054: Mickey & Sylvia, ‘Love is Strange’

Posted by on Jun 11, 2015 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week |

Mickey & Sylvia, ‘Love is Strange’

A long-time colleague left our place of work recently, a young woman with some interest in ‘old’ music (from the twentieth century). She asked for a compilation CD as a going-away present. A compilation CD, as you may or may not know, is the primary form of expression of a certain breed of arrested development baby-boomers, post-baby-boomers, and neo-baby-boomers. I recently read a painfully perceptive portrayal of this particular form of autism in Nick Hornsby’s novel “High Fidelity”.

Anyway, I slapped together a whole pile of music I thought might appeal to this person, but I didn’t invest enough time, energy or thought in it to give it a really distinctive theme (the way you’re supposed to, for compilation CDs). So when I needed to label it I was really stuck, and a bit embarrassed, as it seemed to be a profound and fundamental transgression of some self-imposted, arbitrary, adolescent rule. I called it ‘Indefensible Mix’.

And do you know what song jumped out at her, from way back in the 1900s? A very lovely easy-listening cut by the British duo Everything But The Girl, ‘Love is Strange‘ (nice clip!). EBTG was Ben Watt (guitars, arrangements, backing vocals) and Tracey Thorn (unforgettable lead vocals). They got together in 1982, and took their name from a sign placed in the window of a local furniture shop, which claimed “for your bedroom needs, we sell everything but the girl.” They’ve had a surprising and successful second career as mix artists (I choose to not fully grasp what that implies). But what appeals to me is their first career, which included a whole string of tasteful, stripped-down acoustic covers (and some originals), often with jazzy underpinnings. The long list of lovely hits includes Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It‘; a very successful version of one of the most-recorded songs I know from recent years, Cindy Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’, and my very favorite, the EBTG original ‘Each and Every One‘.

But of course when the young lady focused on ‘Love Is Strange’, it sent me right back to the original version. Before Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. Before Peaches & Herb. Before Don and Phil Everly. Before Lonnie Donegan. Even before Buddy Holly. Before all the movies and TV shows it has appeared in, including the silly ‘sexy’ cha-cha scene (supposedly spontaneous and improvised) in the movie ‘Dirty Dancing’ and (so I read in Wikipedia) ‘Deep Throat’.

The inspiring original was a #1-hit wonder in 1957 by Mickey ‘Guitar’ Baker and his guitar student Little Sylvia Vanderpool (later Robinson). The song features provocative verbal interplay between Mickey and Sylvia, a memorable guitar riff, a quasi-Latin beat, a catchy melodic line and an indelible harmony. They recorded a bunch of other R&B material, but nothing else stuck in our collective AM mind. Here’s a clip of their ‘Dearest’ (which Buddy Holly also recorded) with a bunch of really great photos. And here are the very forgettable ‘No Good Lover’ and ‘Oh Yeah! Uh Huh‘. But you will be pleased to learn, as I was, that Mickey had a great career as a very popular studio guitarist at the time. And Sylvia not only had a #3 hit sleaze soul hit in 1973 with ‘Pillow Talk’, as explicit for 1973 as ‘Love Is Strange’ was for 1957; but also in the 1980s the little lady became a producer for the Sugar Hill label and a major force in the emergence of rap music.

It’s interesting that many of the talented covering artists try to copy the seductive repartee from M&S, and none come close to achieving the raw, coy, playful tone of the original. That Sylvia Vanderpool must have been one heck of a, um, lady.

Love Is Strange’ it turns out was written by the great Bo Diddley, published under the name of his wife, Ethel Smith, but released only in 2007 as a bonus track on ‘I’m a Man: The Chess Masters, 1955-1958’. As much as I admire Mr Diddley, I’ve sure been enjoying listening to Mickey & Sylvia, to Everything But The Girl, and to all the other fine versions over the years. And as one of those compulsive compilationists, I think I’ll go on touting it for all the young ‘uns out there in whose ears it still seems to find pleasure, 50+ years on.


1 Comment

Recruiting Animal
Jun 12, 2015 at 1:53 pm

I had no idea that this song was so popular. Mickey and Sylvia seems to ring a bell for me but the only version I know I heard before, for sure, is Peaches and Herb which, after a quick listen this morning, I think I like better.

I’m not so keen on the Everything But The Girl but Buddy Holly’s smooth one is okay and I like the Bo Diddley original.

I’ll listen to the others later. Thanks.



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