Friday, June 09, 2006

Going In and Out of Changes

March 8, 2006:

I can’t remember the first time I heard “The Best of My Love,” but it must have blared from my transistor radio, the one shaped like Yogi Bear’s head that dangled from a strap around my wrist as I roamed my big backyard. This was the summer of 1977, when I was given a big party in that yard for my seventh birthday, with twelve girls, streamered card tables posed awkwardly in the lumpy grass, and a pink cake topped with June strawberries. I wore two high pigtails and pink shorts and a smocked tank top, and, later that afternoon, my new Donny and Marie t-shirt, until my mom told me to take it off, didn’t I think it was going to get dirty if I got on the swing again? We played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and another game, some kind of ring toss with 16-ounce returnable Tab bottles, to the applause of my four aunts, three great-aunts, two grandmothers and my dad’s father, who always had a Manhattan in hand by four in the afternoon. My other grandfather was probably watching my five uncles and Dad play horseshoes, refreshing their beers from the cooler my uncle Kenny placed in the sandy grass right by the pit.

“The Best of My Love” broke onto the pop music charts right about that time, June of ‘77, sending The Emotions, sisters and singers from Chicago, up the Hot 100 over the next twenty-three weeks of what my family kept calling an awfully humid Kentucky summer. But I doubt that they—including my aunt Carol, who loved to go “disco dancing,” nor her husband Kenny—can recall hearing this song. And maybe you can’t, either. But that’s only partly why this song is my song.


In a black-and-white publicity still of The Emotions, the Hutchinson sisters, Sheila, Wanda and Jeanette, wear Thirties-style cloche hats and display an earnest, toothy friendliness that makes Donna Summer’s long, lipsticked and glittered face glower as if from a poster for a triple-X flick. The Queen of Disco released “I Feel Love,” the follow-up to her sixteen-minute orgasmic opus, “Love to Love You Baby,” in ’77. The first dance hit recorded with an entirely synthesized backing track, Summer’s ode to even more orgasmic joy didn’t hit number one, and I think the ersatz sound of “I Feel Love” is why—pop wasn’t ready for (to paraphrase Steely Dan) “the mechanized hum of another world.” With “The Best of My Love,” the number one song in the country in August and September 1977, the Queen was—at least until she released “MacArthur Park” the next year—dethroned by some fresh-faced girls who sang gospel as children, backed by live instruments.

Disco ascended to its peak in the year 1977, and didn’t start its inexorable slide into derision until well after the release of Saturday Night Fever at the end of that year, until every last high-pitched warble from that film’s soundtrack had drenched nation’s ears for the millionth time. In June of ‘77, during the week of my seventh birthday party, the feathery, tamborine-shaking boogie of K.C. and the Sunshine Band reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, but only for one week. Yet “I’m Your Boogie Man” still plays—and is recognized almost thirty years later—in Dick’s Last Resorts and Bennigans and any bar that serves shots in test tubes. “The Best of My Love” just doesn’t resurface in TGI Fridays, and isn’t repackaged as today’s “smooth jazz”,” or really played anywhere outside of a smaller-market lite-FM radio station’s annual “One-Hit Wonder Weekend.”

That is, except when I need to hear it.

I believe in Jukebox Fate, whereby a song appropriate to the occasion or conflict at hand will play at the precise moment in need of emphasis—and not necessarily on an actual jukebox. Once, in a Chicago hole-in-the-wall that my beer-drinking friends and I favored one spring, I was dishing with a girlfriend about a bad breakup, and the lurid details were underscored suddenly and dramatically by Paula Abdul bleating “He’s a cold-hearted snake (look into his eyes)/Uh-oh, he’s been tellin’ lies.” And the song that’s pounded from nightclub speakers, pulsed in radio waves through my headphones, wafted from tinny grocery store p.a. systems with spooky precision just when I needed to hear it the most is “The Best of My Love.” The song is, cheesily enough, what’s best about love, it pulses on your skin in a way that Summer’s chilly metallic beats can’t.

It’s pure joy.


Before you argue that every song ever recorded since RCA Victor’s “little nipper” dog first put his fuzzy ear to that proto-record player is about love, I have to tell you—this song is different. The Hutchinson sisters’ disco ecstasy doesn’t peak like Donna Summer’s come-hither contralto or Thelma Houston’s aggressive plea of “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” The song explodes out of the gate, a high-strung thoroughbred, with a startling blast of horns—then a single, lazy guitar lick eases into a groove so low-slung it fits across your hips like a leather belt. Wanda confidently begins:

Doesn't take much to make me happyand make me smile
Never never will I feel discouraged
Cause our love's no mystery

She spreads the gravel in her voice where it counts, on “happy” and “love,” but is singing an octave above her range, as directed by Maurice White of Seventies R&B juggernaut Earth, Wind, and Fire, who composed and helmed the song in the studio. Wanda’s barely perceptible reach for the notes leavens the song, makes it hungry. Or, maybe its bliss springs from the sisters’ gospel roots, when they were, (presciently, I would say) known as The Heavenly Sunbeams, or from their anticipation of a star-flecked career guided by White (which didn’t happen). All I know is, what I hear is not only the joy of being in love with someone, but being in love with life, with oneself.

Goin' in and out of changes
The kind that come around each day
My life has a better meaning
Love has kissed me in a beautiful way

Wanda and her sisters keep that loping groove aloft with the chorus that may (or may not) spark your recognition of the song:

Whoa whoa, you've got the best of my love

Then their honey harmony, the laconic guitar, the bass line ambling like a staircase, horns bursting, clouds through sunshine, build to a single “oh!” on which Wanda hits a note of such singular, delicious flawlessness that I want to fling my arms open to hold it.


