JERRY BUTLER / “For Your Precious Love”
Music and memory—they go hand in hand, don’t they? I don’t know why. I’m a writer, so I could easily speculate. Although I have read science books investigating how human memory works, I’m not a neurologist, so any analysis would be only a little better than speculation. I do know an old song can force me to slow down a minute and reflect. When I hear something that causes me to pause, usually it’s a blissful reflection, always it’s dramatic in the sense of deeply felt. Listening to Jerry Butler is for me an exercise in time travel. Especially when it’s warm but also in the winter, particularly New Orleans winters—I believe it hit sixty-something this past Christmas day. I’m old enough to smile and remember the poor man’s air conditioning. Back in the fifties on one of those summer evenings that prefigured a hellishly hot midnight, we’d climb in the old Kaiser sedan and head uptown to the ice house on Claiborne Avenue, purchase a fifty pound block of ice and return home to erect our home-made air conditioning. That’s right, a big-ass window fan humming in the open front room window with the dining table shoved up close to the contraption, old newspaper spread across the table top, a rusty-dusty fifty gallon tub atop the newsprint and the coolant—that block of ice—chilling off the humid air. Sometimes—I should say, most times—we had used a hand-shaver to create snowballs (ice scrapings saturated with flavored syrup) that were carved out of the ice block before the air conditioning was set up. Jerry’s nickname was “The Iceman.” That term was not just an abstraction turned into a witty metaphor. Butler’s coolness had emotional resonance in my personal experiences. Philly radio (WDAS) personality Georgie Woods is credited with giving Jerry the moniker “The Ice Man” because of the way Butler handled himself at a performance when the sound system broke down: Jerry coolly kept right on singing and brought the house down. We forget that he was more than a singer. He wrote many of the songs he sang. He was not only a poet describing a moment or an idea/ideal, he was also a master storyteller, able in three minutes to map the entire arc of a relationship or detail the most salient turning point memory. Narratives are not unusual in popular song, but increasingly as televised sitcoms and videos have taken firm hold, narratives in music have lessened. Plus, being of the Chicago black nationalist persuasion, Butler was interested in self-determination, i.e. the political and personal power to transform his environment. Butler was more than solely a signer. He was a music producer, a visionary and a cultural activist as well as an entreprenuer (he had a beer distribution company) and a politician. He set up a workshop to develop young songwriters. If you closely examine the credit lines you’ll find the names Donny Hathaway and Terry Callier among the songwriters, arrangers and backing musicians on Jerry Butler recording sessions. If you do a background check you’ll discover that the Philly International founders, Gamble and Huff, made their initial mark as producers at Mercury Records working with and producing Jerry Butler. And beyond the entertainment arena you’ll find that Jerry Butler decided to go into politics and has served five terms as a Chicago-based, Cook County Commissioner while maintaining an enduring status as a major vocalist of modern music. Aware of how history is often rewritten by others, Jerry Butler partnered with veteran Chicago journalist (Chicago Defender, Jet magazine, the Associated Press) Earl Smith to pen Only The Strong Survive – Memoirs of a Soul Survivor. Jerry Butler didn’t just make history, he also wrote history. Jerry Butler wrote and recorded “For Your Precious Love,” one of the genuine bedrock classics of modern music. Back on the Sunday after Katrina hit in 2005—that would be September 4th—BoL posted “For Your Precious Love” as our classic of the week. Go here to read what we said. Here it is over three years later and, for sentimental reasons, I’m reposting the song. I intended to pick one of the other Butler songs but... More than a rehash of a classic, this particular performance is documented in the movie Only The Strong Survive. Although the movie focuses mainly on Stax artists, a brilliant appearance by the Ice Man is also presented. Here you have a classic song given a classic reading including Jerry’s commentary tucked inside the performance. Jerry’s