Monday, November 15, 2010

"Respect Yourself" / Huey Lewis and the News

No, I did not download this track, guys -- after all the discussion on my last post (which was really Uncle E's post), you think I'd download it?  No, I have gone on a binge of CD-buying the past couple of weeks, ever since Texas Music Week gave me the itch to possess the complete works of Douglas Wayne Sahm.  And did I stop there?  No I did not.  So all it took was a fleeting internet mention that Huey Lewis had a new album of Stax soul music covers, and I was one-clicking like mad to get it into my collection, never mind actually sampling a single track.

My weakness for Huey Lewis has been well documented -- at least by me, here. And of course I'm fond of Stax soul as well; that's a no-brainer.  Putting the two together seems like a match made in heaven, considering how Huey's raspy voice always threw an extra shiver of soul into the bland desert of mid-80s MTV-ized pop.

I won't deny that there may be a little opportunism in this album.  Huey and the News have been in low gear for quite some time, with no new album in nine years; as late-career revivals go, a covers album is the next best thing to a duets album. But I don't doubt Huey's sincerity -- he made sure to record the thing at Ardent Studios in Memphis, to get the authentic vibe -- and I love how enthusiastically he throws himself into these songs, with arrangements that are respectful yet not slavish copies of the old classics. (The News' sax player Johnny Colla has clearly been waiting for a chance to wail away on songs like this.) Just so long as you don't go down the track list, comparing Huey's versions to the originals, you're all right.  I mean, it's pretty hard to compete with Solomon Burke on "Cry To Me," or Otis Redding on "Just One More Day," or Joe Tex on "I Want To (Do Everything For You)." But Huey does a pretty decent job on his own terms.

When it all comes down to it, these are great songs that deserve to be heard over and over.  (And hey, if Steve Cropper can snag a few more songwriting bucks, what's the harm in that?).  If these covers lead people to the originals, everyone is better off.  And I sense that Huey would not disagree. 

So here's my pick off the album -- Huey's adorably fine cover of the Staples Singers' 1971 hit record "Respect Yourself."

By the way, the woman singing with Huey here is the great gospel singer Dorothy Morrison, best known for her lead vocal on the 1968 hit "Oh Happy Day."

"Respect Yourself" was one of Stax's black pride songs -- as opposed to the love-and-sex songs -- with a great message of empowerment.  And given all the Staples' female voices, it worked just as well as a feminist anthem, leading to a fair amount of crossover success. (Already #2 on the R&B charts, it reached #12 on the general pop charts.)  Written by Stax singer Luther Ingram with house songwriter Mack Rice, this track was produced by the great Al Bell, who lined up the Muscle Shoals rhythm section to drive the deeply funky groove of this song.

Listen to the lyrics -- this song does not toe the black power party line. Maybe it's a bit of sermon (notice that the lines don't even rhyme), but there were enough angry rants around at the time -- a thoughtful sermon was refreshing.  The singer stands up for preachers ("If you don't give a heck for the man with the Bible in his hand / Just get out of the way, and let the gentleman do his thing") and swats back at male chauvinists ("Oh you cuss around women and you don't even know their names / Then you're dumb enough to think that'll make you a big ol' man"); there's even a nod to environmentalists ("keep talking 'bout the president, that won't stop air pollution").

But the basic message is of self-esteem -- "If you don't respect yourself / Ain't nobody gonna give a good cahoot, na na na na."  Nowadays that may seem like a namby-pamby pitch, but self-hatred has always been a bit of an issue in the black community, and in 1971, it needed to be said.  Hey, in 2010 it doesn't hurt to say it again, either.

Like a lot of the great Memphis soul songs, "Respect Yourself" loosely pulses along over that throbbing rhythm groove, the lyrics ticking along like a syncopated sort of rap.  The gospel backing vocals are essential, chiming in with that communal warning note. (I keep picturing neighbors sitting on a stoop, adding their "amen, sisters.")  It's a pretty irresistible song, I think, and it's been covered by lots of other artists, including B. B. King, Joe Cocker, and -- I kid you not -- Bruce Willis.  (It was even kind of a hit for him.)

It's no wonder Huey Lewis wanted to give it a try.  Personally, I think he does a fantastic version here -- but then (sigh) I'm partial to Huey. . . .

1 comment:

wwolfe said...

I listened to Huey's version of "Little Sally Walker" when I saw the album listed at All Music Guide, and I was impressed. I think I might get this album - a good driving-home-from-work disc. (I love the subtle reference to the Klan in the lyrics to "Respect Yourself": "Take the sheet off your face, boy/It's a brand new day." On the downside, "Put your hand over your mouth when you cough/That'll help the solution" still makes me wince.)