The Pop History Dig

“Love is Strange”
1956-2007

Mickey Baker and Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson of “Mickey & Sylvia” fame, had 1957 hit,“Love is Strange.”
Mickey Baker and Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson of “Mickey & Sylvia” fame, had 1957 hit,“Love is Strange.”
     In mid-January 1957, a new song with the title “Love is Strange” by two artists known as “Mickey & Sylvia” was being heard on the radio.   This was the era prior to the modern Billboard music charts, as songs were then charted on the Best Seller list, the Jockey list, the Top 100, and/or the Juke Box list.  In any case, Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange,” in early 1957, rose into the Top 20 on all of these charts, reaching No. 11 on the Best Seller and Jockey charts and No.1 on the rhythm and blues (R&B) chart.  “Love is Strange” also became a million seller and it stayed in the Top 40 for more than three months.

     “Mickey” was Mickey Baker, a well-known “session guitarist” in music circles of that day – playing background music for other artists.  Baker, in fact, was considered the “go to” session guitar player of the 1950s and early 1960s.  He performed on dozens of rock ‘n roll hits and on many recordings.  “Sylvia” was Sylvia Vanderpool, formerly billed in her earlier singing career as “Little Sylvia” Vanderpool, who later in the 1980s became an important promoter in advancing Sugar Hill Records, a major player in the emergence of rap music.

Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” hit song of 1957 on Groove recording label.
Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” hit song of 1957 on Groove recording label.
     Mickey & Sylvia first formed their duo in the mid-1950s.  Baker, who then gave guitar lessons to make ends meet, teamed up with Sylvia Vanderpool, one of his students.  Sylvia later became Sylvia Robinson after she married Joe Robinson, and they would continue together in later years in the music business.  But Mickey and Sylvia first tried their hand as a duo at a Brooklyn-based record label named Rainbow where they cut a few recordings without much success.  They later signed with RCA’s Groove records.  Their first recording there, titled “No Good Lover,” which according to one report, was “a wild, upbeat, two guitar and washboard rocker.”  However, their second recording at Groove was “Love Is Strange,” the one that became a smash hit and brought them into national prominence.


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“Love is Strange” – 1957 –  Mickey & Sylvia

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     “Love is Strange” has a distinctive guitar riff to it, and was adapted by Mickey and Sylvia from “Billy’s Blues,” a Bo Diddley and Billy Stewart song.  “Love is Strange,” however, had its own unique sound and guitar licks, and would go on to influence a number of other artists and recordings in the years ahead.  The Mickey & Sylvia single was released in late November 1956.  It hit No. 1 on the rhythm and blues (R&B) singles chart in January 1957 and held that spot for two weeks.  On the other charts of that day, “Love is Strange” rose into the Top 20 and generally remained in the Top 40 for more than three months.  Mickey and Sylvia also made some TV appearances with this song, including on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand prime-time evening show in November 1957.

Cover of “Mickey & Sylvia” EP that included their 1957 charting hit, “There Oughta’ Be A Law”
Cover of “Mickey & Sylvia” EP that included their 1957 charting hit, “There Oughta’ Be A Law”
     However, after the success of “Love is Strange,” Mickey & Sylvia never quite got back to the Top 10 again, but they did have two more charting hits – “There Oughta’ Be A Law”of 1957 ( #15 R&B,# 46 Pop) and “Baby You’re So Fine of 1961 (#27 R&B, # 52 Pop).  They also played back up guitar on Ike & Tina Turner’s 1961 hit song, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” which rose to No. 2 on the R&B charts.  However, the duo basically split up in 1961, but they continued to record together off and on until the mid-1960s.  They also put out an extended play disc with four of their songs under the Vik label, titled Mickey & Sylvia.  There were also recordings for other labels including Willow, Cat, Rainbow, King, RCA Victor, and RCA Camden.

     Mickey Baker – who some regard as one of the best guitarists of his day – recorded as a solo artist for a time and went to France where he found some success playing as a session guitarist.  He would also write some best-selling guitar instruction books, among them, Jazz Guitar.  Sylvia married Joe Robinson in 1964, and would co-write some songs in the 1970s.  She had a No. 3 hit with “Pillow Talk” in 1973, and would continue to hit the R& B charts with a few recordings though the late 1970s, when she also became involved in the music business.  About this time she co-founded an early rap music label named Sugar Hill and helped launch the Sugar Hill Gang rap group with its top hit of 1979, “Rappers’ Delight” (#4 R&B, #26 pop).  She would also help produce other rap groups.  But then in the 1980s came the film Dirty Dancing, bringing Mickey & Sylvia’s famous 1950s tune back on the scene.


