Well, I’m just not singing along.

January 15, 2010

Whatever happened to the great duets albums? My theory is they got killed around the time of Sinatra’s first Duets record in the early 1990s. The idea was solid — team Frank with a bunch of popular contemporary artists and watch the money roll in. For that album it did, and for the second volume it did, if to a little lesser extent.

But the only great thing those albums really did was inspire one of “Saturday Night Live”s best skits of the 1990s.

In actual fact, the albums weren’t genuine duets — the artists were actually adding their vocals in separate studios to pre-recorded tracks, and it kind of gave way to bastardized albums now like Forever Cool that allow Robbie Williams’ vocals to be overdubbed on a 1960s Dean Martin recording and put out the impression like “Oh yeah, these guys were best buds… in an alternate universe… that only this record’s executive producer imagined.” It happens a lot with classic Christmas albums too. “How can we keep Nat King Cole’s Christmas album relevant? Add Natalie Cole! By God, it worked with ‘Unforgettable’!”

How quickly people forget that some things just don’t need tampering.

Now and again a good duet comes out, and no, I’m not referring the U2/Green Day thingy. The good ones now are parceled away on B-sides (Arctic Monkeys/747s “Baby I’m Yours) or deep into albums that people download for some other song. It’s kind of sad that, say, Harry Connick, Jr. and Dr. John don’t go “New Orleans Piano record? Yeah, why the hell not?” But hey, I’m just a fan, not a manager.

For this month’s Friday Five, we look at five of the best and genuine fun duets ever recorded. The most recent one was done 21 years ago. Le sigh.

The Friday Five.
Proper duets.

Bobby Darin & Johnny Mercer – Who Takes Care of the Caretaker’s Daughter
God bless Darin’s manager Steve Blauner for thinking about pairing Bobby with Johnny Mercer for a full album in 1961, Two of a Kind. Although Mercer had arguably gained a lot more popularity as a lyricist than a singer himself, he had a damn fine set of pipes and his personality and range played off Darin’s like a match made in heaven. The whole album features lesser-known songs, but Darin and Mercer attack them all like they’re huge hits, and with Ahmet Ertegun producing and Billy  May conducting the orchestra, it’s fun as all hell. I could have selected any duet from it, but this is a great one — from Darin’s Elvis impersonation to a rare instance of Bobby being able to make Johnny giggle. Most of the time on the album it’s the other way around.
Genuine fun moment: At 1:10 when Darin begins the “Who gets tense with the tent maker’s daughter?” verse. Bobby’s laughing to start it, which gives Johnny a little chuckle too.

Dinah Washington & Brook Benton – A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall in Love)
Two of soul’s finest voices recorded a great little album, The Two of Us, together in 1960, and this simple little shuffle is far and away the highlight. It’s too bad this never got the same kind of popularity that “I Got You Babe” did, as this way more digestible. Then again, it’s better this kind of remained a deep cut/under-the-radar type thing. Makes it a lot more satisfying listen now and a real treat for anyone who hasn’t heard it yet.
Genuine fun moment: At 2:10 in the ad-libbed outro when Dinah goes “Ahhhhhh and you got what it takes.” Brook’s “Ha HA!” reaction is priceless.

Louis Prima & Phil Harris – I Wan’Na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)
This almost doesn’t count, and it shouldn’t count, either. Louis really steals the show here in the best musical moment from 1967’s The Jungle Book (which in itself says a lot, but I say this is the best song from any Disney movie ever). But when Phil Harris’ Baloo joins in the party, it’s too impossibly fun. Ever since I was a kid, this is what I always kind of felt duets should be like. Just two dudes (or a bear and monkey, I guess) scatting off each other and having a laugh. What’s even more surprising about it is how genuine it sounds despite being recorded at separate times in separate studios. Prima’s band laid down the basic track and vocals early, and Prima left room in his scatting for Harris to fill in later. Harris filled in the gaps beautifully — to my critical ears this still sounds like the two of them in front of the same mic just grooving out. Still looks great, too.
Genuine fun moment: At 3:49 — Louis: “RAAAAR RAAAAR!” Phil: “Get MAAAAAD baby!”

Paul McCartney & Elvis Costello – You Want Her Too
In the time since his late 1980s collaboration with Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello’s gone on to collaborate with just about everyone, but Attractions aside, he’d really been his own man up until then. Whether the collaboration helped stop Macca’s 1980’s slide (Can anyone listen to the second half of Press to Play?) is also a good point of debate, and their work together produced many songs finer than this one (“My Brave Face,” “Veronica,” “The Lovers that Never Were,” “So Like Candy”…), but this proved to be the only true duet and a walloping one at that, from Macca’s 1989 record Flowers in the Dirt. It’s hard to believe anyone would challenge McCartney for a girl’s hand (especially at any point during Linda’s life). Still, this song is a hell of a lot more believable than Macca/Jacko’s “The Girl is Mine.” And Elvis is audibly reveling in his role here as the snarky antagonist. But the best thing is the vocals they both deliver — the impassioned screams on the chorus seeming to prod each man’s emotion just a little further. The fade-out with the big band horn bursts seems like a knowing tip of the hat to the past — “Remember those great duets from that time? Yeah, we just added a nice one ourselves.”
Genuine fun moment: Although you can’t hear either of them laughing (might break the song’s sentiment), you can really hear them winding each other up at the 1:55 mark. Paul: “Oh my conscience is clear and STRONG!” Elvis: “YES! SHE SAYS I’M JUST THE BOY FOR IT!”

Sammy Davis Jr. & Dean Martin – Sam’s Song
Sam did a pretty great duet with Ol’ Blue Eyes, too — “Me and My Shadow” — but that song doesn’t have the camaraderie of “Sam’s Song.” When Frank and Sam sing together, Frank kind of sounds like the big guy gracious enough to let another guy take a little bit of his vinyl space. But when Sam and Dean sing together, they riff off each other fabulously. Given that this was recorded in 1966 (for The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show), they had a lot of time to finesse their interchanges at the legendary Rat Pack summits in the early part of the decade. Sure, there are a few ridiculous moments — the whole “Clyde’s Song” bit, for example — but it genuinely sounds like these two are having a blast together in front of the mic.
Genuine fun moment: At 0:40 when Dean asks “Sam who?” Sammy replies “Sam Houston.” Dean’s bemused “Oh…” response is almost enough to make me believe that bit was ad-libbed.

Have a good weekend, all.


  1. Excellent post! I took the Prima, the Martin & Davis, and the Darin duets. As you might have known I would, by now. Can’t wait to hear them.

    You know, you have impeccable taste.

  2. Here I am again. Just wanted to tell you that each of the three is a bona fide hit here. And I’m buying that Darin/Mercer CD.

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