When is a love song not a love song?
Most love songs are sung to a person who welcomes the attention, who gives back the affection and who wants to be with the singer/artist. But in the real world, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes love is one way, with only the singer being the one aware of the situation.
The first time I heard a song about love that wasn’t returned was in 1964. The Girl From Ipanema" defined unrequited love for me. "When she passes, I smile but she doesn't see, she just doesn't see." Originally called “Menina que Passa” (“The Girl Who Passes By”), it was conceived as a part of a musical comedy about a Martian who lands in the middle of Brazil’s carnival and becomes obsessed by a girl in a bikini. The rest of the music faded into obscurity when the musical didn’t get produced while this beautiful bossa nova became an international sensation, overpowering two Beatles songs in the process. Although it rose just to number five on the charts, it passed the Beatles "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and then went on to become the most recorded song ever, edging out Paul McCartney’s "Yesterday." To me, the thing that makes it so haunting is Astrud Gilberto’s accented English and the gender flip. She is singing lyrics that are clearly for a man. At first I thought that the singer/songwriter was so shy that he had to get someone else to sing it for him. No so. She was chosen because she was the only one in the studio who had enough fluency in English to make it sound right. Otherwise, her husband Joao Gilberto, would have been the singer and it would have been done totally in Portuguese.
Another 1964 hit was "Going Out Of My Head" by Little Anthony and the Imperials. In it, Little Anthony croons that he is being driven mad because "I see you each morning, but you just walk past me, you don't even know that I exist." Although it was written by Bobby Randazzo, a childhood friend of the band, especially for them, it was quickly covered and made jazzy by Wes Montgomery the following year. Since then, it has been embraced by jazz artists from Ella Fitzgerald to Ramsey Lewis to Frank Sinatra to Luther Vandross.
"My Cherie Amour" hit big in 1969 for Stevie Wonder. Originally written for a girlfriend he had in school, the tune's upbeat message speaks to the sweetness of new love. However, he modified the lyrics after their breakup. Keeping the melody but removing her name and generalizing the object of his affection in French, he laments that she isn’t paying him any attention, "I've been near you, but you never noticed me." It’s been covered by Anita Baker, Quincy Jones, Minnie Ripperton and Ramsey Lewis.
"Just My Imagination" done by the Temptations was a sledge hammer in a velvet glove when it was released in 1971. The first line says "Each day through my window I watch her as she passes by," while at the end of the same stanza he admits that "But in reality, she doesn't even know me." Next, the chorus clearly states that he is in deep trouble because "it’s just my imagination running away with me." Then the song goes on to tell of his dreams, "A cozy little home out in the country with two children, maybe three." Poor guy! It was done as a nod to the ballads that the Temps did back in the 1960s. As a departure from the psychedelic sound they were recording at that time, they didn’t have much hope for it, but it hit big. Later it was covered by Larry Carlton, Booker T and the MG’s, Babyface and Gwyneth Paltrow, Euge Groove and Peter White, just to name a few of the smooth jazzers.
Roberta Flack’s 1973 hit "Killing Me Softly’"qualifies as unrequited love because the lyric "He sang as if he knew me in all my dark despair, then he looked right through me as if I wasn't there" sums it up nicely. I find that in all these songs it’s the recurring idea, someone looking right at you but not seeing you. And I appreciate this one because it isn’t done in the gender flip mode. It was written for a woman, sung by a woman owing the feeling she is having.
The ever enigmatic Earth Wind and Fire may have written one for us in 1975 called "Reasons." The line "I'm in the wrong place to be real, I'm longing to love you, just for a night" makes me suspect that it is. But with most of their lyrics, I am never sure.
In 1984 Luther Vandross gender flipped the Carpenters 1971’s hit – "Superstar" (Long ago and oh so far away), which was a song about the relationship between a groupie and a rock star. The performer has moved on, and she is left with only his song on the radio to cling to. Hitting the number two slot on the charts, held out of first place by Rod Stewart’s "Maggie Mae," it was originally recorded in 1970 by Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen Revue on their Live album. It helped propel Rita Coolidge from backup singer to soloist. Yet, it didn’t even hit the charts until Richard Carpenter changed one line of the lyric. Hearing the then up and coming Bette Midler sing it on the Tonight show, Richard decided to reduce the risqué factor by changing one line. "I can hardly wait to sleep with you again" turned into "I can hardly wait to be with you again" with the songwriter's permission, and it got plenty of air time across the country. Luther’s version makes me wonder which female superstar he was referring when he sang "Your guitar, it sounds so sweet and clear, but you're not really here, it's just the radio." Could he be referring to Traci Chapman or Joyce Cooling or Sheryl Crow? Sadly, we’ll never know.
And Lionel Ritchie did a smooth job with his unrequited love song "‘Hello" in 1984. From the first words, we know that this man has it bad and he even admits that it is a one way street by saying "I've been alone with you inside my mind." But he’s hopeful because he asks the musical question "Hello! Is it me you're looking for?" as the chorus. Ten years later Luther Vandross worked his magic on it to make it even smoother on his album, Songs.
Now, after all this musical game of Loves-me,Loves-me-not, the only thing I can think to do is to take the advice of Crosby, Stills and Nash. "Don't be angry, don't be sad, Don't sit crying over good times you've had . . . Sometimes you can't be with the one you love, honey, so love the one you're with!"
~Lydia Barnes (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Our Smooth Video of the Day: Earth Wind and Fire and a live version of "Reasons"