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Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Who Did It Better? Jive Talkin'

Who Did It Better? 
Jive Talkin'

For today's Who Did It Better?, we head to the year 1975. 

The other day, I was listening to a best of collection by Rufus and Chaka Khan, which got me  thinking about all their hits not on it, such as... their version of Jive Talkin'. That, of course made me think of The Bee Gees, which then got me to wondering how the recording and release dates lined-up for the two groups.

Well, while not competing versions by any means, timewise? Close enough. They were both recorded in 1975. It also lines up well with our recent dive into songs written by one recording artist, but made popular by a different recording artist. Of course, in this case, the songwriters beat the other recording artist to the punch, but it's still an interesting look.

Written in the studio by The Brothers Gibb and recorded on January 30th and February 2nd, Jive Talkin'  was released by The Bee Gees in May of 1975 as the lead single from their Main Course album. 

The song, originally called Drive Talkin', possesses a rhythm track based on the sound the group's car made while crossing the Julia Tuttle Causeway as they traveled back and forth between Biscayne Bay to Criteria Studios in Miami. However, that title? It quickly changed. 

As brother Maurice recalls, "Barry didn't notice that he's going 'J-J-J Jive Talkin' ', thinking of the dance. 'You dance with your eyes'. That's all he had. Exactly 35 mph, that's what we got. We played it for Arif, and he went 'Do you know what Jive Talkin' means?' And we said 'Well yeah, it's, ya know, you're dancing.' He says 'No! It's a black expression for bullshitting.' And we went, 'Oh, really? Jive talkin', you're telling me lies...' and we changed it." Producer Arif Mardin contributed mightily to the composition, according to Maurice, by providing "the groove, the tempo, everything." 

Promotional copies of the single were sent to radios stations in a plain white wrapper, minus any identifying information. A similar approach had worked for the group back in 1967, when they had their first stateside hit, New York Mining Disaster 1941. Needless to say, lightning struck twice. Their version of the song went on to capture the #1 spot on Billboard's Hot 100 while also reaching #1 in Canada, #5 in Ireland, #5 in the UK, and #4 in New Zealand. Considered something of a comeback, Jive Talkin' was the group's first US Top Ten hit since 1971's How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.

Just as The Bee Gee's version of the song was being released to radio stations, into the studio walked Rufus with Chaka Khan to record their fourth album. Unlike their three previous albums, the group was planning on recording only one outside contribution, a recent composition by The Bee Gees, Jive Talkin'. 

After putting their unique spin on the tune, the group was busy putting finishing touches on their new album Rufus featuring Chaka Khan when the Bee Gee's version hit #1 in August of 1975. Rufus and Chaka Khan's album, released on November 18, 1975, became the best-selling R&B album of the year, remaining at #1 on the R&B album chart for six consecutive weeks. It also reached #7 on the Pop album chart, spawned two Top 40 hits and three R&B Top 40 hits, the last of which was Jive Talkin'. Their version reached #35 on September 3rd of 1976.

So, a couple of trivia tidbits:

The 45 version of Jive Talkin' by Rufus and Chaka Khan is clearly stamped 1975, but was not released as a single until July of 1976.

Also the original studio version of Jive Talkin' by The Bee Gees was included on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack because it was used during a scene which was cut from the final film. Later pressings of the soundtrack were forced to substitute a live version of the song (taken from the group's 1977 album, Here at Last... Bee Gees... Live) due to contractual distribution changes. When the soundtrack was released on CD, the original studio version was restored. And that qualifies those later issued albums with the live version of the song as collector's items. 

Okay, that's the history. Let the competition begin!

The Song: Jive Talkin'
The Competitors: The Bee Gees vs. Rufus featuring Chaka Khan

Jive Talkin' - The Bee Gees

Jive Talkin' - Rufus featuring Chaka Khan

The Bee Gees
This is such a classic. I remember when it came out and I bought the 45 based solely on the title. I was not disappointed. This song is fun, pure fun. (Why does it now remind me of the Jonas Brothers?)

That's a long ass intro for an AM Radio 45. And subtle. I'm sure DJs loved it because they could talk right over it. Barry is in grand form... very focused and keeping in his mid register. So smooth. The bass line is doubled by that synth and set off so well with the chucka-chucka guitar riff. Those subtle synths absolutely percolate between each phrase. By the time we get to the chorus the group is in a sure groove, headed straight forward. My only issue? That corny instrumental break? It always makes me think of chop suey. A tad cliché'. It works, but... well, you know what I mean. The hand clapping during the third chorus? Brilliant. So much fun. From start to finish... the whole is composed  of so many tiny pieces that are fit together, on top of one another, with such care. Masterful production work. It's not delicate, but it is complex.

A lot of the credit (and I must say, I did not realize just how much) goes to Arif Mardin - one of my favorite producers. He brought to life so many artists: Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, The Bee Gees, Diana Ross, Queen, Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, Judy Collins, Phil Collins, Culture Club, Roberta Flack, Hall & Oates, Donny Hathaway, Jeffrey Osborne, Norah Jones, Chaka Khan, George Benson, Melissa Manchester, Leo Sayer, and Jewel, to name but a few. 

He is the one who discovered Barry's falsetto during the sessions for Main Course and used it to such great effect on Nights on Broadway. And... coincidentally, he also helped craft a successful solo career for Chaka Khan. I'm Every Woman? Yeah. That's Arif. 

He had a way of bringing out the very best in the artists he worked with and then surrounding them with the warmest, hot-melted butter sounds. That man created so much beauty.

