‘Till You Come Back To Me

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.

23 Replies to “‘Till You Come Back To Me”

  1. Joe

    Absolutely, a collaboration. Wasn’t sweet home Alabama a movie or something? Steely Dan, Leanard Skinner, and other music of that time period are favorites. Rolling Stones gimme shelter is another song that relies on a studio extra to give the song that extra flair.

    • Mark

      I read a piece about the Gimme Shelter recording session. Allegedly, the backup singer was called in during the wee hours, very pregnant, and belted it out. She soon after had a miscarriage. That’s dark. That song haunts me now, but I still love it.

      • Ronnie Schreiber

        “That was a dark, dark period for me,” [Merry Clayton] told the Los Angeles Times in 1986, “but God gave me the strength to overcome it. I turned it around. I took it as life, love and energy and directed it in another direction, so it doesn’t really bother me to sing ‘Gimme Shelter’ now. Life is short as it is and I can’t live on yesterday.”

  2. Rich

    Your brother’s right! Compare the pre-Trevor Horn versions of FGTH “Relax” and “Two Tribes” to what eventually became hits

  3. Hogie roll

    Something I’ve often pondered roughly related but about cars: a Toyota camry and lotus Evora are approximately the same mass and volume of steel, aluminum, rubber and plastic. But the engineering and design lead to two radically different outcomes.

    Or a Hyundai and BMW 3 series. Roughly the same amount of “stuff” is there. One is praised, one is tolerated at best. The engineering that goes into the thing is the magic.

  4. DirtRoads

    Funny to see the bands I grew up with being lauded like Buddy Holly and that genre when I was a kid. Time keeps marching onward.

  5. Rob

    My fave mashup is probably “Riders on the Storm” with “Rapture”. It will dominate your internal airwaves for days at a time. And who could forget Bob Ritchie bringing you “Sweet Home Alabama” by way of London Werewolves, as popularized on the shores of Lake Michigan. Or something.

  6. Ronnie Schreiber

    “It took Donald Fagen and Walter Becker to realize the true potential of the studio itself as an instrument. ”

    I think Mr. Zappa predated them on that concept by at least a decade.

    Also, I don’t think you’re giving Aretha enough credit. Unless Stevie’s version, she finds the groove right away and swings it all the way through.

  7. CGHill

    Speaking of Eagles rewrites, compare “The Long Run” to Otis Clay’s “Trying To Live My Life Without You.”

    And there’s Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” which is basically the vector sum of “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Werewolves of London.”

  8. Rambo Furum

    It’s odd that a live performance musician is lauding production as the magic.

    I believe it was Benjamen (sic) Walker that posited the difference between a song and a performance piece. A song is made by a songwriter. The rhythm or melody and the lyrics are the eternal magic that transfer over to any performance. Most recorded music, at least pop music, is what he deemed performance pieces. The appeal is solely the confluence of certain performers coming together in a certain way.
    Cover songs tend to flush out the difference. It there are a myriad of cover artists doing versions as good as, if not better, than the original, it is a song. Bob Dylan, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin etc. are songwriters. Conversely, if every cover tune falls short of the original, it is likely a performance piece. Sorry, Led Zeppelin songs are performance pieces, as are just about anything else heard on the radio these days.
    I had to check of Sweet Home Alabama. being Skynyrd. Free Bird is a song.

  9. Jorge Monteiro

    All those American blockbuster hits, were blockbuster hits in Portugal too(with less revenue/profit hihihihihi)

  10. Gus Plus

    George Martin and the Beatles knew a thing or two about the value of a studio and production. But anyway, I agree with your thoughts on the bass bringing Aretha’s song alive. The average music listener doesn’t pay much attention to the bass unless it’s rippling their mocha latte from the car beside them.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      They absolutely did.

      But I would argue that Steely Dan was the first group to assemble songs from nothing but parts — most of the Beatles songs were at least practiced and performed live a few times prior to being recorded.

  11. Joe

    Aja and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors share a time period, it is almost amazing that Rumors did as well as it did compared to Aja, all that I can figure is that they were playing to different audiences. The two groups couldn’t be farther apart in the spectrum.

  12. Grahambo

    As always, this is a very well written and thought provoking piece. I’m not sure about More than a Feeling and Sweet Home Alabama (or, for that matter, Royals) being the same song. I know they have the same DCG chord progression but, without A-B’ing them, I don’t recall the melodies being that similar – – and melodies, unlike chord progressions, are what’s copyrightable. (If every song with that progression is the same song, then The Cult have exactly one song!) Or that’s the textbook version, anyway – the infringement verdict for Blurred Lines means that, apparently, even production/arrangement is now copyrightable – at least in some judge’s and jury’s confused eyes. In any event, that Blurred Lines example really does prove your point as does the Aretha/Stevie comparison. I agree Rainey’s bassline is fantastic and really makes the “song” what it is. It strikes me as a 70s update of a James Jamerson line (high praise) and, as such, more musical than what i typically think of as a “70s tits out” bassline (never thought of it in quite those terms but that’s an evocative way of putting it!)

  13. galactagog

    hey this was a great post!!

    very interesting….and an astute observation about Chuck working with Fagan/Becker on AJA



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