The Shirelles, Baby It’s You (1961)


Artist: The Shirelles
Title: Baby It’s You
Description: single; album track, Baby It’s You
Label: Scepter
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: circa 1970s

In 1985, Billy Bragg supported The Smiths on their first US tour. He told me when I was writing his biography that he’d had a “long conversation” with Morrissey on the tour bus about a subject that proved fertile common ground, the wonder of New Jersey girl group the Shirelles. Although Billy confessed he’d always mistakenly referred to them as The Shirlettes, having misread a sleeve. I sort of prefer it.

He wasn’t being so daft. The group was, after all, named after one of its founder members Shirley Owens, just customised to sound a bit more like the Chantels (the pioneering black female singing group from the Bronx). Shirley, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris and Beverly Lee had nascent local label boss Florence Greenberg to thank for their fortunes, and vice versa, as they gave Tiara Records its first hit in 1958 while still in their teens, I Met Him On A Sunday (licensed to Decca). After a period of uncertainty and musical chairs, the Shirelles found themselves back under Greenberg’s wing and signed to her next imprint, Scepter, with whom they’d have hits until 1963. But the Goffin-and-King-penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1960 was the flame that lit the touchpaper and sent up the fireworks: it was the first Billboard number one for an African-American girl group. (They were women by then, of course, and historically not yet African-American either – I rather fear it would have been “coloured” at the time.)

Burt Bacharach was already a hitmaker in 1961 when he, regular partner Hal David’s brother Mack and the equally prolific Luther Dixon (who also produced) came up with Baby It’s You. The Beatles covered it on Please Please Me, and used the same arrangement, but let’s not pretend it holds a flame to the Shirelles’ original, which oozes heartache and all-the-girls-love-a-cad inevitability.

The backing is sublime, a potent cocktail of overstatement and understatement: the tambourine sounds like it’s the size of a dinner tray, while the backing “sha-la-la-la-la”s might be made of marshmallow, and the beat played with swizzle sticks. This is no wall of sound, more like a trellis, but what blossomy delights hang thereon. The addition of male backing singers hardens the sound once the intro has lured us in with its swooning incense, but Shirley Owens’ deftly modulated and surgically emotive lead vocal brings sweetness and light to this tale of manifest female destiny written by guys.

“It’s not the way you smile that touched my heart,” she confirms. “It’s not the way you kiss that tears me apart.” Either way, she is torn apart. “Uh-ho oh-ho,” she quivers, before letting us know that “many, many, many nights” roll by while she sits, typically, alone at home and cries over this bounder. “What can I do?” NB: not what can I do, but what can I do.

I can’t help myself
When baby it’s you
Baby, it’s you

Then the mood darkens. “You should hear what they say about you,” she trills, while her sisters intone, not that subliminally, “Cheat, cheat.” He’s not worth it, this guy. They say he’s “never, never, never been true,” and yet Shirlette is gonna love him any old way, despite what “they say.” (Cheat, cheat.) Begging ought not be her business, but beg she does: “Don’t leave me alone, please come home.” Baby, it’s him.

Their manager and label boss was a woman, a woman wrote the tune of their first number one, and they made giant steps for feminism just by their success, but like most girl groups, their words were often written by men trying to think like women. Like Crazy by Willie Nelson, Baby It’s You evidently works for either gender, but in a pre-liberation era, putting up with useless blokes was, lyrically, part of the patriarchal furniture. (See also: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you still love me tomorrow?”, “But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,” and on and on.)

The singing is so affecting and true, the music appears not to have much to add, but Dixon’s arrangement pulls back at just the right moments, dropping out completely before “’Cause baby, it’s you” for maximum melodrama, and placing the “cheat, cheat” aside just far back enough in the mix to make it sound like the other Shirelles are talking behind Shirley’s back. I take issue with the organ break at one minute 40, so shrill and intrusive it threatens to blow a hole in the atmosphere, but if anything it makes Shirley’s return to the mic all the more of a relief.

It fades, as all 60s songs fade, but not until she’s implored, “Come on home.” I realise I have a soft spot the size of a dinner tray for music of this stripe and timbre from this golden age, but what can I do?