Dirty Dancing

Patrick Swayze & Jennifer Grey in “lover boy” practice dance scene from 1987 film “Dirty Dancing” using the 1957 Mickey & Sylvia song, “Love is Strange.”
Patrick Swayze & Jennifer Grey in “lover boy” practice dance scene from 1987 film “Dirty Dancing” using the 1957 Mickey & Sylvia song, “Love is Strange.”
     “Love is Strange” had a bit of a revival in 1987 when the Patrick Swayze-Jennifer Grey film Dirty Dancing came out.  The plot line of this film involves an innocent young female nicknamed “Baby” (Jennifer Grey) from the big city who is visiting the Catskill resorts with her family.  Baby sets up the film in an early flashback:  “That was the summer of 1963 – when everybody called me Baby, and it didn’t occur to me to mind.  That was before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps, and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad.  That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s….”

     Baby has her eyes opened early on when she happens into an “employees only” dirty dancing venue where she first sees, and soon falls for, male dance instructor hunk, “Johnny,” played by Patrick Swayze.  Opportunity soon presents itself for Baby when Swayze’s normal partner (not his girfriend) can’t perform in a major dance routine ( she’s pregnant, but not by Swayze).  The plot thickens when Baby tries to help by borrowing money for an illegal abortion for the partner from her doctor father, to whom she lies.  But it all works out in the end, with even Dad helping to save the day… Swayze and friends, meanwhile, turn to non-dancer Baby to fill the role of his pregnant partner, making Baby into a substitute dancing star.  In the process of Baby’s “up-close-and-personal” make-over and dance instruction, she and Johnny become an item.

Original 1987 "Dirty Dancing" soundtrack album, which includes Mickey & Sylvia's "Love is Strange."
Original 1987 "Dirty Dancing" soundtrack album, which includes Mickey & Sylvia's "Love is Strange."
     Dirty Dancing also happens to be filled with a great rock ‘n roll background score of 1950s and 1960s music, including songs such as  “Be My Baby,” “Do You Love Me,” “Stay,” “In the Still of the Night,” and others.  In one scene, shown above, the two dancers are practicing their routine in a sun-lit studio one afternoon to the music of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange.”  Johnny and “Baby” by this time have become more than just friends.  As they practice, they proceed to play-act using the Mickey & Sylvia “lover boy” banter from the song, each lyp-synching their respective male and female roles to fit the song.  It is one of the film’s more playful and memorable scenes.

     Dirty Dancing became a massive box office hit at the time, and has since surpassed some $215 million in gross box office revenue worldwide as of 2010.  It also collected a variety of film and music accolades.  The film’s soundtrack was credited with starting an oldies music revival in the late 1980s.  The original Dirty Dancing soundtrack album of August 1987 had 12 songs, including “Love is Strange.”  Demand for the album caught RCA Records by surprise.  It became a colossal commercial success in the U.S., as it landed at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart, spending 18 weeks there.  It went on to sell more than 42 million copies worldwide (later, a subsequent album, More Dirty Dancing, issued in February 1988, also sold millions of copies ).

“Love is Strange” appeared on the “B” side of the 1987 “Dirty Dancing” single, “I’ve Had The Time of Life,” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes.
“Love is Strange” appeared on the “B” side of the 1987 “Dirty Dancing” single, “I’ve Had The Time of Life,” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes.
     In August 1987, as part of the music frenzy around Dirty Dancing, the song “Love is Strange” was also re-issued on one side of a 45 rpm single.  It became the “B” side of the recording with Dirty Dancing’s top hit song, “The Time of My Life,” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes.  This song won a 1988 Grammy Award, an Academy Award, and a Golden Globe Award.  Although “Love is Strange” didn’t have these accolades, it did “go along for the ride,” so to speak, being played and heard by millions who purchased the single.  In the U.S., “The Time of My Life” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in November 1987 for one week and also reached No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart for four weeks.  In the U.K., the song hit the Top Ten twice: once in November 1987 after the film’s initial release, peaking at No. 6, and then again in January 1991 after the film was shown on television, reaching No. 8.  There were also maxi-single editions of  “The Time of My Life” that  included the Mickey & Sylvia song.

