Monday, March 18, 2013

"Shake," "Shuffle" and Roll: Harlem's Greatest Hits

Although I seriously doubt that I'll ever be 100 percent down with the idea of Internet memes launching hit singles, and I can't begin to understand the appeal of the ones behind Baauer's "Harlem Shake," I have less against the song than a cynical pop fan like me probably should.

I wonder, though, if now that Billboard is factoring YouTube views into its chart-compiling criteria (a move made just in time for "Harlem Shake" to debut at No. 1), can crazy fans with a lot of excess time on their hands and a decent Internet connection now send their favorite songs to No. 1 -- where "Harlem Shake" has been for all four of its chart weeks -- by playing them over and over and over? I say we leave YouTube out of it since it makes the Hot 100 and Billboard's other singles charts even easier to manipulate than they already are.

Regardless of how long it ends up staying at No. 1 due to the chart power of YouTube views, "Harlem Shake" will likely never take up space on my iPod. Still, it's easier on these ears than "Gangnam Style" or either of LMFAO's 2011 novelty No. 1 hits, not to mention far less annoying than The Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta a Feeling" -- though possibly partly because I've heard it about a billion fewer times.

What I don't understand, however, is this: Why haven't there been more big hits written about or inspired by the place that gave art and literature the Harlem Renaissance, bestowed the Harlem Globetrotters upon basketball, and blessed cinema with Harlem Nights (okay, well, maybe that 1989 Eddie Murphy film wasn't such blessing)? It certainly deserves something with a bit more content and gravitas than "Harlem Shake" to finally represent it atop Billboard's Hot 100 -- like any of these far superior Harlem-inspired songs that preceded it.

"Spanish Harlem" Aretha Franklin/Ben E. King Lady Soul's 1971 No. 2 single is not only her biggest solo pop hit after "Respect," but it's one of her five best classic-era performances (right up there with "Call Me," "Daydreaming," "Dr. Feelgood" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water"), and it ranks with her 1971 No. 6 remake of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge" as the best cover of a near-perfect song (in the case of "Spanish Harlem," Ben E. King's 1960 original version of the Phil Spector/Jerry Leiber composition, which hit No. 10). When I think of Harlem, I think of "black and Spanish" Harlem first.

"Across 110th Street" Bobby Womack A non-hit (No. 53, in 1973) from the 1972 film of the same name, co-written and performed by the undersung soul legend, now 69, who recently revealed that he's suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. At least his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been a done deal since 2009.

"Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" Elton John "Now I know, 'Spanish Harlem' are not just pretty words to say..." A fitting beginning to one of the best musical tributes to the great city that Harlem calls home.

"Harlem Shuffle" Bob & Earl/The Rolling Stones Along with "Undercover of the Night," my favorite Rolling Stones single of the '80s (No. 5, in 1986, and featuring backing vocalist Bobby Womack, who co-wrote "It's All Over Now," a previous Rolling Stones cover that became the band's first UK No. 1 single in 1964). Did you know that a teenage Barry White arranged the original 1963 version of the soul standard, which was written and recorded by Bob & Earl and taken to No. 44 by them that year and into the UK Top 10 six years later? (White once told me that he, too, was a big fan of the Stones' rendition.)

"Angel of Harlem" U2 No one ever really accused U2 of being a blue-eyed soul band, despite the fact that the group's first U.S. Top 40 hit -- 1984's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" -- was about Martin Luther King Jr., and Bono could be as convincingly soulful as he was effortlessly rock & roll. U2 was always stuck with that limiting college-rock tag, when, in reality, the band's music was so much more. (Don't forget, these guys were mixing rock and electronica several years before Radiohead made it the cool thing to do.) I'm often astounded by how four white boys from Dublin were able to offer such excellent approximations of black American rhythm and blues (in addition to "Angel," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Desire" from the band's late-'80s canon) without ever seeming to be trying to sound black, while Hothouse Flowers and The Commitments hogged all the Irish blue-eyed soul cred. Had she lived to hear U2, I bet Billie Holiday, the subject of "Angel," would have had something to say about that.

"Harlem Blues" Cynda Williams Am I the only one who loved Spike Lee's 1990 film Mo' Better Blues and expected its female lead to go on to be a much bigger star? At least she can claim responsibility for one of Harlem's rare forays into the R&B Top 10 (not to be confused with the Nat King Cole song by the same name).

"Harlem in Havana" Joni Mitchell Yet another Latin twist on the old neighborhood that, musically, doesn't sound particularly like Harlem or Havana, and yet another reminder (from the 1998 album Taming the Tiger) that Mitchell's best work wasn't confined to the '60s and '70s.

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