Hello Stranger, My Old Friend

A couple weeks ago, as I was driving cross-country with my brother, we tuned into a show somewhere in Tennessee which was devoted to playing 50s and (early) 60s jams from the current week, however many years ago they may have hit. This was quite a treat, especially in comparison to insane-but-boring talk radio and endless middle-of-the-road schlock, as it offered up a lot of great songs from beyond the typical “oldies” cannon. One of the songs caught my ear at a certain point with its seemingly unremarkable riff “shoo bop shoo bop, my baby” which, as I sang it over in my head, started to recall a classic reggae riff.

Because my iPhone was running low on batteries and I needed it for navigation, I couldn’t Shazam the track then and there, so instead I scrawled “shoo bop shoo bop, my baby” on a scrap of paper and filed it away for later. I was a little afraid that a Google query for “shoo bop shoo bop, my baby” might be a total mess, but as it happens, when I finally tried it yesterday, it turned up the song right away. It’s this —

Listening back to it, especially the section from 1:40 onwards, I was struck once again by how much it appears to mirror (and hence probably informed/inspired) the well-worn horn riff in Alton Ellis’s “Still in Love,” originally recorded in 1967 for Studio One — thus four years after Barbara Lewis’s R&B hit, with which Ellis and Coxsone Dodd and the Studio One band were likely familiar, being such R&B heads — a riff which has reared its head again and again on songs that take flight from Ellis’s rocksteady hit (including, most recently and notably, Sean Paul’s hit version from 2002’s Dutty Rock). Here’s the original Ellis / Studio One version; sound like a connection/derivation to you?

I was curious to know whether I was imagining this relationship myself, so I asked Twitter to lend me an ear. I can’t say that the response was overwhelming, but I was thrilled that DJ Dabbler decided to do some digital sleuthing with me. Among other things, we discovered that not only had Alton Ellis re-recorded the song in 1977, but that ’77 also happens (tellingly? which came first?) to be the same year that another American R&B singer, Hawaiian crooner Yvonne Elliman, scored her own hit with “Hello Stranger”! Check em out below (btw, I wish that someone would video the Elliman record playing like these others — such a nice witness to material culture/history):

Although, as with the 60s examples, this still only suggests without confirming — and we can’t ask Ellis anymore, unfortunately — that some amount of borrowing/inspiration is happening here, Dabbler turned up another version that certainly offers evidence of some players in the reggae scene explicitly connecting these dots. Check out this version of “Hello Stranger” by UK-lovers group Brown Sugar (which features a young Caron Wheeler, who would go on to perform with Soul II Soul):

It’s pretty obvious that Brown Sugar here employs the horn riff from “Still In Love” to animate (and make more meaningful) their cover of “Hello Stranger.” This is all par for the course for reggae’s riddim method, of course, but still, a really wonderful example of how a little riff can do so much. I wonder where Barbara Lewis & co. might have heard it themselves. Seems like the sort of thing that might have been bubbling through R&B and doo-wop for a while. If you have any other leads or connections to offer, no matter how seemingly far-flung, I’m all ears!

14 thoughts on “Hello Stranger, My Old Friend

  1. It gets even more complicated. Marcia Aitken covered “Still in Love” around the time of Alton Ellis’s late 70s re-recording. The backing track to her cut formed the basis for Althia and Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking,” which was a response to Trinity’s “Three Piece Suit.”

    And the beat goes on.

  2. Yeah – to the pint where I think the riddim is commonly referred to as ‘I’m still in love/three piece suit’.

    Not 100% sure on this based on a cursory listen TBH, though it seems eminently plausible and if you’re right its a great bit of sleuthing.

  3. found another connection (or possibly a coincidence, but at this point it seems more than just circumstantial evidence)

    Alton Ellis covered the song “Workin on a Groovy Thing” which was another Barbara Lewis classic.

    Patti Drew “Workin on a Groovy Thing” (1968)
    Barbara Lewis “Workin on a Groovy Thing” (1968)
    Alton Ellis “Workin on a Groovy Thing” (???) …
    …out on “Get Ready for Rocksteady (1967-74)” which was released in 1999. I can’t find the date of the actual song being recorded.

    > funny enough, Barbara Lewis later had a re-release of two albums combined…

    called “Hello Stranger/Working On A Groovy Thing”!!!


