EML’s Favorite Songs – THE BROTHERS JOHNSON: “Strawberry Letter 23”

Strawberry Letter 23

One of my favorite songs from the 1970s, or of all time for that matter, is “Strawberry Letter 23” from R&B/funk band The Brothers Johnson. It was one of the defining songs of my summer of 1977, when I spent two glorious months in Portland, Oregon before starting college. The track was written by the brilliant singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Shuggie Otis in 1971, whose own original version was featured on his album Freedom Flight.

It’s a romantic song with a dreamy, almost mystical vibe, thanks to the whimsical lyrics and his use of chiming guitars, xylophone, calliope and other sparkling synth instrumental sounds. For their recording of the song, which was masterfully produced by the legendary Quincy Jones, The Brothers Johnson embellished on all those lovely instruments and added their own funky guitar, bass, beats and smooth vocal harmonies, along with a dreamy backing vocal chorus. The result was a gorgeous and captivating track that took the song to the next level.

The song was included on their 1977 album Right On Time, and reached #1 on the Billboard R&B Chart and #5 on the Hot 100. It’s been featured in several films and TV shows, including Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Six Feet Under and Nip/Tuck. Otis’ version was featured in the film Munich.

I’d originally wondered why the song was titled “Strawberry Letter 23” when the lyrics speak of “Strawberry Letter 22” instead. The reason is that Otis intended for the song to be about a couple exchanging love letters in the form of songs. The singer is creating “Strawberry Letter 23” as a reply to the “Strawberry Letter 22” song he received from his lover and refers to in the song.

Hello my love, I heard a kiss from you
Red magic satin playing near, too
All through the morning rain I gaze, the sun doesn’t shine
Rainbows and waterfalls run through my mind
In the garden, I see
West purple shower bells and tea
Orange birds and river cousins dressed in green

Pretty music, I hear
So happy and loud
Blue flowers echo from a cherry cloud
Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue
Playgrounds will laugh
If you try to ask “Is it cool? Is it cool?”
If you arrive and don’t see me
I’m going to be with my baby
I am free, flying in her arms
Over the sea

Stained window, yellow candy screen
See speakers of kite
With velvet roses diggin’ freedom flight
A present from you
Strawberry letter 22
The music plays I sit in for a few

Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh

For comparison, here’s the original version by Shuggie Otis:

EML’s Favorite Songs – LESLEY GORE: “You Don’t Own Me”

Lesley Gore You Don't Own Me

I heard something on the radio today about how the defiant – and now iconic – anthem of female empowerment “You Don’t Own Me“, which was a big hit for young pop singer Lesley Gore, was actually written by two men, John Madara and David White. It reminded me of how much I’ve always loved this song.

Gore possessed a remarkable voice with a maturity beyond her young age, and had a string of hits while still in high school. She recorded her first breakout single “It’s My Party” when she was only 16 (the song went on to become a #1 hit), and followed in quick succession with “Judy’s Turn to Cry”, “She’s a Fool” and “You Don’t Own Me”, which she recorded at the age of 17. For a brief time period, she was one of the most popular female singers in the U.S.

As good as Gore’s vocals were, the song’s greatness must partly be attributed to the flawless production by a young Quincy Jones, who also produced her other hits. He used lush, sweeping orchestration to great effect, enhancing the drama of the mesmerizing melody. “You Don’t Own Me” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February-March 1964, where it spent three weeks, held down by the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, which spent seven weeks at #1.

Despite her youth, Gore’s commanding vocals make her sound totally credible when she sings the lyrics telling a lover that they do not own her, that they can’t tell her what to do or say, and that they are not to put her on display.

You don’t own me, I’m not just one of your many toys
You don’t own me, don’t say I can’t go with other boys

And don’t tell me what to do
And don’t tell me what to say
And please when I go out with you
Don’t put me on display, ’cause
You don’t own me, don’t try to change me in any way
You don’t own me, don’t tie me down ’cause I’d never stay

Oh, I don’t tell you what to say
I don’t tell you what to do
So just let me be myself
That’s all I ask of you
I’m young and I love to be young
I’m free and I love to be free
To live my life the way I want
To say and do whatever I please

And don’t tell me what to do
Oh… don’t tell me what to say
And please, when I go out with you
Don’t put me on display

I don’t tell you what to say
Oh-h-h-h don’t tell you what to do
So just let me be myself
That’s all I ask of you
I’m young and I love to be young
I’m free and I love to be free
To live my life the way I want
To say and do whatever I please

The song has been covered many times, most notably by Dusty Springfield, Joan Jett, the Blow Monkeys and, more recently, in a darker and interesting version by Australian singer/songwriter Grace, featuring American rapper G-Eazy. The song was also a highlight of the 1996 film The First Wives Club, where in a delightfully gratifying scene at the end of the film, Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn perform the song as they leave the building.

Cover photo by David Redfern.