burnished baritone is beyond merely impressive. The breath control, the tonal warmth, the emotional sincerity are overwhelming. Listen to that last elongated note, swelling as it rises. Butler also had a string of male/female duets that attracted national attention including songs with Thelma Houston, Brenda Lee Eager and Betty Everett. “Let It Be Me” with Everett is probably the most popular and Stevie Wonder’s “Joy Inside My Tears” from the two albums Jerry cut with Thelma Houston on the Motown label is also very strong but I’m partial to “Ain’t Understanding Mellow” with Eager.Pay close attention to this one—the intensity of the singing mated with the realism of their depiction of a committed relationship. Also, I wish I knew who is played that brilliant bass line. This song is truly a classic. I guess I just vibrate on Butler’s philosophical vibe not to mention really dig the way Butler handles a lyric even when he's doing pop covers. Listen to what Jerry does with the Beatles associated “Something.” Now that’s really something. Despite the untidy arrangement with the under-recorded solo guitar opening and the incongruous extended instrumental closing, I also like the way Butler sings "I'm Afraid The Masquerade Is Over," slightly altering the lyrics as though he is actually talking to someone whom he deeply loved who has betrayed what he assumed was "their" love and as it turns out was actually "his" delusion. In an interview Butler told me that Nat King Cole was an early inspiration. I thought then and continue to believe Butler singing songs associated with Cole would be a knock out. Finally, Jerry Butler singing disco would seem to be oxymoronic but “Cooling Out” is a perfect song to encapsulate Butler’s philosophical outlook. “Please excuse me while I quit / go on and enjoy what I’m doing a little bit.” The arrangement with the piano in the foreground and the congas in the background, the female chorus complementing Butler’s baritone, the soft strings behind the hard-bouncing bass line, it all makes for a wonderful song. Generally speaking, I hate disco. Specifically speaking, I love “Cooling Out.” Rather than a greatest hits retrospective, I’ve selected a brace of songs that either demonstrate Butler’s skills as both a singer and songwriter, or which strike to the heart of my memories for various reasons. If you discount that annoying metronomic tick-tick-tick in the background, “Tammy Jones” is a perfect example of Butler’s ability to gracefully handle a timeless narrative—a young man’s argument to elope. Indeed, I follow it with “No Money Down,” a song that continues the chronicle into the bitter waters of break up, which in turn is followed with “Don’t Want To Hear It,” another story about love gone astray. Obviously the songs are arranged to follow the Congolese life cycle philosophy: birth-life-death-rebirth. You don’t need to know philosophy to enjoy Butler’s music but if you are aware of the aesthetic underpinnings, the music achieves an added depth. Jerry Butler and many of his cohorts were doing much more than trying to make hit records. They were creating a soundtrack of their lives, i.e the difficult but nonetheless exhilarating and valiant struggles to control their own environment, particularly the production of their own culture. These were the love songs of warriors and as such they perfectly illustrate why black music of the sixties and seventies remains both popular and important in this new millennium. —Kalamu ya Salaam Get your Jerry Butler on: “Only The Strong Survive” - The Philadelphia Sessions “I’m A Telling You” - Very Best of the Vee-Jay Years “I Only Have Eyes For You” – The Spice Of Life (out of print) “Let It Be Me” - Very Best of the Vee-Jay Years “Something” – You & Me (out of print) “Tammy Jones” – You & Me (out of print) “No Money Down” - The Philadelphia Sessions “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” - Very Best of the Vee-Jay Years “The Masquerade Is Over” – The Spice Of Life (out of print) “Make It Easy On Yourself” - Very Best of the Vee-Jay Years “Joy Inside My Tears” – Thelma and Jerry “Ain’t Understanding Mellow” - The Sagittarius Movement (out of print) “Nothing Says I Love You Like I Love You” - Nothing Says I Love You Like I Love You/The Best Love I Ever Had “For Your Precious Love” – Only the Strong Survive soundtrack “Cooling Out” - Nothing Says I Love You Like I Love You/The Best Love I Ever Had
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