Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Back, and to the Left

With apologies to Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton*, the greatest backup vocal performance in modern pop music is that of the great Lou Rawls, backing up the greater Sam Cooke on "Bring It on Home to Me." Rawls and Cooke went to high school together in Chicago, America's greatest city, and sang together in a gospel group as teenagers, but Rawls then joined the army while Cooke turned into a superstar. In 1962, Sam asked Lou to sing with him on "Bring It," an odd choice since Rawls' baritone slid along underneath Cooke's tenor, but man did it ever work. (It also presaged the vocal twosome in Squeeze, except that Glenn Tilbrook doesn't sing nearly as well as Sam Cooke [hardly anyone does], and Chris Difford can barely sing at all.)

Even better than the harmonizing were the choruses, where the two men echoed each other with "Yeah"s like a couple of preachers. While doo-wop groups of the time would often trade phrases like that, none of them had two world-class singers like Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls. And it was rare that any of them had a song as good as "Bring It on Home to Me." The performance got Rawls a recording contract, and his debut album, I'd Never Drink Muddy Water, would come out later that year.

The original "Bring It on Home to Me" peaked at Number 13 in 1962; Lou Rawls did a solo version in 1970, which didn't make the Top Forty. I haven't heard the latter version, but there's no way it's nearly as good as the original.

* As great as Jagger's performance is, a lot of what makes it remarkable inheres in who Mick was and his place in the iconography of the song. As for "Gimme Shelter," Lou Rawls' performance is greater than Merry Clayton's because I felt like writing about "Bring It on Home to Me" today. I mean, really, who's to say that one was better than the other?

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