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.
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