The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
Why do people do duets? For the sheer joy of combining our talents with someone else’s. It’s why team games are so popular: it’s not all about the individual, but the pleasure of seeing someone else adding to what we do.
That is how duets are supposed to work, anyway, and in the early part of the pop era there were some gems. We’ve got to start somewhere, so how about Deep Purple, the song that started life in 1933 as a piano instrumental by Peter DeRose before Mitchell Parish added lyrics five years later. Various people recorded it in the coming years, but the version we’re concerned with here is the 1963 incarnation by Nino Tempo and April Stevens, a brother and sister act whose casual enjoyment of their craft gave the dreamy melody a poignant tone somewhere between happy and wistful.
Around the same time, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, a married couple who had been singing duets since the mid 50s, released I Want to Stay Here, an outwardly innocent piece of love talk which contained the urge for privacy and intimacy that young lovers feel. They don’t want to go to the party, they want to stay home and have a party for two.
These two songs reflected the gradual change from young adulthood to teenage self-assertion that was going on at the time. Lawrence and Gorme and Tempo and Stevens came across as fine, upstanding, clean-cut people destined to become responsible adults almost before their youthful flower had blossomed.
Then came Sonny and Cher, a long-haired man and a heavily made up young woman, with I Got You Babe, in which they complained that they weren’t being taken seriously as people. While Cher would go on to be a huge star, it was Sonny Bono who was the senior partner at the time, with his links with Phil Spector and a burgeoning career as a songwriter (Needles and Pins, among others).
Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan took the reins back for the old-style crooners with Passing Strangers, a minor hit in the US on its original release in 1957 and a bigger success when reissued in the UK in 1968. The kids who bought it then didn’t know Vaughan and Eckstine were respected jazz singers from another generation, the big band era; we just knew it was a great tune and had something classy about it. It was a bit showbiz, and that wasn’t a cool thing at the time, but what’s good is good.
Everybody knew who Frank Sinatra was, though, and he wasn’t giving up his hard-earned stardom just because the world was full of rock bands. Somethin’ Stupid, his duet with daughter Nancy, hit the same spot on the target as Passing Strangers. On a technical note it is interesting that they didn’t sing alternate lines, but harmonized throughout, with Frank’s part carrying the melody and Nancy’s adding light and shade, although what she was given required more discipline to sing. You can hear she wasn’t making it up as she went along; she was singing the notes the arranger wanted her to sing.
All the songs we’ve looked at so far have been fairly serious and romantic, but in 1967 Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood added a bit of fun with their recording of Jackson. Also recorded by Johnny Cash and June Carter, Jackson features a frustrated womanizer threatening to give up his stable relationship and go to the sinful city of Jackson to sow some belated wild oats. His partner just thinks he’s pathetic and would make a fool of himself (which, if this weren’t just a pop song, might be seen as the root of the problem rather than just the reaction to it).
We’re back in romantic territory for Elton John and Kiki Dee’s 1976 hit Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which some sources take as an affectionate pastiche of Motown duets by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston or Tammi Terrell (It Takes Two, The Onion Song, Ain’t Nothin Like The Real Thing etc). Whether that is true or not, it was a huge hit that is still popular today.
The brother/sister combination was an obvious choice for the Osmonds, and Donny and Marie duly raked in the cash with Morning Side of the Mountain and Leaving It All Up To You.
Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway had a string of hits including Where Is the Love and The Closer I Get To You, while after Hathaway’s premature death Flack enjoyed great solo success and also slotted in a duet with Peabo Bryson, Tonight I Celebrate My Love.
Then there was Too Much Too Little Too Late by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams… and the list goes on.
Next week: second golden age and the emergence of the fake duet