Jerry Butler was just about the smoothest singer in the history of soul music, from his early days in the classic Chicago vocal group the Impressions—Butler, not Curtis Mayfield, wrote “For Your Precious Love,” the group’s first gold record—and all through his solo career. His ultra-cool delivery and demeanor earned him the nickname “The Ice Man.” (Butler still performs occasionally, but his main gig these days is his role as a Cook County Board Commissioner; his official government webpage even identifies him as “The Ice Man.” Now that is smooth.)
This two-fer, recently reissued by Collector’s Choice, combines two of Butler’s most important solo records, both from 1969. These records were significant for a couple of reasons. First, they were produced by the classic Philly production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. (I’m not going to get into Gamble and Huff here, but, um, damn were they important.) Second, and most importantly, they are awesome.
The sublimely-named The Ice Man Cometh, was released in January of 1969. Its biggest single, “Only the Strong Survive”, is still considered Butler’s signature song, despite heavy covers from the likes of Elvis Presley—and rightly so, considering the sheer genius of the thing. There are so many perfect components to this single: its opening drum crack, Butler’s spoken-word intro, the heavily echoed backing vocals, Gamble and Huff’s trademark string charts, and so on. But the main heavy lifting is done by the chorus, which combines Zen Renunciation with Stoic Macho. (You will think I’m kidding only if you have never heard the song.)
But there are many other gems here. “Lost”, a single that debuted a whole year before the album hit the charts—all y’all don’t remember when people used to do that, but it was kind of like leaking tracks on the Internet—uses Stax-like grooves and big fat horn charts to nail things down. “Are You Happy?” (one of the great musical questions) is a chilly snow shower, three parts melancholy and one part hope. And the opening track, “Hey, Western Union Man”, is only kept out of the pantheon by bad luck. These popular singles are buttressed by great tunes like “Never Gonna Give You Up” (later covered by Isaac Hayes on Black Moses) and the unbearably delicate “Just Because I Really Love You”.
The second record here, Ice on Ice, which hit in September later that year, leads off with the fascinating low-key tune “Moody Woman”, a song that encapsulates the pleasures and pains of a difficult partner: “Oh baby you can be impossibly smart / You know you can girl / But I know you love me, you think the world of me / And you got a GREAT BIG HEART”. This is a pretty accurate opener, as this record is definitely a moodier affair than its predecessor. “Since I Lost You Lady” collapses under its own sadness, and the sad-sack lovelessness of “When You’re Alone” becomes operatic.
But it’s not all sad. “What’s the Use of Breaking Up?” explores the idea that one might as well just wait out one’s cyclical romantic problems… with sexy background vocals and a funky sitar line! “I Forgot to Remember” has a tricky double-time beat and a lot of summery dancefloor shimmer, and “Don’t Let Love Hang You Up” is a gospelly rave-up anchored by barrelhouse piano. But the clear centerpiece is “Brand New Me”, a perfectly-written song that has been covered by about one million artists, from Aretha Franklin to, well, Isaac Hayes on Black Moses again, but was never bettered. Butler’s vocal is hopeful and upbeat, but the listener hears the protagonist’s emotional scars reflected in every syllable. Stunning, and still fresh after almost 40 years.