Rufus and Chaka Khan
Almost instantly you get hit with the fact that this is a band of musicians with a featured vocalist... not a group of session musicians stitching things together. Rufus recorded what they played live. So their sound was not something they were going to be recreating in order to go on the road - they were already seasoned, having jammed with each other for years. 

And their sound was deep funk, not the Miami dance scratching The Bee Gees and Arif Mardin were experimenting with. That said... there is something undercooked about the opening chorus. The guitars are crazy high in the mix and Chaka strikes me as buried or holding back. It's very organic... and again, this is because they come from the tradition of Sly and the Family Stone, which, while it has it's pop elements is truly rooted in R&B and funk. This is home cookin'.

It might be the key? It doesn't allow for Chaka to burn as deep and dark as she normally does? I dunno. Guessing, here. I do like the laidback tempo, the deep groove (though they have done so much deeper) and all the space created between the phrases. But there is also something about the production that does not feel finished, as if this was tossed off in an effort to get it done. The arrangement certainly isn't as complex a tapestry as the group typically wove. 

When Chaka does let go at the mid-mark, during the bridge, it feels thin and stretched. There is no linking the back up vocals to her main vocal. In the past, Chaka always overdubbed her own vocals, multiple times and did her own backing vocals. It created a roar of sound, one associated with her. Here, she sounds separated from the other vocals. It's cold. It's not until the third chorus that we finally get going - and I am thinking... that is where we should have started! 

In fact, by the third chorus, all I can think of is... what if The Pointer Sisters had taken a shot at this arrangement instead of Chaka? I know, perish the thought, wash my mouth out with soap... but no, I can't help but think that. If you listen to early-mid Pointer Sisters music (Betcha Got A Chick On The Side), this is right up their alley. Also, incidentally, Richard Perry, who would help shape The Pointer Sister's greatest hits (Jump, I'm So Excited, just happens to be a prodigy of none other than... Arif Mardin. So, small world, huh? 

Anyhoo. Oh, I was hoping Rufus would just skip that instrumental part... sigh. Their druggy, draggy take on it does not help it at all. Sounds like it was recorded under water. Who produced this? And, again, the vocals that come in after the instrumental break? That's the sound I would have liked this version to have started with. Oh, honey, it is too late. You do not have time now to be startin' no fire. Which is a damn shame, because fire is the air Chaka Khan breathes. It is the currency our diva spends. 

Nope. The band fails, too. That bass and that groove is not deep enough, not funky enough to carry that tempo or this thin ass arrangement. What's here is fine, for a live version. For a studio effort? Well... where is the effort?

The Verdict:

Oh, The Bee Gees, of course. Theirs is so smooth and polished. How could you not love all that machinery working in the background creating all those intricate landscapes. It is a work of art, so perfectly put together, like a damn Swiss watch.

As for Rufus and Chaka Khan? Well, I am disappointed. Maybe it sounds better remastered on CD? But I doubt it. I think that process actually exposes even more production flaws. And this is flawed. It feels under-cooked, half-baked, and half-hearted. Too bad. I was hoping they would've dug deeper and created a landscape, but maybe they were going for some more minimalistic. 

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Well, that's my POV. Now, you share yours. What did you think? 

Tell me something good... in the comments section!

Until next week...

Thanks for reading.


Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I agree. The Bee Gees. I had no idea that Rufus and Chaka Khan had recorded it, to tell you the truth (Love Chaka! I'm Every Woman is the shit).
I had no idea that Barry had not used his falsetto all the time. I only know them from the SNF soundtrack, too, so that that's not strange. But their version is a bop.
I also didn't know what the expression meant. It's really not very current, no?


Mark Greene said...

I had to compare the two. I guess when I hear the same song performed by two different artists it does spark my curiosity as to which I may enjoy better. But I was pleased with both versions. It is always hard to put two bands that you really enjoy in a competition. It’s like my friends trying to get me to choose between Michael Jackson and Prince. It’s just not going to happen. I have to say Rufus and Chaka Khan’s into was much more easier to digest than that long ass intro of The Bee Gees. And from the beginning of the drum beat going into the guitar and keyboards; that sound was evident that that was Rufus and Chaka Khan. No one has that slow sleezy funk like them. It’s a total cliche of anticipating the scene when the pizza guy with the 70s sideburns and mustache get’s jumped by the hot female customer. I could swear they were watching some bow chicka bow wow when they wrote their music. I love it.

Now The Bee Gees. Their version is the one I am most familiar with. It’s got a beat you can groove to and it’s universal. It was played on rock ‘ pop stations what were known as “White” stations and R and B stations that were know as “Black” stations. Because Rufus’s version is more funk oriented, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been received as well in the “white” stations. But honestly I don’t recall hearing Rufus’ version on the “Black” stations either. As a matter of fact until I visited your post I didn’t know it existed. I nearly pissed my pants when I saw this post! How can a music lover as myself go forty five and some change years without knowing this version existed?

Anyway I am quite pleased with both.

Mistress Maddie said...

Nobody loves Chaka Khan more than me. I even have her Klassy Khan CD....EXCELLENT BTW....but no body does that song like the Bee Gees!!!!!!!

anne marie in philly said...

bee gees forever! disco forever!

whkattk said...

Chaka's is too thin... I gotta go with the Brothers Gibb.
BTW, have you seen the documentary? They cover the creation of this. Kisses!

Jimmy said...

"Tell Me Something Good",

As much as I love Chaka Khan, Bee Gees hands down. This song takes me back to the AM car radio days. People would be driving and hand jiving along to the song.