John Sieger
Sieger On Songs

How Mickey & Sylvia Changed Music

Their 50s hit, “Love is Strange,” brought the bent notes of the blues into rock.

By - Jan 5th, 2017 03:25 pm
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Mickey & Sylvia

Mickey & Sylvia

Mickey Baker and Sylvia Robinson were a rock’n’ roll power couple early on. He was a great session guitarist and wrote the book on how to play jazz that has become the standard. She was his student and soon, his partner in crime. Mickey was convinced there was room for another duo like Les Paul and Mary Ford. It worked out well. Here they are in a primitive but affecting video of their truly catchy 1956 hit, “Love Is Strange.” Yes, that’s Steve Allen introducing them, the Tonight Show host was a quasi hipster who played jazz piano. It’s striking to see them playing their Gibson Les Pauls, looking like a younger, hipper version of the duo that inspired them.

Sylvia had an interesting career. She had a hit in the Disco era, a sexy little tease called “Pillow Talk.” (By then Mickey was an expatriate, living in France and working with French musicians. Being a mixed-race American in the 50’s and 60’s was easier somewhere else.) After her disco success,  Sylvia founded Sugar Hill Records, the label that released both “Rapper’s Delight,” and “The Message.” These were two very important songs in the early days of Hip Hop. Is there is a figure in modern Pop who was closer to so many historic events? She was literally a bridge from early rock to Hip Hop. She died in 2011… where’s her movie?

Sylvia was also a good singer and a sassy performer, as you can see in the video. The song, come to find out, wasn’t theirs. It was credited to Ethel Smith. She was Bo Diddley’s wife. It was sometimes necessary to obfuscate back then. There was a lot of funny business in the 50’s. The kind that took money and credit from black artists and delivered it to their white managers or record companies, so little ruses like this were necessary. The song was covered by everybody, and should have made Bo and his missus a lot of money. But perhaps it didn’t — Bo Diddley talked often and at length about the money stolen from him. Either way, it was viewed as a seminal song in the early era of rock’n’roll. That had a lot to do with Mickey. Bending strings the way he does on this song, was more common in the blues. This is one of the earliest examples of it in rock. If you hear others from that time that are similar, it may very well be him, as he played on a lot of other artists’ hits. Nowadays it’s rarer to hear guitars that don’t bend notes than ones who do. Although he’s less well known, Baker was a game changer, like Jimi Hendrix.

Here are the lyrics:

Love
Love is strange
Lot of people
Take it for a game

Once you get it
You never want to quit, no no
After you’ve had it
You’re in an awful fix

Many people
Don’t understand, no no
They think loving
Is money in the hand

Your sweet loving
Is better than a kiss
When you leave me
Sweet kisses I miss

Sylvia
Yes, Mickey
How do you call your lover boy
Come here, lover boy
And if he doesn’t answer
Oh lover boy
And if he still doesn’t answer
I simply say

Baby, oh baby
My sweet baby, you’re the one
Baby, oh baby
My sweet baby, you’re the one

© Ethel Smith (Bo Diddley)

I know, I know… not exactly “The Times They Are A Changing.” But the music carries it in much the same way a tray delivers dessert. Not much nutrition, but as long as it isn’t the only thing in your diet, you’ll survive. Among the great covers of this song are three giants of rock: Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers and Paul McCartney. And of course, Bo Diddley, himself. He recorded it, but never released it in 1956. His version is very different, but it’s the original and it’s cool. The polish on the hit elevates it and makes it accessible to more ears.

Other names got attached to this catchy little tune, including Mickey and Sylvia’s. Like I said — publishing. Piranhas would avoid some of the figures lurking in those muddy music-biz waters back then. The joy in music sometimes emanates from less joyful places. That makes it even more of an accomplishment. A  black woman and a biracial man staking out their own territory in a rough-and-tumble business sympathetic to neither. They still managed to make a joyful noise while writing an interesting chapter in music history. Love is strange — music more so.

Note: The Lick, that’s what I call it. I demonstrate, coming in a bit under the Baker level, in this week’s video.

2 thoughts on “Sieger On Songs: How Mickey & Sylvia Changed Music”

  1. Bonnee Beth says:

    Thank you. What a delightful way to start the year. I remember Mickey and Sylvia and “Love Is Strange”

  2. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    That’s the difference between songs and poetry – “the music carries it.” Everyone always loved this song! And you’re right, where’s her movie?

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