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Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
R Kelly's album Write Me Back was released this week--his eleventh studio album, and first since his 2011 throat surgery. It's a sequel to his 2010 album Love Letter, and a follow-up to that record's old-school soul aesthetic. Here's its first single, "Share My Love."
Write Me Back isn't the first time Kelly has released a sequel to an earlier album. His 1993 debut 12 Play was followed by 2000's TP-2.com and 2005's TP.3 Reloaded, the latter of which introduced his epic "Trapped in the Closet" serial. (There are 22 chapters of it already, and there will apparently soon be more.) Let's just take a moment to recall the first chapter, shall we?
But thirty years before Kelly, another R&B artist had her breakthrough with a crazy, over-the-top soap-operatic string of songs, on one of the first concept albums strong enough to get an immediate sequel.
In 1974, Millie Jackson was an up-and-coming singer with a terrific, rough voice, but without much of an artistic identity of her own. She'd had a couple of Top Ten R&B hits, "My Man, A Sweet Man" and "It Hurts So Good"-- see below for a TV performance of the latter--but she was essentially a second-string Gladys Knight at that point.
That all changed with 1974's Caught Up, whose cover showed Jackson perched in the middle of a spiderweb with the two other characters in its story: a love triangle involving a married man, his wife and his mistress.
The opening salvo of Caught Up was a spectacular eleven-minute version of "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right," or, rather, five minutes of "If Loving You Is Wrong," split in half, with a six-minute dramatic monologue in the middle (listed as "The Rap"). Both that song and spoken interludes in general became permanent fixtures of Jackson's live shows; this 1984 performance will give you a good sense of how she pulls them off in concert.
The original version of "If Loving You Is Wrong" had been a #1 R&B hit for Luther Ingram in 1972. Here's a remarkable live performance by Ingram from the Wattstax festival of that year:
It's kind of remarkable that Millie Jackson's breakthrough could have been a remake of a song that recent--it's the equivalent of a new artist's big showpiece right now being a cover of, say, Usher's "There Goes My Baby." But "If Loving You Is Wrong" had become an instant R&B standard, sung by everyone who could pull it off. The oddest version of it may be this one: one of the final recordings by the great gospel singer Rev. Julius Cheeks, from 1981, rewritten as "(If Serving God Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right."
But back to Jackson. Caught Up's story didn't stop with "If Loving You Is Wrong" -- she sang the rest of the original LP's first side from the point of view of the same "other woman," and its second side from the point of view of the wronged wife. Its concluding song, though, was its stroke of genius. Bobby Goldsboro's "Summer (The First Time)" had been a minor pop hit just a few months earlier; it concerned a man reminiscing about being 17 and losing his virginity to an older woman who promised to "chase the boy in you away." (Goldsboro's video for it has, shall we say, high camp value.)
The climax of Caught Up is Jackson's own version of "Summer," and in the context of the album, it's not about a youthful fling, but about the the wife remembering the beginning of her relationship with her husband. Jackson changes it from a first-person reminiscence to a direct address, and the most thrilling moment of her performance takes a few more liberties with the most maudlin bit of the lyrics. Goldsboro sang it as "We sat on the sand/And a boy took her hand/But I saw the sun rise as a man." In Jackson's version, it goes "We sat in the park/On the grass, in the dark/And I saw the sun rise--I became a woman -- DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"
Caught Up was enough of a hit that Jackson followed it, the next year, with Still Caught Up. Like the earlier album, it devotes one side to each of the story's women (this time the wife gets the first half), and it's bookended by a pair of covers of recent hits for other artists. This time, though, the covers were both country songs. The opener is "Loving Arms," which had been a minor hit for both Dobie Gray and Kris Kristofferson -- Elvis Presley had recorded it too.
"I've always liked country music because of the lyrics," Jackson said in 1999. "Growin' up on the farm in Thompson [Georgia], that's all I got. If I wanted to hear stations from Augusta that played black music, I had to stand next to the radio with my hand to make 'em come in." Still Caught Up ends with a cover of what was then a very recent Mac Davis country hit, "I Still Love You (You Still Love Me)." Jackson's version of it concludes with her own addition: The abandoned mistress cackling in hysterics as she's straitjacketed and dragged away, screaming "Your mama eats pizza in Paramus!" Beat that, R.