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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“Hello Stranger”
1963-1966

Barbara Lewis, sometime in the early 1960s.
Barbara Lewis, sometime in the early 1960s.
     In the summer of 1963, a very smooth and sexy piece of music was being heard on the radio that was also rising on the pop charts.  The name of the tune was “Hello Stranger” and it was written and performed by a 20 year-old named Barbara Lewis.  The music was distinctive for its time, in part because it couldn’t be easily characterized.  Lewis’ style was smooth and silky, and might be called “smooth jazz” or “smooth R& B” by some.  But in the early 1960s, the sound found its mark and rose on the charts, as Lewis would turn out other tunes in a similar style over the next few years.

     Barbara Lewis was born in February 1943 in rural Salem, Michigan, about 15 miles from Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan.  Music was a part of her family life; both parents played musical instruments and had led orchestras.  She attended high school at South Lyon, Michigan, where she was the only African-American student.  At one point there,  she had finished second in a school talent contest.  She had been writing music since the age of nine, and began recording in her teens.  She worked with record producer Ollie McLaughlin, a black disc jockey at Ann Arbor’s WHRV radio station, since renamed. 

Barbara Lewis’s debut album, ‘Hello Stranger’, issued by Atlantic in 1963.
Barbara Lewis’s debut album, ‘Hello Stranger’, issued by Atlantic in 1963.

     By 1962, she had cut a record, an upbeat song titled “My Heart Went Do Dat Da,” which became a local hit but did not chart nationally.  However, the song  convinced Ollie McLauglin that Lewis had potential.

     In January 1963, McLaughlin took Lewis to the Chess Studios in Chicago the day before they had  arranged a recording session.  There she watched Etta James cut a single, and came home a bit depressed, saying to her Mom, “I’ll never have a hit like that.”  But on the next day, for her own session, she brought a song she had written, “Hello Stranger.”  The lyrics came to her from traveling around town with her father.  “I would make the circuit with my dad and people would yell out: ‘Hey stranger, hello stranger, it’s been a long time’,”  Lewis recalled. “…But I know that second verse [in the song] makes it sound like lovers.”  And indeed, that’s the interpretation that sticks for most listeners —  a romantic, come-hither plea to a returning lover.

“Hello Stranger”
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     The song’s arrangement uses a signature organ riff in the lead along with drums and cymbal as the vocals come in.  At the recording session, DJ Ollie McLaughlin managed to pull in as background singers a good popular group called the Dells.  The Dells have a memorable part backing Lewis with classic sounding “shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby” vocals.  Lewis had also written the background vocals.  In the recording session, Lewis was in a tiny booth with the five Dells and two microphones.  Riley Hampton did the arranging and John Young played the keyboards.  They did 13 takes before they were satisfied with the song.  At the end, one of Dells, Chuck Barksdale, became very excited about what they had recorded.  As Barbara Lewis later recounted: “Chuck kept jumping up and down and saying, ‘It’s a hit, it’s a hit.’ …I didn’t really know. It was all new to me.”

Barbara Lewis with her ‘Hello Stranger’ album in the 1960s.
Barbara Lewis with her ‘Hello Stranger’ album in the 1960s.
     And the song was a hit.  “Hello Stranger” broke into the Top 40 in May 1963 and rose to No. 3 that summer remaining in Top 40 for about 10 weeks.  It went to No. 1 on the R & B charts.  A debut album also titled Hello Stranger followed, with a dozen songs, all of which Lewis wrote. 

     It was unusual at the time — a time when professional songwriters in New York’s Brill Building and elsewhere across the land were turning out songs for new groups — for the performer to also write the music.  Still, despite her talents, Lewis’s share of the rewards for her music was not what it should have been, especially in the early years. 

     When she began her career, she was naïve about the business side of her music, and executives got most of the money.  Some of her royalty checks were sent to fictitious persons.  At one point, Lewis was given a check for $500, with her handlers telling her it was the best they could do.

     Following her initial hit, Lewis continued to work with Olllie McLauglin.  In August 1963, Sharon McMahan, a writer and later artist in her own right who worked with McLaughlin and Lewis, wrote a follow-up single for Lewis, “Straighten Up Your Heart” that hit No. 43 on the music charts.  McMahan would also write another later song for Lewis on Stax Records, “Do I Deserve It Baby.”

Barbara Lewis’s second hit, ‘Baby I’m Yours,’ came in the summer of 1965.
Barbara Lewis’s second hit, ‘Baby I’m Yours,’ came in the summer of 1965.
     Lewis then recorded in New York with producers Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler.  Two more hits followed.  “Baby I’m Yours,” written by Van McCoy, was released in July 1965 and rose to No. 11 on the charts.  “Make Me Your Baby,”  written by Helen Miller and Rodger Atkins, followed in October 1965 and also peaked at No 11.  Lewis’s final top forty hit was “Make Me Belong To You” of August 1966, which rose to No. 28.  By the end of 1960s, Lewis had released another album on Stax Records.  Described by some as “a gritier sounding” allbum, it met with mixed results.  Lewis also penned songs for other groups in the 1960s, with some success.  She continued recording in Chicago into the early 1970s, but then withdrew from the music business.

