Duets: Singing down the walls of racism
Hard to believe (or maybe not so hard to fathom for those of you who are older) that a firestorm of outrage was ignited in April of 1968 when British pop singer Petula Clark touched the arm of folk singer Harry Belafonte on national television.
Yes, you read it right—she touched his arm.
Donald Liebenson reported the story in 2018 for Vanity Fair: Years Ago, a White Woman Touching a Black Man on TV Caused a National Commotion.
On April 2, 1968, America watched as, for the first time, a white woman touched a black man’s arm on primetime television. The white woman was Petula Clark, the two-time Grammy-winning British singer with a slew of top 10 hits, including “Downtown” and “My Love;” at the time, she was a popular guest on variety series ranging from Shindig!, Hullabaloo, and Where the Action Is (for the kids) to The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace (for the adults). The black man was Harry Belafonte, the Grammy-winning American singer and civil-rights advocate whose signature tune, “The Banana Boat Song,” brought calypso music to a mainstream audience. That fleeting moment was controversial enough to prompt an executive with the Chrysler Corporation, the program’s sponsor, to protest vehemently—turning what one critic would eventually call “a stylish, sophisticated musical hour” into an inter-racial cause célèbre.
To this day, Clark cannot believe that “the incident” caused such a “rumpus.” She didn’t invite Belafonte to appear on the special in order to make a cultural statement: “As far as I was concerned, he was just a great artist,” she says now. “I’m a very organic performer. There are no big statements. Things just happen.”…
Clark and Belafonte agreed to duet on “On the Path of Glory,” an anti-war song Clark had co-written. Binder’s original staging of the number had Belafonte downstage and Clark upstage, glimpsed over Belafonte’s shoulder. “It was great visually,” Binder says, “but it didn’t feel like they connected. After a few takes, I told Petula to try one where she walks downstage to Harry’s side. That’s when the magic happened; the emotion of the lyrics [resonated] in their voices and on their faces. All of a sudden, she reaches over and puts her hand over Harry’s forearm.“
This was the level of fear for the purity of white womanhood being tarnished by a Black male in a time not so very long ago or far away. When you realize it was only 52 years ago and we’re still embroiled in a morass of racism, it can be mind-boggling. However, it’s important to also see how musical pairings have changed the racial landscape.
The beauty of this 1989 duet between Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville, shown here live at the 1990 Grammy Awards, performing their award winning duet “Don’t Know Much,” can hardly be equaled. They not only sing a love song, they dance together slowly during a musical interlude, and after the last notes are sung, they kiss.
Ron Givens wrote in 1990:
Something magical happens when Ronstadt’s buttermilk soprano meets Neville’s creamy falsetto. ”We don’t sing the same style at all,” Ronstadt says, ”but when we sing up high together we just blend.”
Those sweet harmonies soared to unexpected heights last year. Ronstadt and Neville recorded four duets for her solo album Cry Like a Rainstorm — Howl Like the Wind and became the First Couple of pop music. In 10 months Cry has sold nearly two million copies, and three of the Ronstadt-Neville tunes have been chart hits: ”Don’t Know Much,” which peaked at No. 2 before winning a Grammy for the duo in February, ”All My Life,” and ”When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.”
Probably one of the most famous musical pairings reaching across racial divides—though it was two men and therefore less perilous—is implicit in its title, “Ebony and Ivory,” which linked Stevie Wonder with Paul McCartney. It alluded to not only piano keys, but to the potential for harmony between Blacks and whites.
Though it was bashed by cynical critics as being saccharine and unrealistic, that didn’t stop the listening public from buying enough records to make it No. 1 in 1982. The History Channel noted the date.
“Ebony And Ivory” begins a seven-week run at #1 on the pop charts
Paul McCartney crafted the biggest hit record of his post-Beatles career: “Ebony And Ivory.” Recorded as a duet with the great Stevie Wonder, “Ebony And Ivory” took the top spot in the Billboard Hot 100 on May 15, 1982 and didn’t relinquish it until seven weeks later.
McCartney had been a fan of Stevie Wonder’s for many years before they first met. He even included a Braille message for Stevie—”We love you”—on the back of his 1973 Wings album Red Rose Speedway. Wonder spent the 1970s recording a string of incredible albums that often included songs expressing a strong social consciousness. It’s not surprising, then, that McCartney thought of Stevie Wonder as a duet partner for “Ebony And Ivory.”
Stevie Wonder agreed, and his duet with Paul McCartney not only yielded a smash-hit record that topped the charts on this day in 1982, but it also continued a trend toward pop music power-couplings that was particularly prevalent in the early 1980s.
Probably because it was on McCartney’s album, it got played on MTV before they “erased” the color barrier with Michael Jackson and Prince in 1983.
McCartney and Wonder reprised their hit for President Obama in 2010.
