Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sam & Dave's "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby"

Sam & Dave recorded Issac Hayes's and Dave Porter's "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" in Memphis in November of 1966. The song was issued as a single on Stax Records early in 1967, backed with "A Small Portion Of Your Love." There are times when a song can tell you something that you didn't know you knew. When I was maybe twelve or thirteen I bought Sam & Dave's Soul Men for a quarter at a garage sale. I knew "Soul Man" from the Blues Brothers, and I dug the 60s' lime green colors on the cover, the mod design, and especially Sam Moore and Dave Prater's pork pie hats and peg-leg suit pants in the photos on the back cover. The vinyl was terribly scratchy, but the songs grooved wonderfully: "A Rich Kind Of Poverty," "The Good Runs The Bad Away," and the title track were irresistibly funky and warm, sincere-sounding to my teenage ears. These guys are singing truths: I understood this without really understanding. The love songs on Soul Men were sung with such lived-in urgency and desperation that I believed them, though I had no experience yet with romantic love.

These songs prepared me for "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," a delirious ballad that I wouldn't hear for many years. By then I'd been in and out of a long, vexed relationship that I'd let linger for too long, mistreating my girlfriend in childish, self-centered ways. She certainly deserved none of it; I should have broken up with her earlier than I did. Now, when I listen to "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" I hear something that I never heard during all the years of that relationship. I feel as if I've known Amy for years, even before we met, and the devastation I share with her when she's down—when she's unhappy, embarrassed, frustrated—is lived-in, ancient, frightening, glad and heartening. The simple but enormous lesson in the song—when your loved one is down, you will be too—was a lesson I acted out before, dutifully, and with good intentions, but onstage, in front of footlights. When I heard the song after being with Amy for a while, my knees went out: yes, this is love, helplessly.

Sam & Dave sing this knowledge with deep gratitude. They address their singing to an unknown other who might be doubting the relationship, because "she's no good." They respond, "she's my woman and I know I'm her man." Their confidence is palpable, and moving, and, as in all of their greatest performances, Moore and Prater sing as if they're one man, navigating between the conflicts and harmonies every one endures, the tenors and baritones of being alive. And one line always grabs me: "Oh, you just wouldn't understand." They're signing to the doubters, but as I listen they're singing to me in the earlier relationship, that kid. You just can't understand yet....

If you're in a relationship and you're not sure if it's the right thing, listen to this song. It will tell you.


Anonymous said...

Dave Marsh said he received criticism from another scribe (Marcus?) that his book of the 1001 greatest singles of RNR included too many by Sam and Dave.

Ha, he (and I and probably you) said!!


Joe Bonomo said...

Well, there are three S&D singles in that book, or 0.002997003% of 1,001. I'd certainly be happier with a higher percentage!