     Barbara Lewis soon found herself  in the work-a-day world, where she did everything from running her own jewelry store to working security.  But in her various jobs, she never touted her former fame to co-workers; nobody knew she had earlier been a popular recording artist.  “I never felt like a big star, anyway.  …I went back to Michigan and I never told a soul….” - Barbara Lewis “I never felt like a big star, anyway,” Lewis told former Minneapolis Star writer, Chuck Laszewski, in a 2008 interview for MinnPost.com.  “I went back to Michigan and I never told a soul.  I would hear it on the radio and it was disassociation.  It was another lifetime.  I was never sad about it.  I just went about my life.” 

     By 1993, however, Lewis began wondering if she could still sing and perform.  She made a few calls to old contacts and before long was once again playing on the nostalgia circuit.  As of mid-2008, she was still performing, explaining to Chuck Laszewski: “Last year, I worked an awful lot.  My voice is better than it ever was.  …I still sing the songs in their original key.  I’ve been very, very blessed.”


A Barbara Lewis album released by Enterprise in 1970.
A Barbara Lewis album released by Enterprise in 1970.
Long Coattails

     Over the years, Lewis’ songs, or the ones she initially recorded, have  found a number of willing users among other artists.  Even in the 1960s and 1970s her contemporaries were covering her songs.  In 1965, the same year that Lewis cut her second hit song, “Baby I’m Yours,” Peter & Gordon of the U.K. did the song for the British market, becoming a Top 20 singles hit there.  The following year, the U.K.’s Cilla Black recorded the song on her album Cilla Sings a Rainbow.  In 1969, Dusty Springfield did Lewis’s 1966 song, “Don’t Forget About Me.”  Country singer Jody Miller remade “Baby I’m Yours” in 1971 and released it as a single, reaching No. 5 on the Country Singles chart. Canada’s Suzanne Stevens hit with a 1975 disco version of “Make Me Your Baby.”  Back in the U.K., Linda Lewis had a top forty hit in 1976 with “Baby I’m Yours.”

     In 1977, “Hello Stranger” was recorded by U.S. singer Yvonne Elliman, which hit No. 15 on the pop chart and No.1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It also hit the U.K. singles Top 30. Debby Boone’s 1978 version of “Baby I’m Yours” — a B-side to her “God Knows” song — peaked separately at No. 18 on the Adult Contemporary chart and No. 33 on the Country Singles chart. A range of artists — from Debby Boone to the Arctic Monkeys — have covered her songs. “Baby I’m Yours” was also done by Tanya Tucker in 1983, and also made the Billboard country chart.  In 1990, U.S. singer Cher released her version of “Baby I’m Yours” as the first European single release from the soundtrack to the movie MermaidsIn 1995, “Baby I’m Yours” was featured on the soundtrack from the film The Bridges of Madison County.  Other artists who have recorded “Baby I’m Yours” include Petula Clark, The Paramounts, Billy Preston, and Maureen McGovern.  And last but not least, in 2006, the Arctic Monkeys released a cover of  the song in a collaborative effort with The 747s.  It was released as a B-side of the single, “Leave Before the Lights Come On,” which hit No. 4 on the U.K. Singles Chart.  There are also a range of other artists who have done Barbara Lewis tunes, as this is not a complete list.

This ‘Best of Barbara Lewis’ compilation by Atlantic was first issued in 1994, reissued in 2005.
This ‘Best of Barbara Lewis’ compilation by Atlantic was first issued in 1994, reissued in 2005.


“The Best of…”

     In July 1994, Rhino Records released a compilation of Lewis’s tunes, titled Hello Stranger: The Best of Barbara Lewis, a 20-tune compendium of her hits, basically tracking her career.  This album also includes Lewis’s endorsement on the back as well as extensive liner notes.  In one review of this album, Stephen Thomas Erlewine at All Music.com, says that Lewis’s work, along with Atlantic’s production, resulted in “an alluring body of work that still sounds seductive, yet comforting, years after their release.”  He calls The Best of…, “an excellent compilation.”  Other online reviewers, such as Dave Moore at Hitsville Soul Club.com, have gone through Lewis’s discography in detail, offering additional perspective on her music and its impact, including some of her lesser-known songs.


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Date Posted:  17 March 2009
Last Update:  30 December 2011
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Hello Stranger, 1963-1966,”
PopHistoryDig.com, Mach 17, 2009.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

U.K. version of 'The Best of Barbara Lewis', issued by Rhino/Wea, March 2007.
U.K. version of 'The Best of Barbara Lewis', issued by Rhino/Wea, March 2007.

“Barbara Lewis” and “Baby I’m Yours,” Wikipedia.org.

Richie Unterberger, Song Review, “Hello Stranger,” All Music.com.

Chuck Laszewski, “‘Hello Stranger': Barbara Lewis In Town For ‘Taste’,” MinnPost.com, Monday, June 30, 2008.

Dave Moore, “Barbara Lewis: No Stranger To Soul,” Hitsville Soul Club.com, August 2005.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Hello Stranger: The Best of Barbara Lewis, Album review, All Music.com.

Website of singer/songwriter, Sharon McMahan.

“Barbara Lewis,” African American Registry.com.

“Barbara Lewis Fan Club,” Squidoo.com.


 

 

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