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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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. ☺ )
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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


It’s elementary         

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.


10 Responses to “WILLIAM DEVAUGHN / “Be Thankful” (Long Version)”

Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah Says:
February 12th, 2006 at 5:31 pm

For some reason, this track reminds me most of Steve Parks’ Movin’ in the Right Direction – another track that is classic rare groove. It’s similarly affirmative, soulful and even hints at heaven.

That by the way is why the Brits picked up on it. The break beat aesthetic is just the thing that works at the Jazz Cafe venues that Omar, Massive Attack, Mica Paris, Courtney Pine and co frequent.

Regarding Omar’s version, although it was first recorded with our girl Erykah, record company madness ensued, and the track was re-released with Angie Stone substituting her vocals – as evidenced in the video that was shot for the American relaunch of the album – 4 years after it was recorded. I think there is some sort of irony here since Erykah was herself a substitute for Jill Scott on The Root’s You Got Me – again a case of record company madness.

On the matter of criminal neglect, some of us are still waiting for Omar’s 1997 album This Is Not A Love Song, to see a release on this side of the Atlantic. But we’ll take what we’ll get and, like DeVaughn says, we have much to be thankful of.


Qawi Says:
February 15th, 2006 at 11:32 am

Nice retrospective…so you’re telling me there is no Curtis Mayfield version??? LOL!

Thanks for the history lesson. Of the many things that Curtis Mayfield wrote, this was not one of them. William DeVaughn’s name is almost one of obscurity, but most folks can identify with this song. Which is why I’m sure it was easy to mistake him for Curtis Mayfield, considering his lyrical preaching through song. And one cannot underestimate MFSB’s influence in this groove either…vibraphone, bass, congo-like drum beats, etc.

BTW, yes, Omar is criminally underrated. I have collected his albums through eBay, and other online shops and his music is very good. Although of Best By Far, Be Thankful is probably one of the tracks that I tend to skip. I’m too much a purist…at least in this song accept alternative versions for now.


Ama Says:
February 16th, 2006 at 1:45 pm

OK – Mtume gets mad love BIG time for this week’s selection. And give thanks to Kalamu for raising Sherlock to do his homework!

I have been wondering what happened to Omar the last couple of weeks for some reason, which might be connected to the Tricky selection that came up a few weeks back (I’m on slowband so couldn’t get into that one.) Anyway this week’s selection is for Black London: a serious alternative when Rap went permanently gangsta and took the white walls-as-aspiration way too literally. I was a huge fan of the efforts made by Omar, Mica Paris, Young Disciples and Massive Attack, among countless others, who played rootsy, musical, deeply soulful, funky, jazz-inspired music to rock the whole world, if only we might have switched over from when rap hit mainstream for just a few minutes. Check it: Track it: Massive Attack had to drop the attack for the US release of this album cause it coincided with the Gulf War – the first one I mean. (No wonder they look so out of it in the picture you’ve posted – probably never recovered.) Anyway I could go on and on waxing lyrical and sentimental about 1 million recollections, but the Massive Attack version of Be Thankful is how I learned the words and even though I always thought it was Curtis Mayfield who did the original, I am tickled to find the originator might just be related to my late husband, Winston James Devaughn.

Big respect, for years,
Ama
Kingston, JAMAICA


Stan Says:
February 17th, 2006 at 1:40 am

I love the original but was introduced to the song by the Massive Attack posse, whose version had an astounding video that was a single shot following an exotic dancer into a club and documenting her increasingly naked moves to the song; something definately for late night TV…

Love the site…


Adam Says:
February 17th, 2006 at 9:25 pm

Wow… great site, and great first page for me to stumble on here because I’ve been groovin’ on this song for a few months now, but only through another (one)version, that of Bunny Clarke, produced by Lee Perry. It has more of a slow, spooky feel, great riddim that kinda sounds like Perry’s “Fever” riddim… also on that disc is The Classics’ “Civilization” which hits me just as hard. Both were released as seven inches, but I’ve got them on a collection called “Lee Perry & Friends: Shocks of Mighty.”

I had asked a reggae sleuth friend of mine if there were any other tracks on this riddim–he didn’t know, but said it was a Curtis Mayfield song. So I guess I won’t be finding that yellow Curtom label seven inch in the thrift store anytime soon…

It’s amazing the totally different feel of the DeVaughn and Clarke versions… I can provide the latter if you like.

Thank you for the education, music is life.

Adam Rogers
Charlottesville, VA USA


Paul Says:
February 18th, 2006 at 8:48 am

Great post. Beautiful song.
I just recently got acquainted to the original (I think through SoulSides). I loved the Massive Attack-version, but after I heard the original it took me some time to appreciate that cover as more than a copy and see the subtle differences. One thing I love in their version is simply the way it is part of the “Blue Lines”album, following after the whispered titletrack. The song becomes part of the composition of moods (somewhat depreciatively called weirdness and gloom) on the album. The grace of the song rises from the mood of introspection. The whole album is built up of contrasting feelings of unease, happiness, anxiety, acceptance, anger, doubt and hope.

I also liked the other versions especially the reggea version. I would love to hear the Bunny Clarke version produced by Lee ‘Scratch’Perry.
Peace.


Rama Says:
March 29th, 2006 at 10:32 pm

I’ve heard what is purported to be the original but have the Perry recorded version by Bunny Clarke, and I must say I actually prefer the latter. But then I’ve been enjoying deep immersion in Jamaican music for well over a decade and I’m biased. I haven’t heard the other modern versions, but I’m so appreciative of Clarke’s I don’t really care to. I would however love to hear Carless’s version, and could be convinced that he’s the original given the way original waxes would surreptitiously pass between countries at that time, as well as the economic advantage one would have in the states to exploit a good cut compared with Jamaica.

Thanks for this review and forum!


lilkunta Says:
May 3rd, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Is Will Devaughn Raheem Devaughn’s dad?


RC Says:
May 31st, 2010 at 3:09 am

William DeVaughn’s was the brightest of sunny afternoons driving by the lake of your choice. You can’t top it.


Sara Earlle Says:
June 24th, 2013 at 6:21 pm

to Ama post 2006 re her late husband Winston James Devaughn, was he born in 1958?
Wonder if it is the same Winston I knew in London, England. You can find me on facebook if you want to chat about this x


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