  4. I’m sure there’s a grander story to be told about the Chicago-Jamaica music pipeline. “Hello Stranger” was cut in Chicago, though released by Atlantic, and there’s all there’s all the Curtis Mayfield material that turned into reggae classics (“I’m Still Waiting” “You Don’t Care” “Queen Majesty” “People Get Ready” etc.) Many of these originals had gentle, faux-Latin rhythms which seem to run counter to the “Jamaicans loved big whompin’ R&B” narrative that led to the birth of ska…

    The Impressions were extremely popular in Jamaica; (possibly in part due to Mayfield’s production of this http://www.offbeatska.com/?p=1404 ?) could that be the reason that all kinds of Mayfield productions on Major Lance, Billy Butler etc as well as other Chicago sounds also found listeners? Unlike Stax in Memphis, no record label from Chicago made overtures to officially distribute their product in Jamaica. So was it radio play from American stations, on JBC/RJR, Mayfield’s popularity or some other X factor that hit so hard at this time in Jamaica’s music scene?

    BTW, I’ve always thought the Artistics’ Girl I Need You would be a fantastic reggae/rock steady song, all the elements are there: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4649ICy8rs&feature=related. The vocal cadence, the bass line – all that’s missing is Jackie Mittoo adapting the strings into a smoldering organ line.

  5. In More Axe 2 (http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/smallaxe/The%20Small%20Axe%20Guides.htm), Colin Moore’s 1983 interview with Bob Andy sheds some light on that US -> Jamaican “pipeline”, or at least what was going on in Jamaica. Andy explains that Coxsone would give singers a record to listen to and “see what you can do” with it. The singer would come back with a song, and Jackie Mittoo would listen to it and work up the rhythm.

    Andy’s example:

    “Dodd gave me a record, as he did with Bob Marley and all the artists, to listen to, and said ‘See what you can do with this.’ The record influenced me to write ‘Crime Don’t Pay’ it was a completely different thing … So I was listening to that record for about six weeks – two months before I decided, no, I don’t want to sing this record as my first solo attempt. I want to write one. And it came out as ‘Crime Don’t Pay’ I remember the song was ‘Walking Up A One Street’ I actually sung the melody to horn section of that.” The Jackie Mittoo stuff is elsewhere in the interview.

    He means “Walking Up A One Way Street” by Willie Tee – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXJZKuP3yjw

    And the Bob Andy cut – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zy24q2EW84

    So this is definitely a pattern – some artists would adapt a riff, some a theme, some both, and some would create straight or near covers. Great work!

  6. Thanks to all for the comments and further connections! I love collectively sleuthing this sort of thing.

    I should say, @goldbug et al., that I’m well aware that this sort of practice was par for the course at Studio One — and, really, has remained so throughout the history of Jamaican pop. I’m more interested here in the particular story of derivation/inspiration and transformation we can hear from “Hello Stranger” to “Still in Love.”

    @Birdseed, that’s a really interesting find. I can’t say I know exactly what you mean when you say “quaver-crotchet-etc” but the guitar figure underpinning Clark’s “Nobody But You” certainly mirrors the “shoo bop shoo bop” line pretty closely. Indeed, as I found myself singing/counting along, I realized that the figure is essentially a dressed-up cinquillo, which is of course one of the most common Afrodiasporic musical figures and one strongly tied to the Caribbean (so I suppose if we kept pushing we could find ways that New Orleans’s take on the “rumba,” etc., may have eventually trickled up to Chess records in Chicago).

    Finally, to those who mentioned Althea & Donna and other ways that the “Still In Love” riddim has enjoyed second and third lives, thanks as well. I didn’t mention that branch of the tree only to keep things a little concise here, but it’s clear that once you start pulling on one thread in Jamaican music the whole fabric can come undone. Indeed, “Uptown Top Rankin” is, for a certain generation, probably the first time this little lively riff insinuated itself into musical memory.

  7. Oh, sorry, I mean eight note, quarter note, eight note, quarter note, quarter note break, quarter note, quarter note, quarter note, quarter note break. Blame IGCSE music for teaching me the english terms.

  8. of course! but why is the generic story – man hears record, man makes version – unsatisfactory? you say yourself that we can no longer ask the principals about the tune. to my less-trained ear, the derivation is obvious. maybe you are hoping to uncover more ethnomusicological evidence?

  9. Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that the general story is unsatisfactory. That’s one of my favorite stories of all time! That’s the story of culture, in a nutshell. And Jamaican music, folk and popular, is one of the most audible embodiments of that story, especially as told through twisty-turny riff romps like the one above (or the ones mentioned in More Axe 2). Along these lines, I really enjoyed picking through David Katz’s Solid Foundation — it’s remarkable how many singers and musicians talk about their (“foreign”) sources of influence and inspiration.

  10. Nice catch, J! Thanks for that. Definitely shows that it was circulating in various forms. Interestingly, this one is faithful to the words/syllables, but not as close to the melody as the horn-y versions collected above.

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