Cover art from the 20th anniversary edition of the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack album, 2007.
Cover art from the 20th anniversary edition of the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack album, 2007.
     In 1989-90, RCA separately issued a Mickey & Sylvia R&B compilation CD,  Love is Strange and Other Hits.  In any case, “Love is Strange”  and the work of Mickey & Sylvia had increased exposure through the 1980s and beyond as a result of the Dirty Dancing film. 

     In addition to the singles and albums, there was also a “Dirty Dancing Tour” that ran for ten-months which was seen by some two million fans in eight countries.  This tour included, at some locations, 1960s stars such as Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes, Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers, members of the Contours group, and others.  It’s not clear whether Mickey Baker or Sylvia Robinson did any performing or made any appearances as part of this tour.  There were also subsequent editions of the Dirty Dancing soundtrack album issued.  In October 2007, RCA re-released a 20th anniversary edition of the soundtrack with remastered versions of the original songs, plus a DVD with promotional material.  The remastered disc includes Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange.”

Cover art of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” from the Rainbow record label.
Cover art of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” from the Rainbow record label.
     Over the years, “Love is Strange” has also had a long list of famous duos covering the song.  Chubby Checker and Dee Dee Sharp covered it in 1960; Sonny and Cher in 1964; Peaches & Herb had a 1967 Top 20 hit with their cover; Paul McCartney and his former wife Linda covered it in1971; Buck Owens and Susan Raye had a Top 20 country hit with the song in 1975; and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton did a cover version that hit No. 21 on the country singles chart in 1990.  In addition to these, Buddy Holly did a cover that surfaced in 1969; the British group Everything but the Girl had a Top 20 hit with the song in 1992; and in 1998, a synthetic-pop band from Germany named Wolfsheim also did a cover version.  But for many, the original Mickey & Sylvia version is still the gold standard.  In 2004 “Love Is Strange” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for its influence as a rock `n roll single.

     For other stories on music at this website, please visit the Annals of Music category page, or go to the Home Page for additional story choices.  Thanks for visiting. - Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 19 May 2011
Last Update: 11 June 2011
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Love is Strange, 1956-2007,”
PopHistoryDig.com, May 19, 2011.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

The “Rev-O-La” label has issued a 31-song retrospective of Mickey Baker songs titled: “Mickey Baker in the 1950s: Hit, Git & Split.”
The “Rev-O-La” label has issued a 31-song retrospective of Mickey Baker songs titled: “Mickey Baker in the 1950s: Hit, Git & Split.”
Sylvia Robinson shown on cover of her 1973 hit, “Pillow Talk.”
Sylvia Robinson shown on cover of her 1973 hit, “Pillow Talk.”

“Mickey and Sylvia,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 646-647.

Joel Whitburn, “Mickey and Sylvia,” The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 8th Edition, Billboard Books: New York, p. 424.

“Love Is Strange,” Wikipedia.org.

“Mickey ‘Guitar’ Baker,” TheHoundBlog, January 9, 2008.

Richie Unterberger, “Biography, Mickey & Sylvia,” AllMusic.com.

“Mickey & Sylvia,” Biography, iTunes

“Sylvia Robinson,” Wikipedia.org.

Ed Hogan,” ‘Little’ Sylvia Robinson Biography,” The Roots of R&B.

“Mickey & Sylvia Record Label Shots,” ColorRadio.com.

Samuel G. Freedman, “‘Dirty Dancing’ Rocks to an Innocent Beat,” New York Times, August 16, 1987, p. A-19.

“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” Wikipedia,org.

Vincent Canby, “Film: ‘Dirty Dancing,’ A Catskills Romance in 1963,” New York Times, August 21, 1987.

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“Streets of Philadelphia”
1993-1994

Cover of CD single for the ‘Streets of Philadelphia.’
Cover of CD single for the ‘Streets of Philadelphia.’
     In 1993, a very moving piece of music about the plight of AIDS victims was written and performed by rock ‘n roll artist Bruce Springsteen for the Hollywood film Phila- delphia.  The film stars Tom Hanks, who plays a dying AIDS victim who is wrongly fired from his job at a prestigious law firm.  Springsteen’s song, “The Streets of Phila- delphia,” is a haunting, powerful tune that captures the pain and tragedy of AIDS — the immune system disease formally known as “acquired immune deficiency syndrome.” 

