This is the 15th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Achie Bell & The Drells’ “Tighten Up” was released in 1968, becoming one of the earliest funk hits, reaching Number One on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard R&B charts. The band ended up having a dozen more songs on the Hot 100 and almost two dozen more on the R&B chart, but “Tighten Up” remained the band’s signature song.
The song, which Archie Bell & The Drells recorded with The T.S.U. Toronadoes, featured Bell explaining how to do a dance called the “Tighten Up.” Much of the song sounded ad-libbed, as much of is casually spoken word. At the song’s beginning, Bell announced:
I’m Archie Bell of the Drells
From Houston, Texas
We don’t only sing, but we dance
Just as good as we walk!
After President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas in 1963, Bell heard someone say nothing good ever came out of Texas. Bell took umbrage, and made it a point to announce his Texas heritage at the song’s beginning.
Throughout the song, Bell switched back and forth between speaking to his bandmates…
Tighten up on that bass now
Tighten it up, ha, ha, yeah
Now let that guitar fall in, oh yeah
Tighten up on that organ now
…And singing to the listener:
Yeah, you do the tighten up, yeah, now
I said, if you can do it now
It sure would be tough
Now look here, come on now
Now make it mellow
What inspired the song and who wrote the lyrics has been up for debate. Bell has said he wrote the song after friend and bandmate Billy Butler attempted to make Bell laugh by showing him a dance he had just learned. But Skipper Lee Frazier, who managed both Archie Bell & The Drells and The T.S.U. Toronadoes, has said he wrote the lyrics to fit a funky instrumental song that the Toronadoes had already been playing.
Regardless of who conceived of the song, Archie Bell & The Drells and The T.S.U. Toronadoes recorded “Tighten Up” in 1967 and released it in 1968. By that time, Bell had been drafted by the army. There’s a legend that says Bell heard it on the radio at a military hospital in Vietnam while he was being treated for a gunshot to the leg, and that he tried to tell the others in the hospital that he was the one singing on the radio. But he never saw any action in Vietnam, because he was never there.
But he was stationed overseas, and while he was, the remaining Drells found it hard to get gigs if they didn’t have Bell with them. Copycat groups pretending to be the real Archie Bell & The Drells were glad to take their place. Bell said that when had three-day breaks, he’d fly back to the US to record and perform with the band.
The same year that Archie Bell & The Drells released “Tighten Up,” Benny Gordon & The Soul Brothers released a version of the song on an album of the same name. It sounded very much like the original, though with a more polished production. Gordon ad-libbed some of the introduction. Instrumentally, the two versions sound almost identical, though the horn section on the Gordon version sounded fuller, more robust. In comparison to the booming Gordon, Bell sounded almost nasal.
The James Brown compilation album, “Soul Pride: The Instrumentals 1960-69,” included a live version of “Tighten Up.” Saxophonist Maceo Parker played the role of the emcee, introducing the different musicians by name. Coming in at more than seven minutes, this version was more than twice as long as Archie Bell & The Drells’ version. Each musician got to play long solos, but the most extensive one was by trumpet-player Waymon Reed.
In 1980, “Tighten Up” received a keyboard makeover when Japanese electropop band Yellow Magic Orchestra covered the song for an EP. Critically acclaimed as a “seminal influence on contemporary electronic music,” Yellow Magic Orchestra has been considered a pioneer in the use of synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines. Afrika Bambaataa has even said that the band invented hip-hop. The band’s version of “Tighten Up” included “Japanese Gentlemen Stand Up Please!” as a subtitle and a catchphrase sprinkled throughout the song. The T.S.U. Toronadoes’ riff could be heard, but the inclusion of airy synths and robotic vocals made this “Tighten Up” sound futuristic compared to tinny one recorded in 1967. Yellow Magic Orchestra appeared on “Soul Train” to play “Tighten Up.” Afterward, Don Cornelius said, “In case you folks out there in television land are wondering what’s going on, I haven’t the slightest idea.” Me neither, Don. Me neither.