In 1991, Mariah Carey and her producers, C&C Music Factory, explained in interviews that the newly-minted pop diva’s number-one hit “Emotion” was inspired by “The Best of My Love.” Their flattery was so sincere that it was taken as imitation: The Emotions started a lawsuit which was apparently settled out of court, with no public statement issued. I can’t say I blame them: Carey’s workhouse attempt to capture the silky elation of “The Best of My Love” comes off as if she’s struggling to win a helium balloon-sucking contest—and sounds just as pleasant. Carey’s career, despite some ill-judged recordings, a self-congratulatory biopic, and ever-shrinking hem- and necklines, persists, while the Emotions disappeared even before the sun set on the Seventies.

So why did this hit become a one-hit? When The Emotions reigned 1977, there was no satellite radio, internet—FM was barely out of its adolescence. And charts meant airplay, not sales, and airplay wasn’t hastened as it is today, with backroom deals between executives who worked for the corporation that owned the record label, the radio station, and the concert venue down the street. In ’77, “The Best of My Love” was sewn into a collective summer consciousness: Fourth of July flags flapped in time with its beat, the harmonies skated over sunset-lit swimming pools, vodka-cranberries were flung onto disco club tables and spike-heeled feet scampered to dance floors as its opening horns blared. Even though I was barely seven, gravely worried whether I could wear my red satin shorts with the white piping under my Catholic school uniform for P.E. class, I must have felt those notes, ones that somehow became implanted in my senses during that summer before second grade. For everyone else, I like to think that once that summer faded, the song was firmly folded into the drawer of memory by the brassy sounds of our late century’s first blockbusters: Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever.


If you saw the film Boogie Nights, “The Best of My Love” just might tickle your memory. It’s the track that played under the masterful opening scene of the film, where director P.T. Anderson introduces not just the shiny disco club inhabited by his protagonists but a slice of 1977 in a single, giddily continuous camera shot: San Fernando Valley, clams on the half-shell and cold Riunite, designer roller skates, porn stars in owned—not rented—Cadillac Sevilles, blow and back-room hustling. But that wasn’t our summer in Lexington. We were in the heart of Central Kentucky, where the multifarious crises of the Seventies—gas shortages, inflation, Nixon’s crash-and-burn—were felt but didn’t defuse the explosion of in-ground pools, brick-and-balcony apartment complexes and ground-hugging ranch homes around the city’s “beltline” highway. New Circle Road hadn’t been new since my mother tossed her white graduation cap outside of her high school in early summer 1966, feeling, perhaps, the kind of swelling thrill in her heart that “The Best of My Love” would have wrought if the Hutchinson sisters had sung it then. But disco needed the early Seventies’ disillusionment and frenzied sexual tumult to catapult its god-awful gaud into the mainstream, so Mom had to jump and hug her girlfriends and, probably later on during that graduation night, do the Mashed Potato to Wilson Pickett growling “Tell me!” during the herky-jerk chorus of “Land of 1,000 Dances.”


Summers changed after 1977. I had been the only grandchild and niece to five aunts and six uncles, had experienced the rapture of getting Christmas and birthday presents from each of them, of every coo and paddy-cake clap and toddling step being celebrated and thoroughly recounted later. Everyone had my grade school photo, me posed, bangs brushed flat, in a Mickey and Minnie Mouse dress, in their wallet. Then my sister showed up less than two years later, and the first cousin arrived on the scene in early 1978—meaning that he was present at my seventh birthday party, for my aunt possibly knew she was pregnant when she clapped at my blown-out candles in June 1977, the last summer that was all mine. And while I can’t confirm that “The Best of My Love” was the soundtrack for that glorious, green Kentucky summer afternoon, at least I do remember exactly where and when I heard it again, whether it was indeed the second—or seventeenth—time.

I was dancing alone on a November Saturday night in 1998. I had just moved to Chicago barely two months before. A birthday dinner party of a friend-of-a-friend disbanded to the now-defunct Polly Esther’s, which was part of a chain of nightclubs that sprang up in the mid-90s, conceived by marketing executives who recognized the windfall the branding of “retro” would bring. Crudely outfitted with disco balls, tinsel curtains, Polly Esther’s even employed actors in full Tony Manero polyester glory to dance with the middle-aged women visiting the Big City from southwest Missouri or Ohio. I followed the buzzing group with a shrug; the person who had brought me to dinner left claiming a headache, and since I’ll dance to just about anything, it sounded like a good idea. My indifference turned to awe when I saw the club’s square-lit, multi-colored dance floor—yes, just like Saturday Night Fever. I didn’t drink, I didn’t talk to the other partiers, I didn’t really care when one of the hired-gun Tonys made me his unwilling dance partner for an hour—I just danced. When “The Best of My Love” played, I recognized it instantly, but what’s more, as I nestled my body in its intoxicating groove, felt it pulse on my skin, I knew it was the emblem of my new life in this exquisite city of concrete canyons and trees. As I danced, it was as if no one else could hear this siren’s song of living life, living it full and well.

Since then it’s cropped up on other dance floors, when my date hung uncertainly to the side and I, as soon as the song played, began to distinctly not care so much what he thought. Or elsewhere, like blaring out of someone’s car window when I’m trudging by, head stuck in bank balances or unfinished conversations or the cold-sweat dread of someday reaching middle age. I can’t remember exactly where else, but it’s there, the soundtrack of a future in which anything is possible.


Now, as I type, I skip a track ahead on my internet radio station. A blast of horns. Sunshine through clouds. My mother has always said, you’re always wanting more than you’ve got. The summer of ’77 surely wasn’t the first time she admonished me that way, but when I hear this song, I remember how to want what I’ve got.

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