It Takes Two: An Ode to Duets

Today,  I welcome a very special guest to The Mix Tape  — the one and only Milo Miles. You may know him as NPR’s world and American roots music critic. But long before he was expanding NPR listeners’ musical horizons, he was my  editor at the Boston Phoenix. Sitting at his corduroyed elbow, I absorbed an education in rock-criticism-writing, as well as large doses of his second-hand smoke. (Note:  He kicked the habit after I left town.)

Milo was as patient a teacher as anyone could hope for, and as protective;  he would never let his writers hang themselves in print, prodding you to construct air-tight arguments and just, you know, word it as you mean it. Sometimes, we sat there for hours, alternating painstaking editing sessions with meandering conversations about music, basketball, his old girlfriends, other writers, everything. All of this was punctuated by Milo’s comic-strip-bubble chortles of delight and snorts of derision. Milo remains the most passionate of critics, and one of the smartest, funniest and sweetly singular people I know.

But how to lure the reluctant Milo into the blogosphere?  After some delicate negotiations, we hit upon the obvious topic:  Let’s write a duet!  So here are our Top Ten Favorite Duets, five from Milo, and five from me. He wrote the mini-reviews for his half, and I wrote the ones for mine. But I think, together, we hit all the right notes.

Milo Miles’ Five Favorite Duets

“It Takes Two” — Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston

Fun fact: originally titled “You Got Me Babe.” Marvin Gaye was a compulsive seducer, on and off stage, but on record he made it pay off. Nothing will touch the celebrated sequence of duets with Tammi Terrell, with their outsized longing and shadow of real-life tragic finale. But I’ve always understood why “It Takes Two” was the ideal breakout single and it remains my favorite vision of what-if for the leading man. Kim Weston, the far more stable and sunny soul, states the hesitant images of solo chill before Gaye sweeps in with the assurances of companionship, a tropical wave of confidence. If there’s anything prettier than their wordless vocal break sashaying with that string section, I don’t know what it is. “It takes two baby/It takes two/To make a dream come true/Just takes two.” My heart clenches a bit at the fade, because that’s just what Gaye never found.

“Wake Up Little Susie” — The Everly Brothers

Layers of reflection on “Wake Up Little Susie”:

  •  I’m disappointed nobody’s ever done a spoof version called “Wake Up Little Snoozy.”
  •  The tune was an oldie as early as I can remember hearing it. The Everlys first Number One hit, “Wake Up Little Susie” topped the charts in 1957, but they’d been washed up for years by the time I became an active radio hound. Certainly after the Beatles had quit holding hands and the Rolling Stones started spending the night, the song’s surface message wasn’t even a nervous joke any more. “Little Susie” still kind of worked as the story of a cover-up tale for sex at the drive-in.
  •  But waitaminute! This is a close-harmony duet. Both Don and Phil are telling Susie to wake up, they gotta go home. How much did the brothers share after all?  What can this mean?

“Holding on to Nothing” — Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton

Two vintage country stars a lot more eccentric — hell, downright weird — in their younger years than their public personas would suggest today. (Poor Wagoner doesn’t even have a popular image any more.) A shame their superb, long series of duets has fallen into near-obscurity. But in the late-’60s, early-’70s, this pair was up there with Johnny Cash and Hee-Haw, with The Porter Wagoner Show (1960-1981) on syndicated TV. For evidence of oddness, check out Wagoner’s ’60s LP covers and consider the rumor that Dolly dreamed up her early tales of death and madness while puffing in the Hookah Room in Porter’s Nashville mansion. Further peculiarity is that this song of emotional torture — lovers clinging to the corpse of a romance — sounds plain cheery on the surface. Partly it’s because Parton and Wagoner enjoy their vocal interactions so much. (And South African tunes, for example, can protest the most horrendous oppression and still be irresistible dance tracks.) Deeper down in the duet, however, lies a flinty country resolve to endure and transcend. Let’s be honest there’s nothing left, deal with it and move onward. As decent and honorable as any public Porter and Parton would wish.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — Ray Charles and Betty Carter

