“The Dirty Dancing soundtrack?” I can hear the record needles scratch, highball glasses shatter, and partygoers and readers alike demand refunds… But hear me out.
In 1987, the DD soundtrack was a formative experience for more than one pre-teen rock n’ roller. Yeah, you have some bedazzled, radio-ready AOR pandering– but every other cut is a pre-Beatles workout, a history lesson that showcases everything that was life-affirming when r&b, early-soul, doo wop, and rock n’ roll coexisted as essential elements of the American experience. To fresh ears, these vintage cuts are revelations but to curious listeners compelled to dig deeper, they are gateways to something sanctified. The Five Satins’ “I’ll Remember (In the Still of the Night)” is a certified Greatest-Song-of-all-Time that epitomizes doo wop’s heartfelt sensibilities and opens the door to a hook-lineage that includes Frankie Lymon, The Beach Boys, bubble gum, and beyond. “Love Is Strange,” written by the incomparable and would-be-king Bo Diddley (and riff’d by Jody Williams), features the scorching back-and-forth between Mickey Baker, the jazz/r&b guitar legend whose solo debut, The Wildest Guitar, is a guit-down masterpiece, and Sylvia Robinson, the founder of famed Sugar Hill Records. With The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby”, you get Hal Blaine’s iconic drum intro and Ronnie’s “Woah-oh-oh-oh,” but also an introduction to the Phil Spector Universe, with its Wall of Sound, stable of artists, Brill Building philosophy, and Wrecking Crew session players. Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs’ slinky and seductive “Stay” (later reimagined as a raver by The Hollies) and Bruce Chanel’s summer-breezy “Hey Baby” are beach music classics that are the missing links between The Clovers, The Drifters, The Dominoes, and Motown legends like The Four Tops and The Temptations. (Anyone interested in cautionary tales, take heed: Bill Medley, having the time of his life with Jennifer Warnes, was one-half of the very righteous Righteous Brothers while Eric Carmen of “Hungry Eyes” fronted the proto-power pop group The Raspberries.) Dirty Dancing exists in the same realm as Happy Days and Grease– a nostalgia-driven whitewashing– but its soundtrack defies the belief that the years between the demise of rock n’ roll’s first stars and the onslaught of the British Invasion were a musical wasteland. These Kennedy-era tracks are a microcosm of the music that fueled a generation of teens taking to their garages, plugging in their instruments, and planning world dominance.