Seven weeks ago I was asked to write the story of Hooked on a Feeling, but the Vonda Shepard version from Ally McBeal, this week’s suggestion was used in a 1999 episode of the show called The Green Monster when it was performed by Courtney Thorne-Smith. Bizarrely, this song was originally written for a lady whose father was a preacher and she turned it down because she thought it was disrespectful. Why? Let’s see if we can find out.
Son-Of-a Preacher man was written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, two American musicians and songwriters whose names don’t appear on many hits. Hurley was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and, growing up, he often accompanied his uncle who performed in saloon bars and also joined an opera company, but when rock and roll came along, he moved to Nashville and became a staff songwriter for Tree Music. Wilkins was born in Lumberton, North Carolina and began writing songs at high school. He entered a talent contest which resulted in an audition for Tree Music which he passed and his first success came in 1963 when he wrote Poor Little Cupid for Joe Dowell. Hurley died in 1986 from liver failure and a brain haemorrhage aged just 45.
The pair’s success came in 1966 when they penned the song Love Of the Common People which the Four Preps recorded first and numerous acts have covered including Nicky Thomas who took it to number nine in 1970 and Paul Young in 1983 who peaked at number two. In 1968, they penned Son-Of-A Preacher Man.
The song tells the story of a young girl who, every time the preacher and his son, Billy Ray, came to visit the family, once the family began talking, the son would take the daughter out and they would go walking. A love was blossoming he clearly taught her things because as the words tells us, ‘The only one who could ever reach me was the son of a preacher man, The only boy who could ever teach me, was the son of a preacher man’. We then hear, ‘Yes, he was, he was, ooh, yes, he was’. Was what? Well, you can imagine. It was all very innocent even though she revealed that, ‘Being good isn’t always easy no matter how hard I try, when he started sweet-talkin’ to me he’d come and tell me everything is alright’.
The song was offered initially to Aretha Franklin because the writers thought it suited her sound and the fact that her father was a Minister. Aretha turned the song down because she thought it was disrespectful to her father. It was then suggested that Britain’s Dusty Springfield would be ideal. Dusty was in the States recording her album Dusty In Memphis, so they contacted her and she travelled to New York to hear and then record the song.
Dusty, who was born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien in London in 1939 had a tough childhood. Her parents didn’t really get on, but they were deeply religious which is what kept them together. The only thing they encouraged for their children was music. Her father was a jazz fan and so Dusty grew up listening to the likes Ella Fitzgerald. According to Andrew Hickey, he said, “Entertaining was the one way that young Mary managed to stand out. She was too short-sighted to do well at sports, didn’t have the strength of religious conviction to become a nun which she considered for a while, and thought of herself as fat and ugly. She was also only an adequate student, passing four ‘O’ Levels and failing two, a stark contrast to her brother, who spoke nine languages and worked as a Russian translator for the Intelligence Corps.”
The backing vocals on Son-Of-A Preacher Man were provided by a four-piece female group who were a much sought after group of session singers called the Sweet Inspirations. They comprise, Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell and, more famously, Whitney Houston’s mother Cissy Houston. The string and woodwind arrangements were provided by the music producer Arif Mardin.
The Sweet Inspirations were formed in 1959 and its original members included Doris Troy, and sisters Dionne & Dee Dee Warwick. In the early 60s, Troy and Dionne Warwick both left for solo careers with Sylvia Shemwell, who is Judy Clay’s sister, replacing Troy and Cissy replacing her niece Dionne. In 1965, Dee Dee left for a solo career and she was replaced by Myrna Smith. The quartet had previously supplied backing for Jimi Hendrix on his song Burning of the Midnight Lamp, Van Morrison on Brown Eyed Girl and various songs by Wilson Pickett, Esther Phillips and Aretha Franklin.
Dusty was not altogether happy with her recording of the song. Apparently, she believed that the whole New York session sounded too British and wanted to redo one of the vocals. Unfortunately, she never got the chance to re-record it as the producer, Tom Dowd, had already had it released. Dusty threw a fit, a went into a tizzy, she was becoming known for this often throwing crockery at walls. Arif Mardin later said, “I don’t think Dusty realised that Dusty In Memphis was going to be a classic, next time she didn’t want to work with the same musicians in the same town.” After the song had been a hit, she said, “It seemed to move people on a sexual level where it didn’t move me at all.”
Dusty’s hits had pretty much dried up in the UK after Preacher Man. She had a couple of minor hits in 1970 with Am I The Same Girl and How Can I Be Sure but fell on hard times throughout the 70s. She had turned to drugs and alcohol and even self-harming. Her mental well-being was at an all-time low. There was the occasional suicide attempt.
In 1979, the three members of The Buggles, Geoff Downes, Trevor Horn and Bruce Wooley penned a song especially for her called Baby Blue which she recorded and became a minor hit reaching number 61.
Eight years later, in 1987, the Pet Shop Boys brought her back from obscurity with a song they had written to be a duet between them and her. She agreed to record it and What Have I Done To Deserve This? went to number two becoming the second biggest song of her career after her chart-topping You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me (Io Che No Vivo Senza Te) in 1966. The two follow-ups, Nothing Has Been Proved and In Private, both written by messrs Tennant and Lowe both reached the UK top 20.
Son-Of-A Preacher Man was brought to a new audience in 1994 when the song appeared in the Quentin Tarantino directed film Pulp Fiction. It was used in a sequence when a Son-Of-A Preacher Man cocktail was being made which comprised peppermint schnapps, gin or vodka and lemonade. It was later claimed that Tarantino said if he was unable to secure the rights to the track, he would have scrapped that scene.
In addition to Pulp Fiction, the song has been featured in a Dr. Pepper TV ad in America in 1997 and has appeared in the 2000 film Frequency which starred Dennis Quaid and an episode of the television series’ The Office and Seeds both in 2008. It has also been recorded by Bobbie Gentry, Nancy Sinatra, Erma Franklin and Ike & Tina Turner. In 1970, Aretha decided that after hearing the Dusty version she would record it herself. Incidentally, another song that was written for Aretha that she turned down at the time, but decided to record later was Let It Be. I’m sure Paul McCartney wasn’t too disappointed especially after The Beatles version reached number two – oddly kept from number one by Lee Marvin’s Wand’rin’ Star.
In 1994, Dusty was diagnosed with breast cancer but after months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment she was given the all clear only for it to return in 1996. In 1999, she received the news that she was to be awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) by the Queen and the date for the trip to Buckingham Palace was 2nd March, the same day Dusty died and just one month before her 60th birthday. A special arrangement had been made for her close friend and manager, Vicki Wickham, to collect the award for her where they paraded it around the hospital together.