Two old pros at work on a vintage tune in all-out “they don’t make ’em like this anymore” mode. People forget Ray Charles’s devotion to duet singing, partly because it grew out of his profound grasp of gospel call-and-response more than the usual harmonizing voices. More and more as his career blossomed on Atlantic, Charles would trade lines and even share the foreground with the Raelettes. And though it was more evident on stage than in her studio sessions, Betty Carter relished verbal interaction with her backup-band members. All that aside, their acting jobs on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” are untouchable. The blast of soul horns and Charles’s muscular piano introductions keep the song (written in 1944 by Frank Loesser) from sounding the least antique. Among the numberless treats on offer are the way Charles lightens his voice until he’s almost as airy as Carter and all persuasion, no pressure and the way the two flow into each others’ line with sly momentum. The many other versions of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” can be charming tunes. Betty and Ray’s is something you inhabit every time it plays.

“Aguas de Marco” — Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina

Bossa nova singer-songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobin wrote his masterpiece with both Portuguese (“Aguas de Marco”) and English (“Waters of March”) lyrics. My favorite parsing of the English version is Susanna McCorkle’s, and it’s worth a look.  There’s nothing quite like this tune. It makes Dylan’s free-associating sound stodgy;  it follows no obvious logic yet doesn’t feel arbitrary;  it’s contradictory to its core. In Brazil, the flooding rains of March signal the beginning of winter. Of course, in North America, the same period is the start of Spring. Jobim wanted to catch both audiences, which explains the clashing images of death and disaster, renewal and joyful hope, disease and surging hearts. Likewise, the melody tumbles downhill but conveys happiness. The duet by Elis Regina and Jobim (from the 1974 album Elis & Tom) is definitive because they both sound like they know exactly why one line follows the other and turn the chaos into a cavalcade of fun. The late Regina, volatile as a performer and person, might have been particularly at ease with serial disruptions. Both singers knew that, for all the scary lyrics, “Aguas de Marco” was meant to be upbeat. As another poetic type put it, “If Winter comes/Can Spring be far behind?”

Joyce Millman’s Five Favorite Duets

As I was making this list,  I realized that I kept gravitating toward duets between women and men. Unfair, perhaps, but I’m going to follow my heart on this one. I love the sexual tension of opposite-sex duets, the intimacy, the emotional drama, the interplay between the male and female voice. So, with profound apologies to Sam and Dave and the McGarrigle sisters, here are my five favorite duets.

“Summer Wine” — Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood

In the late ’60s, Frank’s little girl and producer/songwriter Lee Hazlewood teamed up to make some of the greatest pop records ever heard. Hazlewood had already written and produced Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” when they embarked on a parallel-universe career as a country-pop singing duo. “Summer Wine” had been the B-side of the Hazlewood-penned Sinatra solo “Sugar Town,” but it took off when it was included on the 1968 album Nancy & Lee.  “Strawberries, cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring/ My summer wine is really made from all these things,” sings Nancy, sirenic yet detached, knowing yet girlish. Then the scene dissolves and we’re in a spaghetti Western, with gravelly-voiced Lee singing about silver spurs and a girl who promised him a taste of her aforementioned strawberries and cherries. Hazlewood and Sinatra never sing together;  he takes the verses, she the choruses. As the song gathers baroque-pop steam, Lee’s story becomes more perverse and Nancy’s detachment more maddeningly sensual. The fact that I was grooving to this as an innocent AM radio-crazed 11-year-old makes Nancy and Lee’s achievement — debauchery at the top of the charts — all the more amazing. (There are those who consider the jarring time-signature shifts and psychedelic mythology of the epic “Some Velvet Morning,” from the same album as “Summer Wine,” to be Sinatra and Hazlewood’s masterpiece. I appreciate Hazlewood’s ambition, but, honestly, that song freaks me out.)

