Jerry Butler's conversational and poetic lyrics are still popular today.
By RICHARD HARRINGTON
WASHINGTON -- Around Valentine's Day, you're not going to go wrong dedicating "For Your Precious Love" to the one you love.
It's a gorgeous testimonial that has stood the test of time since Jerry Butler and the Impressions recorded it in 1958. Part of the song's enduring charm is its lyrical innocence -- "Your precious love means more to me/ Than any love could ever be/ For when I wanted you/ I was so lonely and blue/ For that's what love will do" -- and there's a good reason for that. Those lyrics were drawn verbatim from a poem Butler had written in high school, which he was not far removed from when he recorded "For Your Precious Love" at age 18.
"It was called 'They Say,' and if you follow the lyrics of the song, you'll see that it doesn't have a hook and the title is never repeated. It's all verse -- it's a poem set to music," says Butler.
Back in 1958, Butler and his fellow Impressions -- including teen prodigy Curtis Mayfield -- were just another aspiring doo-wop group, trying to capture the ears of just one of Chicago's small R & amp;B operations, and apparently didn't realize they had a potential hit on their hands. According to Butler, "we went to a guy here in town who had a label and were talking to him about getting a recording contract, and I was reciting (the words to 'They Say') at that time. And he suggested to us, 'Son, those lyrics are so beautiful, you ought to learn how to sing that!'"
"So we went away and took his advice and started singing it," with fellow Impressions Arthur and Richard Brooks contributing the melody. The group auditioned for Chess Records, which passed, so Butler and the Impressions went across the street to Vee-Jay Records and signed there.
At the group's very first recording session, the quiet ballad achieved its final transformation as Butler's virile baritone and the Impressions' backing vocals took on a spiritual tenor, not surprising since the teen-age Butler and Mayfield sang together in the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers at Chicago's Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church. Both also sang with secular groups on the side, Butler with the Quails and Mayfield with the Alphatones. They evolved into the Impressions in 1957, when the Brooks brothers and Sam Gooden, then in a vocal group called the Roosters, asked them to combine forces.
Released in May 1958, "For Your Precious Love" rose to No. 3 on the R & amp;B chart and No. 11 on the pop charts. It sold close to a million copies and kick-started several enduring careers that no one envisioned at the time.
"We were a bunch of young kids," said Butler, 65. "I was 18, Curtis was 15, Richard and Arthur were about 17 and 23; Sam, like Arthur, had done military duty and come to Chicago seeking fortune and fame. Curtis and I were just kids here in Chicago who hooked up with them after they got here. We just wanted to hear our songs on the radio. We didn't have any idea of the magnitude that having a successful record was going to have on our lives other than we knew we'd probably be on the radio and television and maybe we'd get a few gigs out of it."
Some pop historians identify "For Your Precious Love" as the first recognizable "soul" ballad, though Butler doesn't see it that way. "When Rolling Stone said it was 'the beginning of soul music,' I had never looked at it in that particular light because as a kid, I was influenced by Nat Cole, Roy Hamilton, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Pookie Hudson from the Spaniels -- those were the people we looked up to and wanted to be like."
Top 40 hits
In 1961, Mayfield re-formed the Impressions and crafted 16 Top 40 hits between 1961 and 1974, including such classics as "It's All Right," "We're a Winner," "Keep on Pushing" and "People Get Ready" (along with solo hits like "Superfly" and "Freddie's Dead"). The Impressions, including Butler, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, a year after Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after a lighting scaffold fell on him during a concert. (He died in 1999.)
"Most people who know about the Impressions don't even realize that I was there," Butler admits. "It was just one of those things that happened, but I think everyone benefited from it. Curtis went on to become a major artist in his own right; the Impressions (with founding member Sam Gooden and Fred Cash) are still out there working, and so am I. It's very rare that you find a group where all the parts go on to have success."
Put all their hits together, and you'll find 133 R & amp;B chart singles and 85 on the pop side. Butler's include "Let It Be Me" with Betty Everett, "Hey Western Union Man," "Only the Strong Survive," "Make It Easy on Yourself" and "Moon River," which he recorded six months before Andy Williams. Though the song has long been associated with Williams, the pop singer never had a Top 40 hit with the Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer composition. Butler did at No. 11.
As for "Only the Strong Survive," Butler's biggest pop hit at No. 4, its message has fueled multiple interpretations, he notes. "Prairie View College in Texas in the middle of the civil rights movement made it their black power theme song; there's a little white lady in North Carolina who said, 'Mr. Butler, I love the song because I've tried to teach my children and grandchildren that thought all the time.' When we wrote the song, most of the lyrics came out of a conversation I had with my own mother when I was about 15 years old and thought I was hope-to-die in love, that first puppy love thing, and she said, 'Oh, boy, you haven't even seen any girls, let me tell you. Get off your knees, wha'cha crying about,' and that's what we put at the beginning of the song."