Mickey & Sylvia: "Love Is Strange"

When Mickey & Sylvia released “Love Is Strange” in 1956, the track became a Top 20 hit; though innovative enough to influence artists like Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Holly, the song would be the duo’s only chart success.

Sharing the composer credit are Mickey Baker, Sylvia Robinson and Ellas McDaniel, better known as Bo Diddley. For many years, however, who wrote “Love Is Strange” had been in dispute. Diddley’s guitarist Jody Williams maintained that the roots of “Love Is Strange” lie in a riff he wrote for “Billy’s Blues," singer Billy Stewart’s debut. Williams claimed he then used the riff when he co-wrote “Love Is Strange” with Diddley. With Williams on lead guitar, Diddley recorded “Love Is Strange” for Chess Records in May 1956.

Williams told Steve Cushing and Jim O’Neal that before “Love Is Strange” was cut, Diddley performed the number on tour.
Somebody told me, say, “You shouldn’t be playing certain songs, because certain songs you’re playing, new stuff, certain people are taking a liking to it. They’re paying a lot of attention to it.” Well, I didn’t pay too much attention to that, because that was the first time somebody’d told me that. So we’re playing “Love Is Strange,” and I happen to look around. There’s Mickey Baker right at the end of the curtain. Behind the curtain, right at the end of it. Just taking in all he can. So I told Bo, I said, “We better stop playing the song here, because too many people are taking an interest to it and we haven’t recorded it yet.”
Back in Chicago at Chess, Williams learned he was right to be cautious.
Bo Diddley came in and he pulled me over to the side, and he said he had let Mick and Sylvia have that song and for me not to say anything to Chess—“And don’t say anything to Leonard Chess”—and I’ll get my writer’s royalties.

Well, as long as I’m getting my writer’s royalties, I wasn’t going to say anything. See, usually if you’re under contract with one record company, they’ve got top priority for whatever you do…

Well, I don’t know how they found out, but a few weeks later they found out that I wrote the song. Bo Diddley is the one that gave it to Mickey and Sylvia. He told me they gave him two thousand dollars. I didn’t get anything. I just kept my mouth shut.
Mickey “Guitar” Baker was an in-demand session player in 1955 when singer Sylvia Vanderpool, then a struggling singer known as “Little Sylvia,” asked Baker for guitar lessons. (Sylvia later became Sylvia Robinson after marrying Joe Robinson.) Baker, 11 years Robinson’s senior, came up with the idea for a duo following the success of Les Paul and Mary Ford. TV host Clay Cole described Mickey & Sylvia's dynamic stage performance.
Mickey & Sylvia were strikingly attractive, Mickey in elegant dinner jackets and Sylvia in shimmering, clinging evening gowns, strapped into guitars, pacing the stage like jungle cats in a seduction ritual. Their guitar riffs and electronic rim-shots accentuated the lyrical teasing. “Oh, Mickey? Yes, Sylvia?” Their “talking guitars” made love; the sexual tension was electric, one of the most sensual stage acts I have ever witnessed.
Dave Marsh suggests that Mickey & Sylvia’s banter may have been a precursor to rap music.  Marsh describes how Mickey & Sylvia came to record “Love Is Strange” in October 1956 with Mickey on lead guitar.
Their manager persuaded Bob Rolontz, a former Billboard reporter running Groove Records, RCA’s R&B label, to sign them up. They came up with “Love is Strange” at their second session…

Rolontz at first thought the concept was crazy, especially because they wanted a children’s chorus to sing the refrain, then insisted that the duo sing it themselves and rehearse the number with unheard-of thoroughness. When the knew what they wanted to do, instead of going in and cutting live, he began to overdub, building up the guitar parts through multitracking and repeated recordings. The staid RCA engineers told Rolontz he was crazy. He told them to shut up.

The result is the most polished version of the Bo Diddley beat ever pieced together.
In their biography of Jimi Hendrix, Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek write that “Love Is Strange” was “one of the most influential songs of the period” for young Jimmy, then an elementary school student working out songs on an old ukelele with one string found by his father while cleaning out someone’s garage.
“Love Is Strange” was important for a number of reasons. First, Sylvia’s vocal phrasing, particularly on words like “ba-bee,” was picked up by Buddy Holly (another big favorite of Jimmy’s at the time) and incorporated into his own distinctive vocal style…

The song was also a prime example of using the guitar to simulate the dialogue between a man and a woman. Having sung as a duo all through the song, towards the end, Sylvia’s call is suddenly answered by the ringing voice of Mickey’s guitar. Baker’s single-string dry-toned solo enthralled Jimmy. “After he heard that,” says [Jimmy’s brother] Leon, “he really started to look for some outlet, playing songs and figuring out things on one string.”
Mickey & Sylvia formally broke up by the late 1950s but would occasionally record together until 1965. Guitarist Jody Williams, at Chess’ urging, went to court in 1957 claiming "Love Is Strange" was copied from "Billy's Blues." Williams lost the case in 1961 and never again spoke to Diddley, who told Don DiMuccio (.pdf) he didn’t profit from “Love Is Strange” either.
I didn’t get nothing out of that. A lot of people recorded the tune. I sold part of it [the rights] but I still kept the BMI part of it... Being hungry I didn’t have no money. I think they offered me a few bucks for it... A couple of people that sold over a million copies, and I don’t have no idea where the money went...  A lot of people did it, and I ain’t seen no checks come in from nobody... If you do squawk, it takes you about 5 years to try to find out any damn thing. The people can die man, and then who do you go after then?

See, it’s a screwed-up business. That word that they say [sings] “There’s no business, like show business,” they didn’t lie! Whoever wrote that sucker, he wrote a helluva thing! The thieves have got it made man, because they know exactly what to do, and how long to do it.

 

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