“Jackson” — Johnny Cash and June Carter

In this rollicking 1967 hit, Cash and Carter are a bickering couple lamenting that the spark has gone out of their marriage.  Johnny plays the puffed-up fool who thinks he can do better with the women down in Jackson;  June sassily begs to differ. The song chugs along on the push and pull of Johnny’s rumbling boasts (“When I breeze into that city/ People gonna stoop and bow/ All them women gonna make me teach ’em what they don’t know how”) and June’s throaty put-downs (“Go on down to Jackson, you big talkin’ man/ And I’ll be waitin’ there in Jackson/ Behind my Jay-pan fan”).  But by the end, when June harmonizes in wordless coos and Johnny softens his voice and introduces the word “honey” before the line, “We been talkin’ ’bout Jackson, ever since the fire went out,” you get the feeling that what you’ve just heard wasn’t a fight after all, it was foreplay.

“Tougher than the Rest” — Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa (live version from the 1988 “Chimes of Freedom” mini-CD)

When Springsteen and Scialfa first performed this Tunnel of Love solo track as a duet on the E Street Band’s 1988 tour,  I thought it was the sexiest thing I had ever seen in my life. It still might be. The affair between the married Boss and his longtime backing vocalist wasn’t yet public, but anyone who witnessed their intense onstage interaction had to wonder whether something was up. Patti, smoking hot with ’80s hair and Spandex miniskirt, and Bruce, sultry and slicked up in goin’-courtin’ duds and bolo tie, stared at each other across the stage with a hunger you could feel from the back row. Watch Bruce’s hand gesture at around 4:56 of this tour-shot video, on the line “all you gotta do is say yes,” and Patti’s little answering smile. Listen to how their voices rise to meet on the line, “If you’re rough and ready for love, honey, I’m tougher than the rest”.  No doubt about it, they were throwing down a challenge to each other. (Oh, let’s not get into moral judgment here;  if you’re going to cheat, you might as well own it.)  Today, when Mr. and Mrs. Springsteen sing, “The road is dark and it’s a thin, thin line/ But I want you to know I’ll walk it for you anytime,” the vibe is more pledge than dare. But the electricity is still snapping.

“The Battle of Evermore” — Led Zeppelin with Sandy Denny

Lord of the Rings-meets-King of the Cockrockers-meets Queen of the Folkies. Robert Plant always was a gentle hippie (Druid?) at heart, and Sandy Denny’s Fairport Convention grafted rock and roll wildness onto traditional British folk. This sublime duet from Led Zeppelin IV is nothing less than the mating dance of two of the most influential strains of British popular music and two of its greatest voices. With Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones whipping up an acoustic frenzy of mandolin and guitar, respectively, Plant and Denny keen a pagan tale of runes, archers, ring wraiths and “angels of Avalon”. Their voices play hide-and-seek with one other, twirling in and out of the lead until you can’t tell who this tale belongs to, the “Queen of Light” or the “Prince of Peace.”  Yes, it’s completely insane. It’s also magnificent.

“Love is Strange” — Mickey & Sylvia 

Mickey was Mickey Baker, a session guitarist from Kentucky whose jazz- and blues-infused work on classics like Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and Big Maybelle’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” helped usher in the rock and roll era. Sylvia was Sylvia Vanderpool, who later became Sylvia Robinson, breathy vocalist/writer of the provocative 1972 single “Pillow Talk” and the “mother of hip-hop” who co-founded Sugar Hill Records.  Their 1957 single “Love Is Strange” (written by Bo Diddley and Jody Williams) was a hit on both the R&B and pop charts. And you can hear Mickey and Sylvia’s entire pasts, presents and futures in it.  Mickey’s scratching, eccentric guitar picking bounces between blues, jazz and a new sound that would someday be echoed by Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend. Sylvia’s vocals are by turns sex-kittenish and hip-hop diva bold. The song’s cha-cha beat is irresistible. And then there’s that delicious, flirty spoken exchange. “Sylviaaa … .” “Yes, Mickey?”  “How d’ya call your lover boy?”  Growling: “C’mere, lover boy!” “And if he doesn’t answer?”  Sweetly: “Oh, lover boy … .” “And if he still doesn’t answer?” “I simply say …,” and then Sylvia simulates what might be rock and roll’s first recorded orgasm. “Baaaaby! Oh-ohh, bay-bee!  My sweet bay-bee!  You’re the one.”  I’ll have what she’s having.

© Joyce Millman, Milo Miles, The Mix Tape 2013