During the recording sessions for its album “Reckoning,” R.E.M. recorded a cover of “Tighten Up.” Like the Yellow Magic Orchestra remake, the R.E.M. version didn’t have a horn section, but unlike the singers of the previous versions we’ve been discussing, Michael Stipe did not announce the name of the band or the band’s hometown. The band just into the song, with Stipe making comments here and there about featured instruments. That the band was goofing around and not taking it too seriously is apparent at the outset. This clearly was them having fun and not recording something they expected to put on an album. Though the song didn’t appear on “Reckoning” when it was released in 1984, it was included on a 1992 reissue.
Recording as Wally Jump Jr. & The Criminal Element, producer and DJ Arthur Baker released “Tighten Up (I Just Can’t Stop Dancin’),” a mashup cover of “Tighten Up” and Archie Bell & The Drells’ “I Can’t Stop Dancing.” With a nod to the original, the song began with an introduction: “Hi! We’re Wally Jump Jr., and we’re from Brooklyn, New York!” A drumbeat then led into sample of the piano and bass from Janet Jackson’s “When I Think Of You.” The improvisational feel of the original lyrics, in which Bell referenced each of the instruments, translated very well into the old school hip-hop beats. There was no rap on this track, but the emcee talking about abou “how we used to do it” felt a lot like late ’80s hip-hop.
Beau Jocque recorded a Cajun-flavored zydeco version in which his accordion served as the dominant instrument, replacing the guitar and horns present in the Drells’ version. He altered the lyrics:
Won’t you get yourself enough?
Get on the floor
You’ve got to let yourself go
Jocque retained the T.S.U. Toronadoes’ riff, playing it in such a way that made it sound more nostalgic and melancholy. Yellow Magic Orchestra made it into space-y party jam and R.E.M. played it like a bunch of friends just messing around. But Jocque’s “Tighten Up” sounded more reflective, sounding slightly reminiscent of Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s “The Way It Is.”
When blues singer Taylor Hicks won the fifth season of “American Idol” in 2006, he had been releasing independent music for almost a decade. The 1997 album “In Your Time” featured both studio and live tracks, including a live version of “Tighten Up.” The smooth, jazz-tinged performance sprawled over a period of seven minutes, during which time the soulful young Hicks sang most of the lyrics from the original. The one part he added, though, was an introduction that stated Archie Bell & The Drells had recorded this song “in 1973.”
Yo La Tengo released a covers album in 2006, called “Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics.” The album comprises more than two dozen covers recorded between 1996 and 2003 at WFMU in Jersey City, New Jersey. To show support for the station’s fundraising efforts, the band would visit annually. Anyone who pledged money during Yo La Tengo’s visit to the studio could then request a song and the band would try to play it. Yo La Tengo’s version of “Tighten Up” came in at just two minutes, half of which was the band screaming “Tighten up” over the familiar riff.
Australian funk band The Bamboos included a version of “Tighten Up” on its debut album, “Step It Up.” The track was recorded with no vocals, and thus no emcee to introduce the band or reference the different instruments. The instrumental part sounded faithful to the original, but with airy woodwinds added.
Additionally, the song has been sampled and included in other songs. Janet Jackson, who herself was sampled for “Tighten Up (I Just Can’t Stop Dancin’),” included a minor sample of “Tighten Up” for her song “Free Xone,” which appeared on “The Velvet Rope.” It was subtle (“Make it mellow!”), and you’d have to listen for it. But the jazz hip-hop trio Digable Planets used a sample of “Tighten Up” for the background track on “Where I’m From,” which appeared on the album “Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space).”
Because so much of the vocals in “Tighten Up” sound like improvised conversations, “Tighten Up” is not an obvious song to cover. “Tighten Up” sounds more like a laid-back jam session than an intentional song with planned-out lyrics. Some of the words are sung, some are not. The subsequent versions have had the T.S.U. Toronadoes’ riff that gave “Tighten Up” its spine, but what distinguishes the covers from Archie Bell & The Drells’ version is what they do with that riff and what instruments to include or leave out. And in some of the covers, the only words that stayed the same were “tighten up.”
Which begs the question: Should these versions of “Tighten Up” be considered covers? Should they even be considered versions of Archie Bell & The Drells’ “Tighten Up”? Or just songs that sample that song? Jackson’s “Free Xone” and Digable Planets’ “Where I’m From” are easily samples,” but with the rest of these songs called “Tighten Up,” there’s a squishy line between covers and samples. In a way, “Tighten Up” has become like a story or joke that can vary depending on who’s telling it, but the spirit remains the same.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.