Lonesome Onry and Mean was pondering the greater meaning of all things with the aid of a cold bottle of Thought Elixir when Dwight Yoakam's version of the old Wilbert Harrison R&B smash "Let's Work Together" came up in the iPod mix. Harrison's original has been part of our DJ sets since Day One, but hearing Yoakam's twang version reminded us of Bryan Ferry's glam hit with his cover of the tune which was tearing up Europe just as we arrived there in 1976.
Thought Elixir being what it is, down the YouTube rabbit hole we plunged in search of our past. While Ry Cooder and Buckwheat Zydeco, Bob Dylan, Kentucky Headhunters and others have covered the tune, these are our favorites beginning with Harrison's 1970 masterpiece.
Wilbert Harrison (1970) It took the snake-bitten Harrison, who seemed to embody every legal issue an artist could encounter with small-time labels, almost a decade to have a hit with the tune that he originally titled and recorded as "Let's Stick Together." First released on the Fury label in 1962 as a follow-up to his 1959 classic "Kansas City" -- one of the earliest co-writes by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller of "Hound Dog" fame -- it was 1970 before "Together" was re-recorded and issued on the Sue label, where it finally caught the fancy of the public. Not only was this just a cool and slightly unusual tune for the radio of the day, its retooled message worked well with the hippies, who were rabid consumers of the latest and greatest.
While the squawky, stripped-down Sue version is great, the lesser-known '62 original is a classic piece of R&B that deserved wider appreciation. Those lyrics had a strong, specific anti-divorce message that Harrison drastically altered in the later version and came out as the more ambiguous "Let's Work Together." The second take both reflected changing attitudes and probably allowed Harrison and his producers to move nimbly around copyright laws. Interestingly, the Sue version is listed as "Wilbert Harrison One Man Band," but for live shows the singer performed solo or with a backing group called the Roamers.
Canned Heat (also 1970) LOM became acquainted with Wilbert Harrison via Canned Heat's hippie-fied blues version that became a solid "underground radio" hit for the band in late 1970, and would become their biggest-selling single. It was recorded just as Harrison's version began to fade from the charts and as the bloom fell off the hippie era, when grand psychedelic rock began to be replaced in vinyl collections by more authentic blues, rock and country-rock. But no self-respecting hippie could be without a copy of Canned Heat's Future Blues; in the post-Woodstock throes of the free-love movement (and all it entailed), the Woodstock alumni's treatment stood out as a call for decency and community in a world that was becoming more jaded by the minute. Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson plays the slide guitar parts.
The L.A. band was notorious for drug use and drama, so there was constant turnover of personnel; see Canned Heat's Wikipedia page for a personnel flowchart worthy of NASA engineers. Wilson was found dead in his camper shortly after this video was made. He had reportedly attempted suicide a few months earlier, and died of a barbiturate overdose. Leader Bob "The Bear" Hite died of an overdose -- he thought it was coke he was sticking up his nose but it turned out to be heroin -- during a gig at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood in 1981.
Bryan Ferry (1976) LOM left Austin for Europe and the North Sea in mid-1976 just as Roxy Music front man Bryan Ferry dropped his take on the Fury version of Harrison's classic. Within weeks it was No. 4 in the European rock charts and its slinky video was duking it out with the likes of Abba and an Australian oddity called "Jungle Rock" on such programs as Top of the Pops. Ferry's version is still his top-selling single.
Dwight Yoakam (1990) Yoakam has a way of making any cover his own and a rare genius for picking songs one doesn't immediately think of as Yoakam-friendly. But his twangin' Amerciana rocker finds the deep inner groove and just stomps the bejeezus out of Harrison's breezy ditty.
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Status Quo (1991) From 1991's Rock 'Til You Drop, this version is pure, no-frills Brit boogie, the stuff that has made Status Quo one of England's most popular bands of the rock era. Their version comes off as straight-up Mellencamp/Springsteen heartland rock in spite of being delivered by some stout English lads. And obviously, it has more in common with Canned Heat than with Harrison.
KT Tunstall The most successful recent version of the tune belongs to perky Scottish songstress KT Tunstall, who lays on a sultry swagger. The production is A+, and while it's nothing revolutionary, the slide-guitar riff is undeniable and the band rocks the tune hard. Tunstall is obviously under the sway of Bryan Ferry here, which is hardly a bad thing.
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