Hey y’all, and welcome to our latest column! For this column, my buddy Gonzo and I have decided to take a look at songs that have become more popular as covers than they did in their initial incarnations. For our inaugural post, we’ve decided to look at one of the biggest hits of the Eighties-“I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On”.
Originally released in 1984 by Cherrelle, the song was a huge hit on the dance and R&B charts. However, the song, written and produced by a then-upcoming production duo by the name of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, stalled on the pop charts, not even making the Top 75. Less than two years later, British pop/soul singer Robert Palmer included it on what was to be his breakthrough album, Riptide. Produced by Chic’s Bernard Edwards and released in summer 1986 as the album’s third single, “Turn You On” flew all the way to the #2 position on the pop charts, leading many to believe that Jam & Lewis actually wrote the song for Palmer (which must have stung Cherrelle, seeing as she continued to chart over the rest of the decade, scoring a pair of Top 40 duets with Alexander O’ Neal and even scored an R&B chart-topper. We know which of the two versions is more popular, but which is better? Take a listen to a Blerd/Gonzo convo.
G: So basically what I’m thinking here is that we’ll listen to them on by one, during which anything is fair game – background info, personal commentary/reflections/memories, critiques, comparisons. But I think the ultimate “thing” is ultimately which is the better version.
G: Ready to rock?
B: Yes, sir. I am.
G: First up:
B: so…unlike you, this is the version i heard first
G: God, this is taking forever to load. What is this, 1996?
B: I know right? its like waiting for porn on dial-up. not that i know anything about that.
G: erm, me neither. As a high school male in the dialup era, there is nothing that I would have liked to do less. OK, let’s stop talking about porn.
B: Let’s talk about writing letters while wearing lace gloves
G: It’s the only way to write letters.
So you were aware of this version when it was out?
B: Yeah, it was a pretty decent sized r&b hit (top ten, i think) and my folks had the 45 of it when i was growing up.
G: #8 R&B. #79 Pop
I honestly don’t think I had any awareness of it in 1984.
B: Well, how old were you in 1984?
G: 3, but I have shockingly clear recollections of music from early childhood.
B: I was 8 when this was out, i even remember seeing the video on some random “Night Tracks” video show or something like that.
G: Truthfully, I don’t think I heard this version until maybe two years ago, in the depths of a Jam & Lewis binge.
B: Well, if youre gonna binge, Jam & Lewis is the way to go.
G: At any rate, I think I would remember this song, and certainly I think I’d remember the nightmarish video, what with the gorilla, cartoon jungle, safari outfits, etc.
B: Nightmarish? Or ridiculously campy?
G: At 3, I think it would have been nightmarish. at 29, campy. Or reminiscent of a peyote experience.
B: One thing i’ll say is that i dont think i knew (or cared) that this was a Jam/Lewis song until ’86.
G: Like most people, I don’t think I knew who the fuck Jam and Lewis were until Control. Also, not Cherrelle’s biggest hit (so says Wikipedia)
B: Nope-on the pop charts she had two Top 40 duets with Alexander O’ Neal, and on the R&B charts she hit #1 with “Everything I Miss at Home” (which also featured…Alexander O’ Neal).
G: the MPLS connection
B: Yeah-they were a pretty good combination…did quite a few songs together. I saw Cherrelle in concert about…2004?
G: How has the 21st century treated her?
B: She doesnt look much different actually…she was opening for New Edition (after the original opening act, En Vogue, cancelled.
G: Nice. Let’s move on, shall we?
(this is a slightly remixed version)
G: Now I was definitely aware of Robert Palmer and his version of this song in 1986
B: Right, because he was coming off of a huge hit with “Addicted to Love”, and this was a huge hit as well.
G: #2 on the top 100
B: I didn’t know at the time that Palmer made a habit of covering R&B songs from the 70s and 80s.
G: Oh yes. some good, some bad. His version of “Respect Yourself” by the Staples Singers is pretty good though. As is the T-Rex cover he did with Power Station.
B: He did “Respect Yourself”? i didnt know that.
G: Holy crap, thre’s apparently a video.
B: Man, he wore that chicks playing instruments motif into the ground, didnt he?
G: Oh yes.
B: Then he had the misfortune to get pwned on a cover version by John McClane.
G: Speaking of cover versions….
B: Haha…i was wondering if you were gonna bring that one up.
So basically what we have here, is Mariah doing karaoke. Because I’ll be damned if that isnt the exact same instrumental track Cherrelle sang over.
G: Sure as hell sounds like it
As useless as I think Mariah Carey was by this point in her career, this isn’t bad vocally.
If I can step back to Palmer for a minute…I actually forgot about his version for a decade or so, until I heard it on some syndicated show called Retro Pop Reunion. Then I saw the Jam and Lewis credit, which led me to believe that he worked with them.
B: Which i think is what most people believed.
G: Then a year or two ago, I straightened out the story.
B: Also worth noting: Robert Palmer’s version was produced by half of another legendary production team- Chic’s Bernard Edwards.
G: This album (Riptide) also featured Andy Taylor and Tony Thompson. When the song reentered my consciousness, I thought it might be Power Station.
OK, so we’ve heard both versions (and then some). What’s your take?
B: I like the fact that Palmer’s cover is fairly different from the original musically. Also nice to have a male perspective vs. a female perspective. Palmer’s cool and detached, Cherrelle’s more…plaintive?
G: Agreed! There’s something about his delivery that I think makes his version a bit sexier.
B: Cherrelle is legitimately sorry for turning you on. Palmer’s like “well, I didn’t mean to turn you on, but I did…so let’s fuck”
Production-wise, the original pisses all over Palmer’s version.
G: Well, I’m not going to write off the production on Palmer’s version so quickly. Agreed that Jam and Lewis’ version is superior in that regard, but Edwards’ production was a good fit insofar as it was a continuation of the Power Station sound.
And if I can pull the race card…
B: Pull it!
G: I’m not sure that a white male voice could have pulled the song off with Jam/Lewis’ production style. Palmer’s a rock vocalist first and foremost, and I think that more solid rock/pop production style suits him better.
B: The production style of Edwards was definitely more of a match for Palmer.
I just feel like Cherrelle’s version has more ear candy. On her version, the star of the show is the production.
G: Agreed. with all due respect to Cherrelle, I think you could plug in other competent female R&B stars and still have it work.
B: It’s the rare covers situation where i actually enjoy both versions. I give Cherrelle the slight edge on account of the ear candy factor, but they’re both really solid.
G: This is a difficult call. Palmer definitely has the canonic version. I think I might actually have to go with that one, though it pains me to part with Jam and Lewis.
B: awwwwwwwwwwwwww This is gonna have to be an agree to disagree situation.
G: I can agree to that.
B: The fact is we both like both versions
G: Unfortunately, no bloodbaths this time around!
B: I think we both chose our winner by mere percentage points
Blerd Decision: Cherrelle (by a gorilla nose)
Gonzo Decision: Palmer (by the width of a sleek Italian suit)
Final Decision: Tie!