Bobby Womack, Across 110th Street (1973)


Artist: Bobby Womack and Peace
Title: Across 110th Street
Description: single; album track, Across 110th Street
Label: United Artists
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1997

Help me sing it …

The late Bobby Womack and I will always share a birthday: March 4. (He died aged 70 in 2014.) I was able to bond with him over this vital piece of information in 2003 when he came into 6 Music to promote his Lookin’ For A Love: The Best of 1968–1976 compilation and shot straight into my ever-fluid Top 10 favourite 6 Music guests chart (jostling with Rita Marley, Siouxsie Sioux, Kings Of Leon, Gerald Scarfe, Peter Flannery, Damo Suzuki, Glenn Gregory, Carol Decker and potty-mouthed Sylvain Sylvain). I loved meeting this soul legend – the man worked with Sly Stone, married Sam Cooke’s widow and had a song covered by the Rolling Stones when he was barely out of his teens – and it was privilege enough to bask in his aura, never mind to play out Across 110th Street, one of my favourite funk-soul numbers.

A prerequisite of live music radio it may be, but I can promise you, it’s very weird to sit in a radio studio listening to a classic song booming out over the loudspeakers – and the airwaves – while the person who wrote and recorded it 30 years before sits directly across the desk from you. It seems rude to chat over the playback and yet rude to sit in silence, so you tend to toggle between the two. (I’m guessing it’s weirder if you wrote and recorded the song.) I recall stupidly asking Bobby, “What was across 110th Street?”, just to say something, and he grinned and replied, “Listen to the lyric.” It’s good to have Bobby Womack effectively tell you to to shut up.

Penned as the theme song to the 1972 “blaxploitation” crime thriller of the same name in collaboration with bebop-schooled composer JJ Johnson  and recorded with the backing group Peace along with four other original tunes, the lyric to 110th Street says it clearly enough, although in its genesis it’s not 100% straightforward. Bobby rasps, “I was the third brother of five,” which he was, raised a Baptist in Cleveland to a minister father and church organist mother and something of a child prodigy. But the film – which I’ve never seen – is set in Harlem, not Cleveland, and 110th Street is the boundary between “white” New York and “black” New York. (This was far more of an unofficial “colour line” in the early 70s; it certainly sprang to mind when a cab driver taking me from Manhattan to JFK in the 90s drove that way to avoid the congested tunnels and, yes, we crossed 110th Street.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Womack’s autobiographical take on “breaking out of the ghetto” dovetails perfectly into an urban blues for New York, where rich and poor rub along in a melodramatically heightened way, the whooshing hi-hat, intricate guitar, anxious keyboard jitters and lazy whooo-oo-oo-ooohs of that intro setting the scene with cinematic evocation. “Doing whatever I had to do to survive” in a “day to day fight”, he dreams of “a better way of life.” What’s potent about this bulletin from the frontline of the racial struggle is its ghetto’s-eye view. Pimps “trying to catch a woman that’s weak,”  drug dealers who “won’t let the junkie go free” and that emblematic “woman trying to catch a trick on the street.”

Inevitably, this vivid, urgent, soulful lament to social exclusion and ethnic deprivation becomes a freedom song, those bah-bah orchestral stings pointing up the pledge, “Hey brother, there’s a better way out.” As Bobby said to me in 2003, years before his trendy rehabilitation by Damon Albarn and Gorillaz: listen to the lyric. And listen right to the end, when the fly-on-the-wall commentary (“look around you”) gives way to broader political observation.

The family on the other side of town
Would catch hell without a ghetto around
In every city you find the same thing going down
Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town

Every ghetto town like Cleveland, for one, whose African-American population increased sevenfold between the 20s and the 60s, as city jobs drew workers north (the ethnic mix was still over 50% black in the 2010 Census). The great soul music of the 60s may have been political by its very creation, but it was rarely explicit above a certain seam of despair. Marvin Gaye moved the goalposts at the dawn of the 70s and Across 110th Street seems to be to be in the great tradition of What’s Going On – and indeed Ball Of Confusion by Whitfield and Strong for the Temptations around the same time.

As you know from other entries in The 143, soul about boy-meet-girl is fine by me. But soul and funk with content frees your mind.

Oh yeah, that’s what the world is today.

