Friday, November 28, 2014

Song of the Day: Mickey & Sylvia - Love Is Strange (1956)

I haven't written about any songs from the '50s yet, and now seems like a great time to halt that conspicuous absence. But instead of the usual suspects--Elvis, Chuck, Buddy, etc.--let's start with one of the greatest songs of the era that everyone knows but no one knows who it's by. 

I've known and loved this song for a long time, and for much of that time I even knew it was by Mickey & Sylvia. But, like everyone else, I knew nothing about who they were. So here're some fun facts after a bit of research conducted 20 minutes ago:

--Mickey & Sylvia were a black R&B duo, but Mickey had red hair because it was suspected that his father was a white Irishman. 

--The duo released a total of nine singles, and this was the first. But this was also the only one to crack the Top 40 (it peaked at #11), meaning Mickey & Sylvia were one of the first--and still greatest--One-Hit Wonders. 

--This song was written by Bo Diddley, who never released his recorded version. Officially, the songwriting is credited to Diddley's wife, presumably to keep it away from his music publishers. 

--Many years later, after reinventing herself as a bit of a disco artist in the '70s, Sylvia founded Sugar Hill Records, which released the first several rap singles, included "Rapper's Delight" and "The Message," both of which she produced. So for those keeping score at home, even though none of you have heard of Sylvia Robinson, she performed one of the greatest early rock singles and produced several of the greatest early rap singles. That's both bizarre and amazing, especially for someone who did so little in the two decades between. 

Anyway, here's the elephant in the room:

Yep, everyone too young to be in the AARP probably only knows this song from its famous use in Dirty Dancing, and to be fair, it's a memorable sequence that highlights the song really well. It's also used in in the first Terrence Malick film, 1973's great Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as two lovers/murderers on the run, hiding in the woods and dancing to this song between crimes. It's the movie that provided the name for the great Springsteen track "Badlands," as well as the subject matter for the great Springsteen track "Nebraska." 

But all of that information would be useless if this song weren't great, and it is Great. Most people who hear it only think of the sexy vocal interplay, which, to be fair, is probably Rock and Roll's first great moment of foreplay. But if you can try and tune out the vocals and just isolate the guitar, it's some of the most expressive and minimal guitar playing you'll ever hear. In just a small handful of notes, it somehow unleashes the full range of emotions in both rock and blues, and the best parts of the song are when the vocals stop and let the guitar do the talking. Even though Dirty Dancing used the song for that bit of vocal intercourse, Swayze couldn't help himself but to rock out with some fine-ass air guitar. That's as it should be. I find it difficult to listen to this without summoning my creepiest best John Mayer face. 

Check out the Song of the Day Archive!!

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