PHILLY SOUL WEEK
"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.