People Got To Be Free – Dionne Warwick
…why don’t you ask me my opinion ? it’s the natural situation…
Selmeston, East Sussex. 1968/69. I took the bus to Lewes every day from my little village of 200 people. A callow youth, my school had just gone comprehensive, which means that Lewes Grammar, where I’d served a survivor’s 1st year complete with detention, punches to the face and rugby, suddenly flowered into a school next to Grange Gardens (1st and 2nd years only), football and girls. Need I describe every ray of sunshine that ensued ? At home, we were a single-parent family but around this time one of my Mum’s friends moved in with her daughter. I think she was called Heather, same as my mum. I remember little about Heather but for one detail burned indelibly into my retina, of a photograph of her sitting in a meadow somewhere, which when you turned it over, bore the inscription “Pensive In The Grass“. We howled and hooted with laughter when we discovered this – poor Heather, she was probably in one of those singles clubs with my Mum – Gingerbread I think it was called – writing to single men who wanted to meet someone special. Who knows. Pensive in the Grass became a fantasy LP title forever. I was scarcely buying records by this time – I was only just in long trousers to be honest. But Mum had Radio One on all day long, and chose her own personal soundtrack which would get purchased in Eastbourne – a 45-minute bus journey away. One of these sacred maternal singles was a Dionne Warwick song which bursts out of the speakers like a vintage slice of Northern Soul, meaty, beaty big and bouncy. We all loved it. As I grew older and more knowledgeable about music it appeared that this single was almost completely unknown by everyone I ever met, and was almost lost in a wrinkle of time, but for the fact that every time I went home to see my Mum, there that single still was – in it’s paper sleeve on the pink Pye label (can I have actually remembered that?) and still a belter of a song.
Later still, I found out that the song was written by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati, the mainstays of 60s east-coast groovers The Rascals, famous for their hit song Groovin’ (on a Sunday afternoon). Clearly everyone knew Dionne as the finest exponent of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s liquid pop masterpieces throughout the 1960s – Walk On By, Do You Know The Way To San Jose and so on, but apparently in the late 60s her people decided to position her more in the R’n’B world and she went down to Memphis and Chips Moman‘s American Studios to record what was for her a whole new sound on the LP “Soulful”. I don’t think it was a huge success, and People Got To Be Free wasn’t released as a single in the US. Looking at the tracklist today, it’s ironic that only 3 of the ten songs are written by black songwriters – there are three Beatle’s songs, two from Dan Penn (When A Man Loves A Woman) and Cynthia Weil & Barry Mann‘s “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” among the Curtis, Otis and Marvin covers. Her handwritten sleevenotes talk about “recording R&B my way” but it’s really not her style to be honest – this song excepted. It’s the standout track on the album, which clearly tanked, and within 6 months she was recording “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” with Bacharach, one of her biggest hits.
Of course my Mum – or perhaps you dear reader – doesn’t care about any of this. She just liked the beat, and the sentiment – people got to be free. She was single and was going to enjoy it rather than sulk and feel sorry for herself. It was written as a blue-eyed soulboys answer to Martin Luther King’s call for tolerance and compassion in the late 60s, but became Ms Dionne Warwick’s most soulful vocal of her otherwise extremely silky pop career. I love this record.