The First Take Is The Deepest: Demos Turned Hits

If Herb Alpert, circa 1968, had auditioned for The Voice, it’s not a stretch to imagine Blake Shelton commenting, “Sorry Herb. Just because you have a voice, doesn’t mean you have the voice.” Herb’s best musical instrument may have been his trumpet, but his vocals on the Burt Bacharach and Hal David composition “This Guy’s in Love With You” prove if the record-buying public buys the singer’s sincerity, they’ll buy the record—even if was just a demo (demonstration) take.

In Bacharach’s 2013 memoir, Anyone Who Had a Heart, Herb said, “Burt wrote the arrangement for ‘This Guy’s in Love with You’ and he was in the studio when we cut it at Gold Star Recording. In the studio, I’m the opposite of Burt. He is a perfectionist who likes everything to sound exactly the way he hears it in his heart. I close my eyes and I’m from the feel-it school. If it feels right, I stop. So we had the track and I wanted to see whether my voice would sound good on it. A bunch of the singers and Burt were in the control room while I was doing a demo of the vocal. I did one take and went back into the control room and they all looked at me and said, ‘Don’t touch it.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, don’t touch it? That’s just the demo.’ Burt said, ‘Don’t touch it, man. It sounds great.’ I touched up a couple of things here and there but that was the take.”

This take took the song to #1 for four weeks in 1968 and has plucked many a heartstring since, including Noel Gallagher’s.  Noel noted he “pinched the chords from the song” and used them on Oasis’ “Half the World Away.”

But this wasn’t the only demo song that shot to the top.  The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” was meant for The Shirelles only for the Angels to beat them to the punch. The demo even featured future Black Sabbath’s Ronnie Dio on trumpet. The song, about a guy coming back to his girlfriend’s hometown to possibly do some bodily damage to a persistent pest of his gal pal, was #1 for three weeks in 1963.

The Angels’ version was so spot-on that it doesn’t sound like a demo.  Then there are some songs that have all the earmarks of a demo, as was the case of Tommy James’ “Hanky Panky.”

James recalled his one-and-done take:  “The amazing thing is we did not re-record the song. I don’t think anybody can record a song that bad and make it sound good. It had to sound amateurish like that. I think if we’d fooled with it too much we’d have fouled it up.”

That demo-turned-hit was the stepping stone to a career, as was the case for many hitmakers (i.e. Tony Orlando of Dawn, Ron Dante of the Archies) who toiled anonymously as demo singers. Dionne Warwick’s voice peddled Bacharach and David’s pop product and Carole King demoed numerous compositions written by her and her then-husband, Gerry Goffin.

One Dionne Warwick demo (“It’s Love That Really Counts”) was later recorded by Scepter label’s The Shirelles, and heard by Scepter President, Florence Greenberg. She wisely advised Bacharach, “Forget the song, get the girl!”

But some demo singers never make a big splash, their demos acting as “vocal guides.” Ben Wiseman, who wrote 57 songs for Elvis Presley, stated: “After completing each song, I would make a demonstration record, using a singer that could copy Elvis’ sound.  One of the first demo singers I hired was Otis Blackwell.”

Blackwell, who didn’t fancy the singing life, wrote more than a thousand songs, including “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless” and “Return to Sender.” In Ken Sharp’s 2006 book, Writing for the King, Blackwell recalled: “On Christmas Eve in ‘55, I was standing outside the Brill Building with no hat and holes in my shoes. Leroy Kirkland, the arranger who worked with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, asked if I had any songs. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to get some Christmas money.’ He took me to [music publishing company] Shalimar Music.  I was surprised when I later heard Elvis’ ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ because it was just like I had done the demo.”

On a January 10, 1984 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, Blackwell said he sold “Don’t Be Cruel” and five other songs to Shalimar Music for $150 in advance money. Later asked if he felt funny about Elvis so closely imitating his “Don’t Be Cruel” demo, Blackwell replied, “I felt funny the first time but after he sold 4 million, I didn’t.”

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Tommy James and the Shondells. Roulette Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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3 comments on “The First Take Is The Deepest: Demos Turned Hits

  1. Mark Hudson

    Note; the great Ronnie James Dio never sang for Deep Purple, you are thinking of Rainbow, formed by Purple main man Ritchie Blackmore.

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