     In the film, the song is used in the  opening credits, played over street scenes of Philadelphia as the story opens with Hanks working in a private law firm as a rising young lawyer.  But the power of Springsteen’s song, which fit the movie well, went beyond the film’s airing.  For some, the music later helped recall particular movie scenes, and for others, their own  experi- ences with AIDS victims.  In its day, the film, and the “Streets of Philadelphia,” helped to provide a much-needed and more sympathetic understanding of the AIDS epidemic.  Tom Hanks received an Oscar for his performance in the film, while the Springsteen song won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and four Grammys.

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“Streets of Philadelphia”

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     Released in early 1994 as a single and also on the movie soundtrack, the “Streets of Philadelphia” became a top-of-the-charts hit, peaking at No.9 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and reaching No.1 in several European countries including France, Germany, Ireland and Norway.  Along with the soundtrack, sales of the song exceeded one million copies worldwide.  There was also a music video made for the song in which Springsteen is featured walking through the streets of Philadelphia with a short appearance by the Tom Hanks character as well.  The song itself has spare musical sound, using a single drum beat at its opening, then merging with an organ/synthesizer, Springsteen’s vocals, and some nice, light backing by a male chorus.  The lyrics and arrangement do the rest, making for quite a powerful rendition, especially with lines, such as:  “Ain’t no angel gonna greet me, it’s just you and I my friend.”  Or, “I walked a thousand miles just to slip this skin…”

Streets of Philadelphia
Bruce Springsteen


I was bruised and battered and
I couldn’t tell what I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
Saw my reflection in a window
I didn’t know my own face
Oh brother are you gonna leave me
wasting away
On the streets of Philadelphia

I walked the avenue till my legs felt like stone
I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone
At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Just as black and whispering as the rain
On the streets of Philadelphia

Ain’t no angel gonna greet me
It’s just you and I my friend
And my clothes don’t fit me no more
I walked a thousand miles
just to slip this skin

The night has fallen, I’m lyin’ awake
I can feel myself fading away
So receive me brother with your faithless kiss
or will we leave each other alone like this
On the streets of Philadelphia

     Helping the song’s exposure through 1994 and early 1995 was Springsteen’s perfor- mances during three high-profile, prime-time TV shows – the Hollywood Academy Awards in March 1994; the MTV Music Video Awards in September 1994; and the Grammy Awards in March 1995.  Tens of millions saw the song’s performance on those shows.  By then, “Streets of Philadelphia” had racked up its awards: a Golden Globe for Best Song; an Oscar for Best Song; four Grammy awards – Best Song, Best Rock Song, Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, Best Song Written for a Motion Picture; and finally, an MTV Video Music Award for Best Video from a Film.

     Critics generally had high praise for the film, some noting the effects of its music.  Jonathan Demme, the director (Melvin and Howard, 1980; The Silence of the Lambs, 1991), had a particular strategy in mind regarding the film’s music.  Demme wanted people not familiar with AIDS to come to the film, and felt that rock muscians contributing to its score might help bring an audience that would not ordinarily come to film about a gay man dying of AIDS.  Demme had first thought about using a song like Neil Young’s “Southern Man” for the film’s opening sequence.  But he later decided not to use Young’s music at the opening, and kept looking for other possi- bilities.  However, Young would write and perform another song for the film used in its closing.  More on that later.  Still needing an opening song, Demme asked Springsteen to do it.  Working from his home studio in New Jersey in the summer of 1993, Springsteen produced a piece using lyrics he had previously written about the death of one of his friends.  Not quite satisfied with what he came up with, and finding a rough fit with a rock beat, Springsteen nevertheless sent an early, unfinished demo to Demme for a listen.  Demme liked what he heard and the piece soon became part of the film.

