The timeless allure of Smith’s ‘Baby It’s You’ one hit wonder cover
Not to be confused with ’80s English rock band the Smiths, best known for introducing Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr to a national stage, Smith was a one hit wonder band fronted by blond-haired, soul-conjuring vixen Gayle McCormick. In the Age of Aquarius they notched a notable No. 5 pop smash on Billboard with a cover of “Baby It’s You.”
The song, a defiant declaration of a girl’s steadfast love even when friends try to convince her that her boyfriend’s no good — or vice versa, depending on the singer’s gender — was originally composed by Brill Building stalwarts Burt Bacharach, Mack David, and Luther Dixon. Pioneering African American female quartet the Shirelles got their hands on the song first in 1961. Their version nearly topped the R&B chart [No. 3] but stalled at No. 8 pop wise.
The Beatles, especially John Lennon, took a shine to the girl group’s intricate vocal harmonies and recorded it along with “Boys” on their debut long player, Please Please Me. The Beatles’ 1963 cover closely emulated the Shirelles’ rendition although the four lads from Liverpool opted for some innovative “cheat, cheat” call and response vocal theatrics after the telling line, “Is it true what they say about you?”
Formed in Los Angeles between the influential Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock and swiftly discovered in North Hollywood’s Rag Doll Club by Brian Hyland and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Del “Runaway” Shannon, Smith combined rock, pop and blues into an alluring melting kaleidoscope perfect for late ’60s AM radio.
Sometime in the spring of 1969, Peter Fonda was compiling the soundtrack to his counterculture-affirming Easy Rider and wanted to include the Band’s roots rock single “The Weight.” Unfortunately, licensing issues with the Band’s record label, Capitol, kept their song in the definitive film but not on the hugely successful soundtrack. Fonda was forced to select an alternate version by another artist. Enter Smith.
Fortuitous timing — or perhaps strategic maneuvering — by the quintet’s record label, Dunhill, encouraged the simultaneous release of A Group Called Smith in late July 1969, eventually guaranteeing a Top 20 chart position although the other covers on the album were generally pedestrian and uninspiring despite the production talents of Joel Sill and Steve Barri [the latter co-wrote Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” and Johnny Rivers’ insanely catchy “Secret Agent Man”].
Nevertheless, “Baby It’s You”, the concluding two-and-a-half minute track on side one of the original vinyl, had all the ingredients required for hit single status. And boy, did it deliver in spades.
Shannon aided in the basic roots rock arrangement — albeit uncredited, he also let the group rehearse extensively in his home — with horns by Jimmie Haskell during the chorus. McCormick belts the lyrics with intense abandon. Her soul-drenched, awesome vocals led many to believe McCormick was African-American. A wild B-3 organ solo by Tulsa keyboardist Larry Moss leads a short instrumental vamp, anchored by a perfectly mixed rhythm section, until the singer signals the final crescendo with a spine-tingling scream of “Babaayyyy…It’s You!” Smith’s reimagining sounds nothing like the Shirelles or Beatles.
Smith scored additional fans when they appeared live on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York City. Bolting from the usual tradition of having guests mime their latest hit, “really big shew” Sullivan demanded that everyone perform live vocals and instrumentation. The band rose to the occasion in fine fashion, resplendent in fringe and exotic love beads.
Relatively little is known about Smith beyond their one major hit single. Subsequent A-sides and a follow-up album, the much more cohesive Minus-Plus embellished by guitarist Jerry Carter’s original songwriting and extra McCormick lead vocals in spite of her being temporarily committed for mental issues, were released with diminishing returns — “Take a Look Around” was their second highest charting A-side at No. 43 while Carole King’s fantastically desperate “What Am I Gonna Do” deserved a Top Ten placement — until the band unceremoniously folded two years after its formation.
Sadly, McCormick, who seemed destined for star status, had a brief solo career on various record labels but basically abandoned the limelight by the mid-’70s. She remained reclusive until her death from advanced lung cancer on March 1, 2016. McCormick’s decision to withdraw from public life draws ample comparisons to “Ode to Billie Joe” singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry. Incidentally, both had hit songs arranged by Haskell.
Maverick cult-cum-mainstream director Quentin Tarantino rejuvenated “Baby It’s You” in his grindhouse action flick Death Proof starring Kurt Russell in 2007. Vintage collectors label Real Gone Music finally remedied Smith’s long out-of-print discography seven years later by coupling A Group Called Smith and Minus-Plus onto one CD with fascinating liner notes penned by All Music Guide’s Richie Unterberger. The latter album had previously only been floating around in inferior sounding bootleg editions [annoyingly “The Weight” was left off Real Gone’s reissue]. You can also stream on Amazon, iTunes, or Spotify.
Smith’s fleeting but memorable trajectory into the upper rock echelon is unquestionably ripe for reappraisal among ’60s rock, pop, and soul aficionados.
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