Wednesday, April 28, 2010


"Only The Strong Survive" / Jerry Butler

The Ice Man. The Dream Merchant. If anybody could embody the smooth strength of the Philly Sound, it would be Jerry Butler.

Funny thing is, once I started to research Jerry Butler, I got all confused, because Jerry Butler isn't even from Philly. (Neither are the Spinners, I discovered to my chagrin -- in the UK they're even known as the Detroit Spinners, and they started out as a Motown group.) Jerry Butler is apparently a Chicago man through and through -- grew up in the Cabrini projects, got his start there in the late 1950s with the Impressions. He still lives in Chicago; he's even a city alderman, believe it or not. But in 1967, when Butler switched to Mercury Records, he teamed up with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and the rest was Philly soul history.

Butler came to the partnership with plenty of hits under his belt, mind you. His first song, "Your Precious Love," which he wrote himself, went gold in 1957; in 1962 he scored a huge hit with Bacharach & David's "Make It Easy On Yourself," long before Tom Jones came along; hell, the guy even co-wrote "I've Been Loving You Too Long" with Otis Redding in 1965. But the association with Gamble and Huff led to Butler's finest work -- his golden era, so to speak. The mainstream AM stations I grew up with didn't play his stuff as much as they did the Delfonics and the Stylistics and the O'Jays, but the more I listen to it, the more I'm loving it.

As far as Philly soul classics go, Butler's 1968 album The Ice Man Cometh set a gold standard that Philly artists would strive to equal for years. It snared three Grammy nominations and produced four hit singles. The fourth, "Only The Strong Survive" -- which Butler wrote with Gamble and Huff -- hit #1 on the R&B charts in the spring of 1969, and even climbed to #4 on the regular pop charts. It was HUGE.

Talking intros don't always work in pop records. The Shangri-Las pulled it off beautifully ("You get the picture?" "Yes, we see"), but I think of Barry White's spoken interludes and just shudder. On this song, though, it totally works -- I love how it begins with Jerry talking, confiding in us, passing on the words his mother comforted him with after his first heartbreak.

And as he segues into singing, Butler's voice is so smooth, so suave, we're swept right along. Yet he knows when to betray a little catch in his throat, or an intake of breath that's just this side of a moan. Even while he's counseling the need for manly strength, we realize what a sensitive soul he is, feeling every twinge of hurt in his romantic troubles.

It would have been so easy to make this song bombastic or sorrowful -- give it the full-on gospel treatment -- but no, this is a soul record, so Gamble and Huff set a lightly tripping jazzy tempo. Light is the key word: The arrangement here (courtesy of Thom Bell, who'd soon become a powerhouse producer himself) is a model of taste and restraint. Wonderful offbeat curlicues of guitar accent the end of lines, and a vibraphone pings in the background, setting up a rhythmic counterpoint. Back-up singers reiterate softly, like the echo of memory, and strings provide only a gentle underlying hum. Percussion is almost nonexistent; the bass only steps in for the chorus. The whole thing glides confidently along, a perfect demonstration that he's already learned the lesson his momma taught him. He's like an elegant tap dancer, one long fluid motion from his shoulders and wrists to his lightning quick feet.

At this point in his career Butler was such a pro, such a seasoned singer, that he really could just sit back, as relaxed as Nat King Cole or Perry Como, and let the song pour out. He fiddles just enough with his phrasing, with the textures of his vocal, to paint all the emotions he needs. That's why I love this video clip (that set looks so familiar -- the Mike Douglas Show?), so we can see his ultra-cool stage delivery in action. The Ice Man indeed.


wwolfe said...

Those last two paragraphs are a wonderful description of what makes this record so great. Back in 1981, the Impressions and Temptations did a combined reunion tour, featuring the original line-ups of both groups. The same week they were in LA, my best friend's wedding was in Ohio. Never has there been a truer proof friendship than my skipping that concert for the wedding. (As I'm sure you know, Dusty had her Philly hit with a re-vamp of Butler's "Brand New Me." A good record, if a notch below her Memphis sessions, with some odd gender syntax, due to the song having been written for a man to sing.) I'm loving your Philly week.

Mervap said...

Great idea....Philly Soul Week! The clip in question is from this show:

I didn't have any knowledge of this show until I looked at the looks like it would have been a great show. Mom LOVED the Mike Douglas Show! I saw a great many music acts on it.

wendy said...

Upbeat was produced here in Cleveland! I don't know if you've seen it, but there's a 2002 documentary called Only The Strong Survive that I discovered when I wrote my post about the Impressions featuring some amazing footage of Jerry (and other soul acts). I must warn you - overall it has terrible production values and has gaping holes throughout in its narrative. But to see some of the performances - mostly recent (they skimped on archival stuff) is a treat, particularly his - I literally sobbed when he sang Your Precious Love. A friend and I were talking just yesterday about a possible road trip to Chicago to, among other things, drop in on a session of the Cook County commission that he sits on. ;)

wwolfe said...

I grew up watching "Upbeat," hosted by local Channel 5 weather guy, Don Webster. It featured a remarkable number of really good acts, some lip-synching, some singing live. It also carries the sad distinction of being Otis Redding's last TV performance: his small plane took off after a live gig in the evening after "Upbeat," and eventually crashed into Lake Monona in Wisconsin. A few years ago, there was a good one-hour documentary produced by Channel 5 in Cleveland celebrating what must have been the 40th anniversary of the show - great clips, and fun memories from Webster.

Holly A Hughes said...

Those were the days, eh, when music acts would appear on these local shows. MTV killed all that....