Serendipity And The Hit Song
One of the fascinating aspects of the music world is the randomness of success, especially when it comes to songs.
Writing is often such an insular activity, and out of those moments of introspection, the unburdening of emotions and visits from the muse comes a little nugget of creative energy ready to set the world on its ear or, conversely, fall flat on its ass.
With the songs that hit the heights, it’s entertaining and educational to retrace their trajectory for, within that flight path and throughout the journey, there is predictably a fascinating and humorous tale to tell often based on early predictions of imminent failure.
I always remember country music legend George Jones commenting on what was to become one of the biggest songs of his career, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” George reckoned “nobody’s going to buy that morbid son of a bitch!”
Along this Iine, I think of the story told us by members of The Mamas and the Papas about their biggest hit song as part of the Hallway/TH Entertainment production Straight Shooter: The Story of John Phillips and the Mamas and the Papas.
The group’s Canadian vocalist Denny Doherty had been all over the group’s leader John Phillips about the pressing need to write more songs that were chart-worthy. With the kind of bravado that John was known for, he promised that he would sit down and write a hit song about a universal subject. He came up with “Monday Monday” and presented it to the other members of the group. They hated it. Michelle Phillips called it “pretentious” and even predicted that, if it was released as the follow up to “California Dreamin’,” which had previously done very well on the charts, their promising career was over. It was in fact released and became the group’s only number one Billboard hit, winning a Grammy Award in the process.
Another hit song prompted by a somewhat desperate request was “To Sir With Love,” the title song for the 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier and Glasgow-born singer Lulu, who was reportedly appalled at the quality of the songs that were originally in contention for that purpose.
The husband of her manager, Marion Massey, was Montreal-native Mark London, a composer, songwriter, and producer, who had moved to the UK in 1965. It was to him that Lulu turned to rescue her from what she felt was surely going to be an ignominious end to her budding film and singing career.
Oscar-winning lyricist Don Black (“Born Free”) had already written the full set of lyrics for a song titled “To Sir With Love,” and it was left to London to write a memorable melody in the one day he was given to complete the task. Reportedly, it only took 40 minutes of creative inspiration for him to come up with the emotive melody that would soon help propel the song to a six-week stay atop the Billboard chart in the late fall of 1967.
The song, which was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015, has had over 600 cover versions including one by Jann Arden on her Canadian Top 10 album, Happy?
The story of this next hit song begins with a wedding invitation.
In the late ‘90s, Juno Award-winning guitarist/composer Robert Michaels and vocalist Roberta Carter-Harrison, who was half of the Canadian duo Wild Strawberries with husband Ken Harrison, were asked to perform at the wedding of Alan Fletcher, Director of Strategic Marketing at Warner Music Canada.
Alan liked the pairing and suggested they write a song for the Warner compilation album Women & Songs – Volume 3 which he was putting together at the time.
The set would ultimately include 18 songs by some of the biggest female stars of the ‘90s including Alanis Morissette, Madonna, Annie Lennox, Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Jann Arden, and The Cranberries.
The result of the songwriting collaboration between Robert and Ken was the tune “Wrong To Let You Go,” billed on the album as Wild Strawberries/Robert Michaels.
The compilation was released in 1999 and, along the way, Alan Fletcher put them in touch with star German DJ/producer ATB (Andre Tanneberger) who magically transformed the song into a hot EDM/Trance track.
Under the new title “Let U Go,” but still with Roberta on vocals, it became an international dance hit.
The success didn’t stop there.
A reworked version in 2005 with male vocalist Jan Lochel, which appeared on ATB’s compilation album Seven Years: 1998-2005, brought renewed interest in the song as did a version featuring a collaboration between ATB and EDM/Trance kingpin Armin van Buuren.
The song soon became a standard of the genre. There are currently a few dozen versions and remixes on YouTube which have racked up millions of views.
Following the initial success, Roberta continued to work as the go-to vocalist for ATB while her husband Ken continued to collaborate with Tanneberger as a writer. Their group Wild Strawberries recently released the album, Vesper 50.
End of story for this song?
According to Robert Michaels, there is another version on its way in the not-too-distant future.