Duets unite voices, reminding us that anything is possible when we work together
For those unfamiliar with the Verzuz weekly battles, they’re a delightful byproduct of the COVID-19 quarantine.
Throughout quarantine, Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s Verzuz beat battle series has grown from a novel event bridging hip-hop’s past and present into uplifting excitement in our indoor spring and summer.
The premise is simple: Two prominent producers (or singers or songwriters) pair up live on Instagram and compete to decide who has the better catalog. The rules came together on the fly through trial and error. As it stands, each battle goes 20 rounds, with each contestant playing a hit and hearing a rebuttal.
Verzuz is making drab weekends and weeknights feel fun again and restoring a spirit of friendly competition to the game.
For a little over an hour, these queens ruled the internet—together—in what’s currently ranked by Vulture as the best Verzuz of them all.
About 20 minutes in, the divas greet some of the famous folks in the audience, including Forever-FLOTUS Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and even Apple CEO Tim Cook, who said he was watching with a bowl of collard greens.
Miss Patti and Miss Gladys may have paired up as friends, but they are not a duo like some twosomes that are linked together in our memories forever.
Mickey and Sylvia come to mind as one of the first duos I can remember; I was 9 years old and living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when I first heard them on the radio. They were Mickey Baker and Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson in real life, and Steven Daly profiled them in a 2005 Vanity Fair piece.
Mickey and Sylvia are best known for the 1957 smash “Love Is Strange.” According to Sylvia, the idea for the song came to her at Washington, D.C.’s Howard Theater, where she and Baker shared a bill with a number of other popular R&B acts, including Bo Diddley. It was with Mr. Diddley’s blessing, she says, that she refashioned one of his funky bits of stage shtick into a slinky slice of jukebox voodoo that became a million-selling pop hit and a future favorite on movie soundtracks (Dirty Dancing, Casino). Thanks to a combination of music-business shenanigans and youthful deference, the former Little Sylvia ended up sharing songwriting credit with Mickey Baker as well as with Bo Diddley’s wife, Ethel Smith. Other, more modest Mickey and Sylvia hits followed before the duo broke up around 1962. There was another significant line on her résumé: she had not only played guitar on and arranged the monster 1961 hit, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” for Ike and Tina Turner, but also, she says, produced the track, though she received no credit.
My parents finally broke down and bought a television that year, and my dad would flip back and forth between The Ed Sullivan Show and Steve Allen. Here they are, live on The Steve Allen Show, in 1957.
Right before Mickey and Sylvia hit with “Love is Strange,” Shirley and Lee were making waves with “Let the Good Times Roll.” David Kunian, music curator for the New Orleans Jazz Museum, explored their career for 64 Parishes.
Shirley Goodman (June 19, 1936–July 5, 2005) and Leonard Lee (June 29, 1936–October 23, 1976) were two singers from New Orleans who jointly became known as the “Sweethearts of the Blues.” Born ten days apart, they met when they were children, and both of them sang in their Baptist church. They were discovered by studio owner Cosimo Matassa, who heard Goodman and Lee as part of a school singing group when they were thirteen years old. Matassa got Aladdin Records owner Eddie Messner interested in pairing them as a duo, and New Orleans veteran producer Dave Bartholomew produced their first recording, “I’m Gone,” in 1952, and backed the teenaged singers with many of the most skilled session musicians in New Orleans at the time, including saxophonists Alvin “Red” Tyler, Herb Hardesty and Lee Allen, bassist Frank Fields, and drummer Earl Palmer. “I’m Gone” climbed to No. 2 on the rhythm and blues charts in 1952. This success was followed by a string of other duets, including “Shirley, Come Back to Me,” “Shirley’s Back,” and “The Proposal,” backed with “Two Happy People.” These songs gave Shirley and Lee their stage name, and each new release continued the saga of these presumed teenage sweethearts, which added to the duo’s popularity, though they were never romantically involved; Shirley married contractor Calvin Z. Pixley in 1955. Although both Shirley and Lee sang, theirs was often a call-and-response style rather than a two-part harmony.
Flagging sales prompted Shirley and Lee to change their song topics, starting with “Feels So Good” in 1955. In 1957 they released their most popular song, the anthem “Let the Good Times Roll,” which sold over a million copies. The song was considered too suggestive by many radio stations, and they banned it from their airwaves.
I certainly didn’t see the “suggestive” themes as a child, and even today, it still seems pretty wholesome.
My family left Louisiana and moved back to New York City in the early 1960s, where my neighborhood friends were listening to a lot of doo-wop. One song we all sang on the street corner was by Don and Juan—a song that was their only hit record.
Don & Juan, born Claude Johnson and Roland Trone, scored one big hit in 1962, entitled “What’s Your Name.” The single has become a doo wop classic, but its smooth ballad style also hints at the beginning of the emergence of soul.
Johnson and Trone got their start in a Brooklyn band called the Genies. In 1959, they released an up-tempo single, entitled “Who’s That Knocking,” on Shad Records. The song reached number 71 on the U.S. charts. They were unable to reproduce that success and were dropped from the label. Johnson and Trone continued to perform sporadically while working as painters on Long Island, and were rediscovered by an agent named Peter Paul, who arranged for them to sign with Big Top Records. They changed the name of their duo to Don & Juan and recorded “What’s Your Name,” which eventually peaked at number seven on the charts.
Did you know there were only two voices at work in this song?
Don and Juan were essentially a “one-hit-wonder.” One duo that went on to lasting fame and a host of hits were Sam Moore and Dave Prater, who would be known simply as “Sam and Dave.”
Sam and Dave performed together from 1961 until 1981, when they broke up and Prater went on tour with a new Sam: Sam Daniels. The legendary duo ended for good when Prater was killed in a car crash in 1988.
