeeeeeeeeeeey. It all comes to a subtle climax with, “I’ve tried to fool everybody else…. ain’t no way to ….. fool myseeeelf..” Ah hells yeah. I feel like I am giving away the end of a good movie. It’s just too perfect of an arrangement. I just spoiled it for you, unless you started the song sample below before reading this.
This song gives way to another one, even more classic and eternal, treating the admixture of vulnerability and perseverance, of the contradictions of masculinity in the twentieth century, that make up Jerry Butler’s romantic darwinism. “Only The Strong Survive,” told from the position of a mother giving advice to her heartbroken son, has enough nuance to fill a thousand pages of analysis and enough simplicity to make all of that utterly unnecessary. What does it mean to “be a man” and “take a stand”? The emotional survival of the species is at stake, but am I evolved enough to really dig it?
The best thing about great soul music is that you can play it when you feel down and it makes you feel good. The other best thing about great soul music is that you can play it when you feel good and it makes you feel even better.
At this point I most draw your attention to the unbelievably ingenious production of Gamble & Huff on this record. To that end, I have drawn up a sophisticated diagram of the stereo field as you are listening to the song “Only the Strong Survive.” Please feel free to print this out and tape it to your wall while listening back to the song.
From here out, every song will have slight variations on this, with the bass guitar moving mostly to the center of the stereo field (but the drums staying almost exclusively in the left channel throughout). It’s a mixing formula that works extremely well for these songs. Like baking a cake. A solid reliable base made with wholesome ingredients found in any kitchen (bass, guitar, drums), then topped with confectionary goodness (vibraphone, strings, horns), the icing, and of course a paraffin miniature of Jerry Butler standing on top of it all. Piano and organ, missing from “Only The Strong Survive”, are also present on a whole lot of it, usually piano in the left channel and organ in the right. This is all a very no-frills approach to a good stereo mix that foregrounds the SONG and not the arrangement itself, but if you are attentive to such things you will find yourself in aural bliss for the next hour.
“How Can I Get In Touch With You”
This song would have helped me out in a lot of situations where I was too timid to ask a girl for her phone number. Provided that I could break into song like Jerry Butler while asking her, everything would have turned out okay. Since that’s not the case I will have to resign myself to the timidity and loneliness. Still, I can revel in Jerry’s confidence. That is until he gets to “If you already have a lover… just let me be your friend.” aw c’mon Jerry, give me a break, do you really expect me to believe this? I expected better of you. After the last three songs you let loose with this hypocritical malandragem, macho double-standard bullshit disguised as sensitivity. Why, I’d sock you in the jaw, if I wasn’t so afraid of confrontation and all that.
“Just Because I Really Love You.” Love can make us into emotional masochists. Or perhaps emotional masochism leads us to love the wrong people. Or both. Or neither.
“Lost.” Another anthem, opens with blasts of trumpets heralding the arrival of an angel that is Jerry Butler’s creative genius. It’s enough to give me hope. Hope that three minutes later, there will be another great song.
These two albums are populated with classic songs that have been covered by other artists (Elvis, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield) but my favorite of these is by far “Never Gonna Give You Up”, which was given the Isaac Hayes Treatment on Black Moses. You can totally see what Isaac, with his arranger’s ear, was drawn to in this song. Slow but not dragging, that kick-drum-bass-note cardiac pulse propelled by the movement of melody and its judicious use of vibraphone and a Hammond organ just barely tucked away in the right corner of your awareness. Another narrative that makes you ask yourself if the protagonist is faithfully dedicated, hopelessly obsessed, or immersed in masochistic self-punishment. Not that that I would know anything about that.
The next song asks the profoundly basic question of “Are You Happy?” , a reflective epiphany prompted by a chance remark from a waitress at a diner. The arrangement and the lyrics are pure poetry. I’ll take the liberty of dedicating this one to all those sustaining themselves on the superficial, using their outward beauty to help them avoid looking inward. Listen closely to this song and you too can contribute to the emotional evolution of the species.
Strange, I Still Love You. Damn, these guys were seemingly incapable of writing a bad song. And every intro to every tune is just perfection, perfection.
Go Ahead, Find Yourself. For the one who doesn’t know what she wants. But it probably isn’t you. But still you would welcome her back with open arms. Perhaps. The last line hints that maybe the protagonist is wising up after all.
I Stop By Heaven. Jesus himself would weep at this one. If you happen to be celebrating these Valentine-type holidays you could do worse than just sing this one for your partner. Or call up Casey Kasem and dedicate to her or him. Played as a waltz, I could imagine Willie Nelson covering this and making me weep even more with it.
12. Moody Woman
13. Brand New Me
14. Been a Long Time
15. Close to You Love
16. Since I Lost You Lady
17. What’s the Use of Breaking Up?
18. When You’re Alone
19. I Forgot to Remember
20. Got to See If I Can’t Get Mommy (To Come Back Home)
21. Don’t Let Love Hang You Up
22. Walking Around in Teardrops
Okay, the opening number, “Moody Woman”, tells you right away that this album is just not as strong as “The Iceman Cometh.” I don’t know, a lot of people like this song, but its too Tom Jones for me. The album treads a lot of the same ground as its predecessor, which is obviously not a bad thing. But after the heights of inspiration of their first record, it’s kind of natural that their second work together would have trouble keeping up the momentum. I don’t want to prejudice anybody against it, because it’s great in its own right. But like any drug, if you are coming off the high of “The Iceman Cometh” you may just keep on enjoying yourself with “Ice On Ice” following it immediately afterward, or you may find yourself sobering up a bit. But there is a lot of electric sitar (Danelectro??) on this one, for whatever reason, so maybe it’s time to light a joss stick and roll one for the road and forget about reading the rest of this post. There are real gems here like “Brand New Me”, “Close To You Love”, and “Walking Around on Teardrops.” And also some moves in more heavy funk directions like “Been Too Long” and “I Forgot To Remember” (not to be confused with “I Forgot to Remember To Forget”), and a frantic gospel boogie in “Don’t Love Hang You Up” that will leave you praying… for more Jerry Butler. And once again, the production on this album is always tantalizing and flawless, and for whatever reason much fuller and “present” in its mastering on this CD two-in-one collection than “The Iceman Cometh” is. But even though “The Iceman Cometh” was pieced together from different sessions and songs released separately as singles, it hangs together much more as a cohesive piece of art. It plays with the quality of having an hour-long conversation with a friend, probably a friend wiser than yourself, about the trials and tribulations of love and romance. “Ice on Ice” is a healthy dose of soul music but it simply can’t match it, in my ears anyway.
Both albums released on Mercury Records, 1969.
Happy “Dia dos Namorados,” you bastards.