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Sunday, February 09, 2014

That's What Friends Are For

It's the all-music weekend this weekend, and for this week's Sunday Jukebox, we're going to be featuring the perfect song to represent the spirit of "BLACK HISTORY MONTH".  After all, today's song features three of the world's most celebrated singers of African-American origin teaming up together to sing a ballad about the wonders of friendship.

Now, here's a little bit of a pop quiz for all of you before we go right ahead with today's featured #1 single.  Don't worry.  You won't be graded on your answers here.

Okay.  Here's question number one.  Which singer - who happens to also be a cousin to the late Whitney Houston - began her career in the 1960s with such classic hits as "Walk On By", "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?", and "I Say A Little Prayer", and is easily considered to be one of the more popular vocalists of her time.  Sure, she kind of lost some points with her whole Psychic Friends Network pimpage...and, sure, she did file for bankruptcy in 2013...but hey, thankfully her music is mostly what this singer is defined by.  Do you know who she is?

Question #2.  This lady rode the "Midnight Train To Georgia" all the way to the top of the charts...and beyond!  She had hits both as a solo artist, and as the leader of a band of people known as the Pips.  Her career has spanned a total of five decades so far, and she also holds the distinction of singing one of the many James Bond themes that have been released over the last few years.

Question #3.  Now, this is a guy who didn't let a little thing like losing his sight stop him from having a successful career as an entertainer.  Beginning his career when he was just a child, this "little" guy grew into one of the most successful singer/songwriters of all time.  With hits like "Superstition", "My Cherie Amour", "I Just Called To Say I Love You", and "Part-Time Lover", as well as a duet that he did with Paul McCartney, this man proved that he had the goods to back it up.  Although he hasn't had any hits on the charts in recent years, he can still be found singing and performing at various events today.

So, pencils down everybody.  Have you got your answers ready?

Well, if you answered Dionne Warwick for Question #1, Gladys Knight for Question #2, and Stevie Wonder for Question #3...congratulations.  You've successfully passed the pop quiz.  Well done, everybody!

And, as it so happens, today's Sunday Jukebox entry features all three of these singers recording a song together along with British rock/pop legend Elton John.  The song hit the top of the charts in January 1986, and stayed there for a number of weeks until February, when it was dethroned by Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know".

Sadly, this single also marks the final time that Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder ever had a #1 single on the Billboard Charts.  But, given the concept of the song, as well as the reason behind the song being recorded in the first place, I think it was very much worth it.

So, are you ready to take a look at the song that was on the top of the charts twenty-eight years ago this weekend?  Have a look!

ARTIST:  Dionne Warwick and Friends
SONG:  That's What Friends Are For
ALBUM:  Friends
DATE RELEASED:  December 1985

Yes, today's blog entry is all about the power of friendship.  And, it also happens to be a song that was used to raise awareness for a worthy cause.

Come to think of it, 1985 was a huge year for charity singles.  I think the whole movement kicked off with Band-Aid's 1984 Christmas single "Do They Know It's Christmas", and by the end of 1985, there were music fundraisers popping up all over the place.  In 1985, U.S.A. for Africa released the #1 single "We Are The World".  In Canada, we had "Tears Are Not Enough" released that same year.  And, I'm sure that if you were around in 1985, you watched at least a portion of the famous "Live-Aid" performance of July 13, 1985 or "Farm-Aid" in September of that year.

I suppose that 1985 could be considered the most charitable year of the 1980s.  And certainly, millions of dollars were donated to each of the causes.

Well, in late 1985, both the United Kingdom and the United States decided to organize a recording session for several artists to record a single entitled "That's What Friends Are For" as a way to raise money for AIDS research.  Since the discovery of AIDS in 1981, people became alarmed at the number of people who were dying from the disease, and everybody agreed that a cure must be found.  So, the idea to release a charity single to raise money for the research necessary to eradicate AIDS from the world was a very good idea.

The song "That's What Friends Are For" wasn't exactly a brand new song.  It had been written by legendary singer/composer Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, and had been previously performed by Rod Stewart for the soundtrack of the 1982 film "Night Shift".  Now, Rod Stewart's version failed to make an imprint on the charts that year, but nevertheless, that song was the one that was picked.

Now, why this song was chosen, I don't exactly know.  But my speculation is that the song's lyrics were particularly poignant, especially considering what cause the song was championing.  I was born the same year that AIDS stories first began to surface in the media, and I know that when the world first heard about it, they panicked.  These days, we all know that AIDS can only be contracted through sexual intercourse and sharing used drug needles (and prior to 1990, through tainted blood transfusions).  But back in the early 1980s, not a whole lot of people understood what AIDS was.  They thought that it was highly contagious and an instant death sentence if you happened to contract it.  Many people back then mistakenly believed that if you so much as even touched someone who was HIV positive, or drank out of the same can of Pepsi as someone who was HIV positive, or kissed someone who was HIV positive that they would contract the disease like that. 

I can only imagine how scary it must have been for people who were infected with HIV back in the 1980s.  Because of the stigma associated with the disease, often people found themselves battling the disease alone as many people who couldn't understand or refused to understand simply walked away.

I think that was the reason why that song was chosen.  That no matter what kind of person you were, and no matter if you were HIV positive or had full-blown AIDS, you were still deserving of friendship and you were still deserving of love.  Certainly a great message, even though it did take a number of years after the song was released before it came across.

So, with the song chosen for the charity single, the next step was finding artists who would take part in the recording.  And, as it so happened, many of the artists who were chosen had previously worked together before!

I mean, everybody knows that the partnership between Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach is legendary.  After all, he wrote many of the songs that helped Dionne Warwick become such a huge presence on the 1960s pop charts.  But did you know that Stevie Wonder and Elton John had also previously collaborated together?

That's Stevie Wonder playing harmonica on Elton's 1983 single "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues"!

With the final line-up of the single being Warwick, Wonder, John, and Gladys Knight, the single was finished on time to be released both as a single, and as a track on Dionne's 1985 "Friends" album.  And, do you want to know just how much money was raised with the charity single?

How does three million dollars sound to you?  Now, I know that $3 million doesn't seem like a whole lot to you right now - but in 1985, it was certainly worth its weight in gold.

And, considering that having the status of HIV positive is no longer the death sentence it once was - with many people being able to live more than two decades after their initial diagnosis these days - well, I would say that the single release certainly was a part of that research.  Who knows?  Maybe in fifty years or so, a cure can finally be found one day.

And, I guess it's also important to note that the message of the song - the song about friendship - applies to all kinds of people no matter what your age, gender, sexual preference, skin colour, religious background, or political affiliation.  If you're willing to let love and friendship into your heart, then there's no reason why you aren't deserving of it.

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