Music: Rock n’ roll spelling bee
In this modern age of texting, when good spelling means knowing how to type “LOL” and “ROTFL” correctly, it can be staggering to consider how many pop songs rely on spelling out words as a lyrical conceit. Literally hundreds of popular hits have included spelled out words or phrases.
Possibly the most famous example was Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” with its exhortation to find out what R-E-S-P-E-C-T “means to me.” In the 1990s, Queen Latifah spelled out “U.N.I.T.Y.”
In the ‘80s, John Mellencamp hit it big with “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A,” and one-hit wonders Men Without Hats spelled the first word of their “Safety Dance.”
One of the biggest hits of the 1970s was the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night,” in which that day of the week was spelled out (loudly). Besides “Respect,” the 1960s saw many other spelling hits, including Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” and Nat “King” Cole’s cover of Bert Kaempfert’s “L-O-V-E.”
A decade before that, Etta James was spelling “W-O-M-A-N.”
But the history of spelling songs goes back much, much further. As far back as 1907, vaudeville great George M. Cohan used spelling to conjure popular success with his song “Harrigan,” which he wrote for one of his popular Broadway shows, “Fifty Miles From Boston,” and the chorus of which tells us “H-A-double R-I-G-A-N spells Harrigan.”
While there have been other songs (like Herman’s Hermits’ “I Am Henry the Eighth, I Am” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Magic Johnson”) which spell out men’s names, women’s names are far more popular as a spelling subject in pop music. Van Morrison and Patti Smith spelled “Gloria,” while the Kinks had “Lola.”
Sometimes, the woman named is a real person. Folksinger Phranc spelled out the first and last names of tennis great Martina Navratilova (as well as her native country, Czechoslovakia) in her 1989 tribute song, “M-A-R-T-I-N-A.”
It’s not uncommon for bands or artists to spell their own names in songs. Devo did it in “Jocko Homo,” Morningwood did it in “Nth Degree,” and the Notorious B.I.G. did it in “Going Back to Cali.” In 2006, Fergie spelled her own name in “Fergalicious,” as well as the words “delicious” and “tasty.” (Actually, she misspelled the latter by adding an extraneous E). Fergie also spelled “Glamorous” in the single by that name a few months later.
On rare occasions, a band has spelled the name of another act. Such was the case in 1991 when Motorhead paid homage to Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and the boys in their tribute track, “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.”
When Connie Francis wanted to take a “v-a-c-a-t-i-o-n in the summer sun” in 1962, she could have chosen her destination from any of the many songs which have spelled out location names in their lyrics. Even before Rodgers and Hammerstein had the cast of “Oklahoma!” spell in the title track, singer Frances White scored a hit with “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I,” which she introduced in Florenz Ziegfeld’s 1916 Midnight Frolics. Bobbie Gentry would spell the same state name in 1967 on her first single, “Mississippi Delta” (a song that was dramatically overshadowed by its B-side, “Ode to Billie Joe”). Thirty-two years later, the Magnetic Fields would spell out “Washington, D.C.”
We’ll wrap up our look at spelling songs — and pay especial attention to the many songs which have spelled out naughty words — in this space N-E-X-T W-E-E-K.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.
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