My brother likes to say that no song is a hit until a producer gets involved. What he means by that, I think, is that we don’t fall in love with a tune; we fall in love with a production. “Reelin’ In The Years”, “What You Won’t Do For Love”, “Blurred Lines”, or “Bust A Move”: these are all songs that depend on their production, and the input of the studio players, for their appeal. When I’m bored at my lunch gig, sometimes I’ll play a mash-up of “Royals” by Lorde, “More Than A Feelin'” by Boston, and “Sweet Home Alabama” by you better f**king know who did “Sweet Home Alabama”. They are all the same song. The same is true for “I Will Wait” by Mumford and Sons and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles. Same song, two very different productions, two blockbuster hits.
Sometimes it’s not even the production as a whole that makes a song. Sometimes it’s one musician, paid by the hour to “punch it up” a bit. Click the jump, and I’ll show you how one of my all-time favorite tunes relies on a studio extra.
The song “‘Til You Come Back To Me” was written and originally performed by Stevie Wonder, in 1967. It wasn’t easy to get — Wikipedia and other sources are a bit fuzzy on where it was actually distributed prior to its 1977 appearance on Looking Back. It’s a straightforward arrangement that sounds as old as the grave today, right down to the shrill horns.
Six years later, Aretha Franklin disinterred the tune for one of her mid-Seventies’ soul albums. Most people remember it for the flute — the first half of the Seventies was, regrettably, big on flute music. But if you listen to the song with your headphones on, you can hear that it’s absolutely driven by Chuck Rainey’s bass part. This video shows just how dynamic and interesting Rainey is here:
A full transcription is available here. To some degree, it’s what my old pal Patrick calls a “Seventies tits-out bass line,” but I’d suggest that the song doesn’t work without it. Turn the bass down and listen to the rest of the tune; it’s a freaking dirge in the verses, as mournful and dragging as any modern Genericana banjo slow jam. It needs the fills to maintain momentum.
So an iffy Stevie Wonder song becomes a great Aretha Franklin song because Chuck Rainey was on his “A” game that day — and don’t forget that this was probably either a first take or a second take, because back then they just didn’t spend that much time on the records. It took Donald Fagen and Walter Becker to realize the true potential of the studio itself as an instrument. Their master’s thesis on that concept was Aja. Look at the exhaustive list of musicians for that effort, and note the bass player on tracks 1,2,4,5,6,and 7. Even if the average radio listener didn’t know why Aretha had a hit on her hands in 1974, Donald and Walter knew: the magic is in the production.