Damn. That song’s so nice, I gotta play it twice!
Head on over to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame for pictures and background on how Sam and Dave wound up together.
Designated “Double Dynamite,” “The Sultans of Sweat,” and “The Dynamic Duo,” Sam Moore and Dave Prater joined forces to form the world’s greatest soul duo and one of the most thrilling live acts of the 1960s…
In 1961, Moore was working as the host of a talent show at a night club called the King of Hearts in his native Miami. According to Sam, Dave Prater arrived at the club one night still wearing his white baker’s garb from his day job. At the audition, Dave sang a Jackie Wilson song, but struggled to remember the words. Sam volunteered to stand near and feed him the lines, but accidentally stumbled and sent the mike stand falling off the stage. Dave went down to catch the microphone and Sam reached out to secure Dave and the two came up together sharing the mike and singing together.
Sam Moore tells his version of how they got started (with embellishments) in this interview with Dom Famularo on The Sessions.
Sam and Dave not only brought the house down with up-tempo tunes; they killed it with ballads too, like their hit version of “When Something is Wrong With my Baby,” penned by Isaac Hayes and David Porter.
It also wasn’t just U.S. audiences who adored them. Here they are doing “Soul Man” live from Stadthalle, Offenbach, Germany in 1967.
What is ironic about Sam and Dave is that while they made magic on stage together, according to biographers they didn’t get along with each other offstage.
That Sam and Dave managed to perform together for two decades is some small miracle. It was a relationship perhaps fraught from the start: Prater, with his nine siblings, a quiet church boy from the country, and Moore, a smooth-talking, mischievous only child from Miami (in his sixties, Sam Moore discovered he was actually born in Macon County, Georgia, less than one hundred miles from Ocilla). “David and I were never really close,” Moore says in Sam and Dave: An Oral History. Moore claims that a cultural divide created distance between him and Prater. “I’m hanging with people like Jackie Wilson, B.B. King, Chuck Jackson,” Moore brags in the book. “Dave would try, but to tell you the truth, when Dave would show up, they would be very cordial to Dave. They weren’t rude, but as soon as Dave would leave, they would laugh and they’d call him country.”
Moore gave me a written statement when I asked to interview him for this story. “I’ve been accused of hating Dave,” he wrote. “I never have hated him, even when things were a big and ugly mess. For better or worse, we were a team when it counted and our history is what it is.” “When Dave killed himself,” he continued, “which is how I look at what happened, I never cried, I’ve never mourned and I’m not sure I even know why.”
At the height of their success in the late sixties, Sam & Dave reveled in their newfound rock & roll excesses: women, drugs, customized planes and tour buses. Their success was due in large part to the group’s unrivaled stage show, where Moore and Prater—masters of dynamics, of the quick stops and slow builds and pregnant pauses and dramatic climaxes from the bursting horn section of the Sam & Dave Orchestra—dazzled and delighted, reigning as the finest working old-school showmen in pop music. It was Sam & Dave’s live act that later served as the primary inspiration for the Blues Brothers.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Sam and Dave were Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who were not just a singing duo: The husband and wife were also an award-winning songwriting team who produced an extraordinary number of hits.
When Ashford died in 2011, Ben Sisaro wrote his New York Times obituary.
One of Motown’s leading songwriting and producing teams, Ashford & Simpson specialized in romantic duets of the most dramatic kind, professing the power of true love and the comforts of sweet talk. In “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” from 1967, their first of several hits for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, lovers in close harmony proclaim their determination that “no wind, no rain, no winter’s cold, can stop me, baby,” while also making cuter promises like “If you’re ever in trouble, I’ll be there on the double.” Gaye and Terrell also sang the duo’s songs “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” After leaving the Supremes in 1970, Diana Ross sang their “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” and later that year her version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” became her first No. 1 single as a solo artist.
“They had magic, and that’s what creates those wonderful hits, that magic,” Verdine White of Earth, Wind and Fire told The Associated Press after learning of his friend’s death. “Without those songs, those artists wouldn’t have been able to go to the next level.”…
They sang of monogamous devotion, and on their album covers the couple were usually pictured pulling each other close in various states of undress. But with his shock of slicked black hair, shirts open to the sternum and playful smile, Mr. Ashford also cut a perfect figure as a seducer for the swinging ’70s. They continued to write for other singers. “I’m Every Woman” was a hit for Chaka Khan in 1978, and later for Whitney Houston on the soundtrack to the 1992 film “The Bodyguard.”
Their biggest hit as a singing duo was “Solid,” which celebrated their enduring relationship. I love their chemistry together, which is on full display in this performance at the 1991 Montreaux Jazz Festival.
As noted in Ashford’s Times obituary above, one of the duo’s biggest hits as a songwriting team was “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which became not only a 1967 hit single for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, but also major hit in 1970 for Diana Ross. Since then, dozens of versions have been recorded.
Cover Story was a magazine-style program that profiled entertainers. Rift Fournier wrote, produced, directed, and narrated the series for the USA Network between 1984 and 1988. Interviewed by Quincy Jones for this episode, Ashford and Simpson talk about how they met and hooked up, and how they got involved with Motown.
Nick, you are missed.
Now, I realize that everyone reading has started making lists of their favorite duos and duets spanning genres, and wondering why I didn’t cover them here today. There are just too many to post in one story, so I look forward to hearing what you post in comments. I’ve got quite a few of my favorites to post as well, so dive in.
I’ll close with Ashford and Simpson’s clever remake of “Solid,” which they did for President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
That song is a reminder of how we went from solid as Barack to unstable as a three-wheeled dumpster—so let’s get the very sane duo of Biden and Harris elected.
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