Thursday, September 29, 2011
Sylvia Robinson, 1936-2011
The great vocalist and label executive Sylvia Robinson has passed away at the age of 75. Robinson was a one-hit wonder twice over - first with Mickey and Sylvia and the 1957 classic "Love Is Strange," then with her 1973 solo hit "Pillow Talk" - as well as the mastermind behind yet another one-hit wonder, the Sugarhill Gang's 1979 "Rapper's Delight." "Love Is Strange" is one of my all-time favorite singles, so let's revisit something I wrote about that a few years ago:
It all goes back, as so many things do, to Bo Diddley. Bo wrote and recorded "Love Is Strange," although the guitar lick had been composed by Jody Williams, who played with Bo, for an instrumental called "Billy's Blues." Bo took that lick, put it together with his own parts, and had himself a tune. In the ways of pop songs in the 1950s, though, Diddley couldn't take the songwriting credit because of a legal dispute, and there was no way he was giving it to Williams, so "Love Is Strange" went down on record as being written by Ethel Smith, Bo's wife.
I'm not sure when Bo cut his version of "Love Is Strange," whether it was a single, or B-side, or what, but that track did end up on I'm a Man: The Chess Masters 1955-1958, his 2007 box set. I do know that Bo and Jody Williams were playing it on tour in 1956, and one of the other acts on that tour was Mickey and Sylvia.
Raised in an orphanage in Kentucky, MacHouston "Mickey" Baker ran away to New York City at the age of 16. There he worked as a pool shark for a while before picking up a guitar at a pawnshop. He taught himself to play jazz on it but soon realized the bluesmen were the ones making the real money. By the mid-1950s, Baker was the lead session guitarist for Atlantic Records as well as on the Savoy and King labels.
He also taught guitar, and one of his students was a singer named Sylvia Vanderpool. Sylvia supposedly cut her first record at the age of 14, in 1950, and was signed to the Cat label as "Little Sylvia" when she met Mickey. Mickey, cognizant of the success of Les Paul and Mary Ford, asked her to form a musical duo with him. (Rumor has it that Mickey wanted them be a combo in more ways than one, but Sylvia rebuffed him.)
Their first single (I think we're in 1954 at this point) was on that Cat label, "Fine Love" b/w "Speedy Life"; they were billed as by "Little" Sylvia Vanderpool and Mickey Baker and His Band. Then they moved on to the Rainbow label and released three singles as Mickey and Sylvia in 1955. That apparently landed them the slot on the Diddley tour.
According to Dave Marsh, Bo didn't want to record "Love Is Strange" at all because of a war with his publishers, so when Mickey and Sylvia expressed interest in the song, he went ahead and gave it to them. On October 17, 1956, Mickey and Sylvia went into a studio and laid down the song with the drummer Bernard Purdie (later the drummer for James Brown and the musical director for Aretha Franklin), making his recording debut. Producer Bob Rolontz overdubbed and overdubbed the guitars, and by the end of the day, Mickey and Sylvia had another single.
By the time Mickey and Sylvia got done with the song, it didn't sound much like Bo Diddley. The blues guitar contrasted nicely with M&S' harmonies, but it was the spoken-word passage - which had been a gruff call and response in Bo's version - that really made it special. "Love Is Strange" hit the Top Forty on January 12, 1957, and went as high as Number Eleven on the pop charts. It spent two weeks at Number One on the R&B chart.
Mickey apparently hated touring and the high life associated with being a pop star. M&S had a few more R&B hits, but in 1959, Mickey decided to break up the group. After a few more years of session work and a single billed to "Mickey and Kitty," Baker split for France in 1962 and went back to playing mostly jazz. Sylvia married a gentleman named Joe Robinson in 1964, and the two of them started a string of indie labels in New Jersey: All Platinum, Stang, Turbo and Vibration.
In 1973, Sylvia offered a song called "Pillow Talk," which she had co-written, to Al Green, but the Reverend Al turned it down as too risque. So Sylvia recorded it herself, for her own Vibration label, and it turned out to be a huge smash, going to Number Three on the pop charts and spending two weeks at Number One on the R&B charts, just like "Love Is Strange" had 16 years earlier. Then, Sylvia pulled off a third act in 1979 when she herded a group of rappers into the studio and christened them the Sugarhill Gang.
Like Sylvia, "Love Is Strange" resurrected itself as well when it appeared in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing, as lip-synced by Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. They were supposedly just goofing around in rehearsal, miming the famous spoken-word bridge, but director Emile Ardolino had the cameras rolling, and liked it so much he kept it in the final cut. By 1987, that eerie guitar still sounded futuristic.
Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Paul McCartney & Wings and Peaches and Herb all covered "Love Is Strange," as did, of course, Bo Diddley, at some point. None of them sounded as good as Mickey and Sylvia.