A wise man once said, “There are no bad songs, only bad performances.” I don’t remember who said that, but he and or she had obviously never spent an hour listening to the New Arrivals on Bandcamp. Ninety-nine percent of them are damn near unlistenable, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t totally the fault of the performance. As my grandmaw used to say, “You can’t make a silk purse outta no sow’s ear.” But in the defense of the anonymous wise man, let us consider a great performance of a song that most sane people would consider to be the aforementioned sow’s ear: Wilson Pickett’s rendition of “Sugar, Sugar.”
First, let’s provide some background for any Millennials who may have accidentally wandered in while gazing with rapture at their iPhones…
In 1965, the world was shocked by the success of a television show about an imaginary rock band. The Monkees featured the zany antics and wacky misadventures of four guys who did weird things and performed a couple of songs on each show. How much the guys actually contributed to the recordings depends on who you ask. But dealing with – and paying – four actual actor/musicians proved to be a hassle for all concerned.
So, in 1968, someone improved on the concept by inventing The Archies, a cartoon based on the Archie comic books, with the catch that Archie, Reggie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica were cast as musicians in a Monkees-like band. The show’s creators now had all the benefits of The Monkees, without the hassle of working with actual humans. If someone wanted to make the animated Archie Andrews eat shit, well, there wasn’t much Archie could do about it except open his mouth and let the slop pour in. That left the minor problem of songs that Archie and his friends would perform. While it was easy to make Archie eat shit, at some point an actual song had to come back out.
To that end, the show’s producers recruited a crew of anonymous songwriters and performers to provide some musical product to be performed by the cartoon band. To the consternation of everyone who was not taking massive doses of drugs, The Archies scored a #1 hit with “Sugar, Sugar.” The song was written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, who later had his own #1 hit with “Rock Me Gently.” The song was sung by a session singer named Ron Dante, who covered all of the vocal parts including those attributed to the girls, Betty and Veronica. Future Ron achieved fame as the producer of Barry Manilow’s hits such as “Mandy.”
Long story short, The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” is the epitomization of everything that was wrong with pop music of the late 60’s – early 70’s. No one, except maybe anyone unlucky enough to have lost their virginity at a drive-in movie while it played on the car radio, recalls “Sugar, Sugar” with anything approaching nostalgic affection. But… Let’s give this much-maligned song to another artist. Let’s give it to soul singer Wilson Pickett.
This is the guy who had hits with “In the Midnight Hour,” “Land of 1000 Dances,” and “Mustang Sally.” No offense to Ron Dante, but this is a real singer.
Pickett’s version of “Sugar, Sugar” is everything that The Archies’ version was not. Meaning that Wilson Pickett’s version can be listened to, fifty years after the fact, without embarrassment. The horns and pulsing organ drive the song, and Wilson Pickett’s vocal shows a passion and sincerity that (I guess we shouldn’t be surprised) his animated counterpart failed to achieve. I can listen to this song every day. If I stumble across the original once a year it’s too many times. My usual reaction in that unfortunate event is to say, “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe I actually liked this song. Could I have been any whiter?”
“Sugar, Sugar” is included on The Very Best of Wilson Pickett, available from Amazon and iTunes. And that is our song of the day. The moral of this story: Don’t send a cartoon to do a man’s job. Or something like that. Wilson Pickett died in 2006 at the age of 64. The Archies are still alive, somewhere, somehow.