Saturday, March 07, 2009

"Put A Little Love In Your Heart" / Jackie DeShannon

This just didn't fit in my recent Month of Love Songs -- those were all about romantic love, while Jackie DeShannon's singing about brotherhood and fellowship and harmony and all those other hippie-dippy ideals. But it sure fit into the soundtrack of 1969, with lines like "Think of your fellow man / Lend him a helping hand"; "We won't let hatred grow"; "Kindness will be your guide"; and "And the world will be a better place" (why does this line make me want to buy the world a Coke?). I listen to this and suddenly I want to rummage around in my closet for that embroidered bleached linen tunic I threw away 25 years ago. Peace out, man!

Jackie DeShannon intrigues me. This is a woman who dated Elvis Presley, was Jimmy Page's main squeeze, wrote songs with Randy Newman, had Ry Cooder as her guitarist and Barry White as a back-up singer (not at the same time, but still). Among the hits that other artists had with her songs were "When You Walk In the Room" (the Searchers), "Come and Stay With Me" (Marianne Faithfull), and "Bette Davis Eyes" (Kim Carnes). Yet the industry folks envisioned her as a girl singer, the American equivalent of Dusty Springfield, or at least of Petula Clark or Sandie Shaw; her first two hit singles, "Needles and Pins"(1963) and "What the World Needs Now Is Love" (1965), were both by other songwriters. I have this one 1967 album by her on which she even sings standards like "Night and Day" and "When I Fall In Love," as if no one knew what to do with her. Here was this wide-eyed blond with perfect features and a sylph-like figure -- no wonder they kept trying to force her into a pop mold.

"Put A Little Love In Your Heart" was the song where it all came together for her, a hit record that she wrote herself, and one of the indelible tunes of that eventful year of 1969. Though Jackie was thought of as a white soul singer, she was really more of a white girl singing soul songs for crossover appeal. "Put A Little Love In Your Heart" certainly has a Stax-like rhythm line, but her vocals sound more country than soul to me, with all the twang of her native Kentucky. On that upward swoop of "love" and "world," I swear there's a little yodel in her voice, and the guitarwork is distinctly twangy. A touch of goopy strings and horn accents doom this forever to a Top 40 pop sound. The gospel choir call-and-response on "And the world (and the world) / Will be a better place" hits the spot, though, especially on the suspenseful repeated notes of "for you (for you) and me (and me) You just wait (you wait)," erupting at last into the joyous "And see!" You can't help getting caught up in it.

Like so many other 1969 songs, this one carries shadows of social unrest ("You see it's getting late / Oh please don't hesitate"; "Another day goes by / And still the children cry"). Although DeShannon's voice is more bell-like than throaty, she still manages to inject this with urgency. But it's so much more upbeat and positive than other anthems of this era -- think of "For What It's Worth" and "Spinning Wheel." And given the temper of the time, maybe that wasn't a plus.

I keep hoping for Jackie DeShannon to be a better songwriter than she is; the lyrics on this are predictable, the melody limited to a few repeated musical phrases. I guess it was no surprise that she'd soon be swept aside by rawer girl singers like Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, and Cass Elliott. But I can't help liking her, and liking this song.

Put A Little Love In Your Heart sample

4 comments:

wwolfe said...

There's a good compilation of her songs on Ace Records (it's part of their very enjoyable series devoted to songwriters of the 1950s and '50s). One of my personal pet theories is that her "When You Walk in the Room" is one of the most influential songs of the rock era. That little guitar figure leads directly to a major slice of the early Beatles' songbook (when she toured with the Beatles, John spoke to her at length about how she came up with that), which in turn leads directly to a big chunk of the early Byrds, Who, and Kinks. From there, it's a short step to about half the white rock music from the past three (essentially all of what we know as Power Pop). Most of the performers who've been influenced by what she wrote probably don't even know who she is, but the influence is still there, I believe. When Jackie released her most recent album, "You Know Me," she appeared at the Tower Records on Sunset, where I had the chance to meet and talk with her for about a half-hour. It was one of the really great moments of my life to be able to talk about songwriting with her. In connection with what you said about the record companies not knowing what to do with her, she said that "You Know Me" was the first time in her career she'd had complete control of an album she made. I can't help but wonder what she might have done had she come along some time after Punk gave women more of a chance to control their own music.

wwolfe said...

"...it's a short step to about half the white rock music from the past three" decades, that should read.

Anonymous said...

I love Jackie too! There's a great compilation of Jackie on Raven records called, "Come and Get Me" that has lots of great early stuff and more recent material too. Essential listening!
Spencer

Holly A Hughes said...

When I'm plunging into a new artist, I'm always torn between getting the compilation and committing myself to an album-by-album approach. But the first album of hers I bought, Laurel Canyon, had plenty of lovely surprises on it. I need to explore further. But I'm intrigued by the idea that after her early string of pop hits, she had leisure to grow into her gifts as a songwriter. I love it that she's still in the game, still releasing new albums.