WILLIAM DEVAUGHN / “Be Thankful” (Long Version)
There’s more than a little irony in William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful For What You Got” eventually becoming known as a gangster’s anthem. At the time DeVaughn wrote “Be Thankful,” (now available on Be Thankful For What You Got) he was actually a Jehovah’s Witness. Listen carefully to the lyrics. We all know the chorus, but DeVaughn wasn’t giving a shout out to the pimps and hustlers who actually had those “great, big Cadillacs”; he was talking to the ordinary working folks, the ones who “might not have a car at all.”
“Be Thankful” is often confused for a Curtis Mayfield song, but that high, effortless tenor notwithstanding, DeVaughn’s story is actually closer to that of Timmy Thomas, another ordinary cat who walked into a recording studio one day in the early Seventies with several hundred dollars and a damned good song and walked out with a #1 R&B hit. The difference is, the studio DeVaughn walked into just happened to be the one where the legendary MFSB house band recorded (think the Spinners, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, Stylistics, etc.). So while Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” succeeds in spite of the eerie spaces between the electro-beats Thomas used for accompaniment, DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful” succeeds (at least in part) because of the serene perfection of MFSB’s groove.
The trance-like nature of the full seven-minute version of “Be Thankful” is no coincidence—DeVaughn was testifying. Separate the lyrics from the groove and the religious undertones of the song become more pronounced. “You may not have a car at all. But remember, brothers and sisters, you can still stand tall. Just be thankful for what you’ve got.” Back in the day (according to DeVaughn’s bio), “Be Thankful” even got airplay on some gospel radio stations. I guess they knew the truth about DeVaughn’s tune: it isn’t an anthem after all; it’s a prayer.
“Be Thankful” has been sampled, quoted and covered numerous times, but even though none of them measure up to the original, and even though we’re filing this one as a Classic, not a Cover, I still wanted to drop a few of my favorite versions in the jukebox.
In 1991, the British trip-hop band Massive Attack turned away from the weirdness and gloom long enough to record a fairly faithful version. I like the way Tony Bryan (one of Massive Attack’s rotating army of vocalists) sings the phrase “you may not have a car at all,” playing with the word ‘have’ the way he does.
Another British performer, the criminally-underrated Omar Lye-Fook teamed up with Dallas’-own Erykah Badu to record a version for his 2000 album Best By Far.
The beat is a little too bouncy for its own good, but Omar is as soulful as ever and both Kalamu and I are suckers for just about anything Ms. Erykah lends her vocals to. (The qualifier is for me. Kalamu likes anything Erykah does. ☺ )
The last version, by roots reggae veteran Donovan Carless, is the earliest. According to Carless’ website, Carless recorded it in 1972; an impossibility, given that DeVaughan recorded the original in ’74. Still, the deep skank and classic roots style of Carless’ version marks it as a product of the glory decade for Black American popular music (and Jamaican popular music…and Brazilian popular music…you get the point), the Seventies.
—Mtume ya Salaam
When you got a son whose alter ego is Sherlock Holmes, sometimes you ain’t got to say nothing but sit back and check out the science he’s dropping. Occasionally, he may get a bit too deep for his own good and need a hand to climb out of some hole or another he has dug for himself. But when he’s on, he’s on and you can’t say nothing but shout: good looking out! Ashe. Amen. And right on, young blood, write on!
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, February 12th, 2006 at 6:05 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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