 

     “Streets of Philadelphia” is perhaps the most memorable tune that came from the film.  But Demme also used other music throughout the movie to enhance and imprint its message.  In one memorable scene, Hanks’ character is in the advanced stages of AIDS, but is preparing for his court appearance in a meeting with his own attorney, played by Denzel Washington.  Hanks is tethered to a mobile IV unit as the Italian opera Andrea Chénier is playing in the background.  Maria Callas is singing “La Mamma Morta.”  Hanks, moving around the room attached to the IV unit, proceeds to make an emotional interpretation of the opera song, line by line, for Washington, who is moved and shaken by the episode as he leaves Hanks that evening.  Film critic Roger Ebert explains: “…Washington isn’t an opera fan, but as the music plays and Hanks talks over it, passionately explaining it, Washington undergoes a conversion of the soul.  What he sees, finally, is a man who loves life and does not want to leave it.  And then the action cuts to Washington’s home, late at night, as he stares sleeplessly into the darkness, and we understand what he is feeling.”

 

     At the end of the film, too, there is another powerful and moving scene that is amplified by its music.  The setting is at a  gathering of friends paying their respects to the family sometime after the Hanks character has succumbed to AIDS.  ( The video at right captures the scene, using  Spanish subtitles for the music. )  As the camera pans the room of guests, friends are shown greeting one another.  After a time showing the guests, the camera then begins to slowly zoom in on a video monitor that is playing a loop of home movies with the Hanks’ character as a child.  In the back- ground is the voice of Neil Young, accompanied only by a spare piano.  Young sings plaintively in what has been described as his “lost-little-boy” voice.  He sings a gentle song with lyrics that cover a lifetime – from childhood and sexual discovery ( “When we were boys and girls / And the secrets came unfurled”),  to the grown man’s final fight with AIDS and his community ( “City of brotherly love / Place I call home / Don’t turn your back on me / I don’t want to be alone”).  The Young song — titled “Philadelphia” — was also nominated for the Best Song Oscar in the same year with “Streets of Philadelphia,” which took the prize.  Demme generally won praise for “book-ending” his film with the two moving, contemporary songs rather than using the more traditional classical scoring.  

     In the end, Philadelphia went a long way in helping to increase AIDS awareness while removing some of the disease’s social stigma.  The film was one of the first Hollywood productions to make AIDS its primary subject, and is historically important for that reason.  Now some eighteen years old, Philadelphia and its music seem to hold up quite well with each passing year.

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Date Posted:  10 August 2009
Last Update:  25 March 2011
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Streets of Philadelphia, 1993-1994,”
PopHistoryDig.com, August 10, 2009.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

DVD cover for the 1993-94 film, 'Philadelphia.'
DVD cover for the 1993-94 film, 'Philadelphia.'
Cover of soundtrack from 'Philadelphia.'
Cover of soundtrack from 'Philadelphia.'

Bill Higgins, “‘Philadelphia’ Moves the Masses,” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1993, p. E-2.

Janet Maslin, “Philadelphia; Tom Hanks as  AIDS Victim Who Fights the Establishment,” New York Times, Wednesday, December 22, 1993, p. C-15.

Steve Hochman, “Touching the Heart of ‘Philadelphia’,” Los Angeles Times, January 2, 1994, p. 60.

Stephen Holden, “Eloquent Movies With Eloquent Soundtracks,” New York Times, January 30, 1994.

Steve Hochman, “The Boss? Neil Young? Are We in the Right Place?,” Los Angeles Times, March 20, 1994, p. 27.

Robert Hilburn, “Springsteen Closes Rock Music Gap: For the First Time in 40 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Hollywood Gives the Best Song Oscar to a Pure Rock Songwriter for ‘Streets of Philadelphia’,” Los Angeles Times, March 22, 1994, p. F-2.

Robert Hilburn, “Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ Heads Our Critic’s Top 10 List at Midyear,” Los Angeles Times, July 2, 1994, p. F-1.

“Streets of Philadelphia” and “Philadelphia,” Wikipedia.org.

“Streets Of Philadelphia, by Bruce Spring- steen,” Song Facts.com.

Rob Kirkpatrick, The Words and Music of Bruce Springsteen, The Praeger Singer-Songwriter Collection, Westport, Connecticut, 2007,  198 pp.

Philadelphia Trailer on You Tube (shown above).

Philadelphia Movie Ending on You Tube with Neil Young song “Philadelphia.” (shown above).

Neil Young song “Philadelphia”on You Tube separately without ending film sequence.

See You Tube also for other short film clip selections from Philadelphia, such as “Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.”

Roger Ebert, Film Review, “Philadelphia,” SunTimes.com, January 14, 1994.

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