Duets have always been perfectly suited to oldies music and love songs, mainly because rock and roll began as a combination of popular styles, and since pop has always dealt mainly with romantic relationships, it's only natural that rock would pick up its lead. For many, the greatest love and relationship tunes are the ones featuring two great 50s, 60s, and 70s artists singing directly to each other -- and, as with motion pictures, the more believable the chemistry, the better. Here's my list of the great love song duos and their greatest hits,
They're probably rock's best-known romantic duo of all time, a twosome that would have made history even if Marvin hadn't already kicked up so much dust on his own. Tammi definitely brought out the more romantic side of a singer who could be misogynistic and a bit, uh, fixated, and this soaring duet may be their greatest, a paean to the very nature of devotion. When Marvin sings "Dare anybody to try and move me," arcing into a falsetto on the "try"... well, you know it's real. Most amazingly, this gospel-influenced number was recorded by both singers separately, mainly because Tammi was already suffering under the brain tumor that would soon take her life.
Even before Dirty Dancing
gave this song a permanent home in the hearts of females everywhere, this 1957 single -- written by Bo Diddley under a pseudonym, which probably accounts for the Latin tinges -- was already one sexy little duet, set off by Mickey's unforgettable guitar break and the duo's ultra-seductive crooning: "How do you call your loverboy?" "C'mere loverboy!" Of course, with a song like this, it's not about the lyrics at all -- there's only eight couplets here, but when Sylvia sings "Oh, BAY-bee," words are beside the point. This song was, incidentally, the inspiration for Buddy Holly's less-randy "Words Of Love." Sylvia, perhaps unsurprisingly, went on to make the Seventies "orgasm record" known as "Pillow Talk."
A party record, right? Well, it would be, except that this prime slice of Fifties New Orleans R&B is, after all, a dialogue: lines like "C'mon baby, let me thrill your soul" brought the raw sexuality of the genre right into the nation's living rooms, which is exactly what the moral authorities despised about rock and roll. Even with the innocent (and insanely addictive) push-and-pull anchoring every verse, the invitation to "close the door" and "rock some more" was clearly not about dancing. (Ironically, Shirley went on to have a disco-era hit with a song entitled "Shame, Shame, Shame.")
So who says duets have to be romantic? The classic duet dis is a staple in hip-hop, but you can trace the origins of it at least as far back as this 1967 soul smash -- which, it should be noted, was sampled for Salt N Pepa's 1994 hit "Shoop," a song devoted to the good
points of the singer's love interest. On the hilarious original, however, the Lexicographer of Soul is reduced to defending his poverty as Carla calls him out (by name!). He may be a lover, indeed, the "only son of a gun this side of the sun," whatever that means, but he enjoys putting her on as well: "You probably haven't even got twenty-five cents." "I got six Cadillacs, five Lincolns, four Fords, six Mercurys, three T-Birds, a Mustang..." No. But he should have.
This one wouldn't have existed without the groundwork laid by "Love Is Strange" (which no doubt inspired Ike's guitar lick) and those Dinah Washington / Brook Benton duets immediately preceding it (which clearly inspired everything else)... but as usual, Ike and Tina Turner got rawer with the concept behind this 1962 burner than their forbears. Besides, this is arguably a better song; gutsier, more to the point, more willing to take chances. True, you have to ignore what Ike was doing to her in real life to enjoy this, but they were both such pros that it's surprisingly easy to do.
Not a duet, you say? Not a love song, you say? Well, you're wrong on that first part, at least -- Brother Ray didn't credit his main Raelette, but the alternately furious and comic duet between her and Ray powers this brief but powerful stomper. Smooth yet raw, as is Brother Ray's way, and wrapped around a descending chord figure that instantly became part of the pop lexicon. And no, it wasn't written the way it was depicted in the movie Ray
, but it could have been: listening to it, you could see that scene spring to life, even if the movie had never been made.
Shrewd sometimes to a fault, Sonny Bono knew on which side his bread was buttered, which is why he designed his duets with Cher to be symbols of the counterculture, portraits of doomed hippie lovers a la Romeo and Juliet, a pair of losers with nowhere to fit in. But the singles often featured only one or the other singing lead, which makes this duet all the more definitive of their true impact. If you don't care about rock history, you can still identify with it as a generic they-don't-understand-us anthem for teens of all eras. And this is why people liked Sonny. (We know why they liked Cher.)
It's since lost some of its luster to an unfortunate soft-rock version by the king and queen of Seventies singer-songwriterdom, James Taylor and Carly Simon (not to mention Toby Keith's duet with his daughter). But the 1963 original, which the cover mimics to a degree so precise it's almost theft, obviously has more soul -- and it's still a remarkable document, since the lyrics themselves reveal next to nothing about what these two feel for each other. The sly delivery, on the other hand, transforms what is essentially a children's rhyme, which is odd, since Inez and Charlie were siblings. It works on either level.
This could have been one of rock's stickiest duets, with Elton edging into disco and longtime session singer Kiki Dee (hardly his equal, at least from a charisma standpoint) just sort of enjoying the moment. But they make it work, sexuality and other concerns aside, mainly because they've got their friendship down pat and Bernie Taupin actually does a good job delineating what makes any good relationship work ("When I was down / I was your clown"). Relentlessly showbizzy but somehow rock anyway, as is John's wont.
Like everything else on his classic debut, this second single for Bat Out of Hell
must have been an unwelcome zit-covered joke for those who took "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad" as a serious adult ballad. But then, part of being "barely eighteen and... barely dressed" is the freedom that entails, and this classic duet -- in which Night Court
's original blonde prosecutie, Ellen Foley, stands firm and matches this leather lungs note for note -- is remarkable for the way it depicts adulthood, with all its soul-crushing concerns and pitfalls, already skulking over the horizon. Love affair? Or youth in love with its own fleeting possibilities?