Public Enemy, Rebel Without A Pause (1987)


Artist: Public Enemy
Title: Rebel Without A Pause
Description: single; album track from It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
Label: Def Jam
Release date: 1987; 1988
First heard: 1988

From a rebel, it’s final on black vinyl
Soul, rock’n’roll comin’ like a rhino
Tables turn, suckers burn to learn
They can’t disable the power of my label

Though the writers and editors of the NME have historically been white and male, the paper I read in its early-to-mid 80s pomp and which helped define my politics and my aesthetic – and which I subsequently helped produce during the late-80s/early-90s economic reality check when social action morphed into “sitting around in smoking jackets making jokes about pop music” – saw no colour. A deep appreciation of funk and soul cut through the rock reliance, and when its face was at its most pale circa Danny Kelly – ironically, a huge rap fan – doctoring the Top 40 to give cover stars The Weather Prophets a hit they never had, Go-Go and hip-hop provided more than a counterweight.

Without the NME, as a reader, I might never have walked into Our Price and purchased Licensed To Ill or Yo! Bum Rush The Show without having heard a note of either. (The latter was the paper’s Album Of 1987.) While the Beastie Boys had provided a bridge from white rock culture to music of black origin and back again, with Public Enemy, you were across the border, and It Takes A Nation Of Millions, if not perhaps an equal to the debut in shock value, contained their finest hour, or finest four minutes 18 seconds at any rate. PE’s pioneering “Strong Island sound” – and its Shocklee value – has been endlessly dissected and disseminated in the decades since, and its sampled glissando and extra BPMs have been identified as the group’s secret weapons. But on first hearing, when I had little to compare this sound to beyond the Sugarhill Gang, its sonic appeal was like alchemy or Pearl Harbour. Life would never be the same again. Millions consolidated Bum Rush’s promise.

The opening sample of Rebel Without A Pause – that of the Reverend Jesse Jackson giving the invocation at 1972’s “Afro-American Woodstock”, Wattstax (“Brothers and sisters, I don’t know what this world is coming to”) – couldn’t be clearer. This is black power, pure and simple, its urgency communicated by the unusual 109bpm velocity (I looked that up) and the JBs’ hornsqueal, which were signatures of a hip hop crew with their own agenda. Violence simmers beneath Chuck D’s own yapping invocations (“Panther power on the hour … Scatter a line of suckers … I’m like a laser, I won’t just graze ya”), but he’s careful to declare, “No gun, and still never on the run.” This is pre-gangsta rap, driven by righteous anger and pointed ire, the sound of frustration being taken out on a punchbag not a police officer.

I never thought “disco sucked” in my youth, but music of white origin had helped me get through my exams, so I wasn’t expecting hip hop to hit me so hard. I never forsook my Smiths or my Wedding Present, but I took my hat off to bands like Age of Chance and Pop Will Eat Itself for acknowledging the rap influence and giving it a crack. Public Enemy cleared a very big space for themselves at my top table in 1987, the year before I walked into the NME office, which is when the levee broke, and I stocked up on Eric B & Rakim, EPMD, Run-DMC, Salt N Pepa and the rest with my own money.

Though I discovered hip hop before I became a beneficiary of record company largesse, I’d arrived at NME and landed guest tickets to witness Public Enemy headline Brixton Academy and experienced my first night in an ethnic minority, albeit not once did I actually feel intimidated, as much as my inner liberal probably felt I should do, out of missionary guilt. (Actually: once. When Pop Will Eat Itself were coined offstage, but it passed.)

There were funkier tunes on Yo! Bum Rush The ShowSophisticated Bitch (whose early use of the B-word challenged my best-laid principles), Miuzi Weighs a Ton – and on It Takes A Nation Of MillionsBlack Steel, Don’t Believe The Hype. And both LPs bore more descriptive, specific lyrics, too. But there remains something so primal about Rebel Without A Pause, even if its content doesn’t bear up to much cross-examination (“Voice my opinion with volume” announces Chuck, but his opinions lie elsewhere). And you’d have to wait until Do The Right Thing in 1989 for Chuck to come right out and say Elvis was a racist, “simple and plain”.

But hey, it’s not always about the essay. Sometimes it just the sound and the fury, a previously inarticulated, bottled-up anger from all the way down the years. And what a sound. Such a beautiful noise, coming up from the streets. I bought a baseball cap. I bought a whistle at Brixton Academy.