Some duets crossed genres. R&B met country rock in this version of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” by Al Green and Lyle Lovett, which garnered them a Grammy in 1995. (Since country is one of the music genres I am least familiar with, had it not been for this recording I may have never been introduced to Lovett.) The song was released on a 1994 album of duet collaborations, “Rhythm Country and Blues.” Orlando Sentinel music reviewer Parry Gettelman wrote:
The most inspired pairing is Lyle Lovett and Al Green. Lovett’s sweet, earthy voice and Green’s gritty but angelic tenor make for a spine-tingling blend, and it just doesn’t get more soulful or funky than their mid-tempo version of “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Producer Don Was surrounds the pair in Hi Records-style soul with veteran guitarist Teenie Hodges, the Memphis Horns and Billy Preston on the organ. Lovett and Green ought to record a whole album together.
There are duets that also reflect friendships that extend beyond the music world. Patti LaBelle and Cyndi Lauper have bonds woven with love and music. Patti is the godmother to Cyndi’s son Declyn Wallace Thornton and sang at Lauper’s wedding. In 1985 LaBelle was the star of an NBC TV special, with guests Luther Vandross, Amy Grant, and Lauper.
I fell in love with this duet of Lauper’s hit song, “Time After Time.” They also do a rousing version of “Lady Marmalade.”
As a former Astoria, Queens, New York resident, I can identify with Lauper’s attitude.
The chart-topping musical duet between these two songbirds of opposite colors, and from different worlds, was an unlikely pairing, and recorded during the disco era.
Tom Breihan, senior editor at Stereogum, gave background details about the match-up in The Number Ones: Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer’s “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”
Streisand and Summer were a natural fit. They had both come from the world of musical theater, though they’d had wildly different levels of success there. Streisand was arguably the biggest star ever to come out of Broadway, while Summer had gotten her start singing in touring productions in Europe. But Streisand was new to disco, and Summer ruled that world. Streisand and Summer were both communicative singers with enormous rocket-launcher voices. The balance of power was just about equal. By most accounts, the two stars got competitive with each other during the “No More Tears” recording sessions. Neither wanted to be shown up, so both of them pushed their voices as hard as they could.
The song itself is a trifle, an excuse to get those two stars howling on a track together. It’s a song about getting sick of a lover. Streisand and Summer don’t really play different characters; they both just want the motherfucker out: “I always dreamed I’d find the perfect lover/ But he turned out to be like every other man.” Streisand was recording Wet, an aquatic-themed concept album, so she got the songwriters to add the “it’s raining, it’s pouring” intro, forcing it to fit the album’s motif. The intro is the only part of “No More Tears” that really sounds like a Barbra Streisand ballad. That intro is long, almost two minutes. It’s also terribly boring, almost by design. But after those two minutes, everything changes. “No More Tears” follows the “Last Dance” format — starting out sleepy and then suddenly lurching into dance-music overdrive. Once Streisand and Summer finish singing boringly about how their love lives are boring, the beat comes in, and everything builds. When “No More Tears” reaches full boil, producers Giorgio Moroder and Gary Klein throw all sorts of things at the two of them — wriggling synths, crashing strings, enormous drums. But the two singers are always the twin centers of attention.
As a singer, Donna Summer is the best thing that could’ve happened to Barbra Streisand. Streisand could act, obviously. She could do a forceful teary breakdown as well as anyone. But the real problem with most of Streisand’s hit songs is the sense of iron-fisted control. Streisand virtuosically bends notes, almost like she’s holding her own voice up to the light to admire it. But on “No More Tears,” Summer forces her to bring the drama. Summer herself alternates between flirty playfulness and fiery severity with effortless grace. She understands the peaks-and-valleys structure of a long disco track, and she brings Streisand along with her. In the song’s biggest and best moments, those two voices fuse together. The climactic screamed-together harmony notes hit like a CGI explosion.
White male, Black female duos were always less controversial than the reverse. One of the male music stars who had the singular honor to have performed and recorded with several of the world’s top divas was George Michael, who died on Christmas Day in 2016, leaving behind him an impressive list of hits and hookups.
At the age of 22 he was on stage at “Motown Returns to the Apollo,” singing “I Wanna Know What Love Is” with Diana Ross and other stars. He recorded “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” with Aretha Franklin in 1987, and in the same year recorded “Learn to Say No” with Jody Watley. “If I Told You That” with Whitney Houston was done in 2000; however, I’d like to share his pairing with Mary J. Blige singing Stevie Wonder’s 1976 hit “As” in 1999, which is my personal favorite.
Of course there are duets like this from an earlier time period as well. One that always makes me smile is the 1959 interaction between Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald in “An Afternoon with Frank Sinatra” for The Frank Sinatra Timex Show, singing ”Can’t We Be Friends.” Sinatra teases Fitzgerald by mentioning a series of names of Black female vocalists; Pearl Bailey, Dinah Washington, Lena Horne, and Della Reese, who Ella then imitates.
I look forward to hearing some of your favorites in the comments section as we march toward an election starring a winning political duo: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
That’s my kind of music too, so get out the vote!
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