Two’s company. Tea for two. Two heads are better than one. It takes two to tango.
And the pantheon of popular music is abundant with duets — songs that combine and contrast the vocal talents of two different but complementary singers.
By definition, a duet is a recording or performance that features two vocalists taking turns singing solo sections of equal importance to the piece. This differs from a harmony, in which the vocalists sing together, in harmony or in unison. Duos like Simon & Garfunkel, The Everly Brothers, Seals & Crofts or Hall and Oates don’t really do duets — their songs typically offer one lead voice throughout with occasional harmonies, or harmonies throughout.
Duets first started appearing in popular music in the 1940s, when stars like Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, and Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark, each had Top Five hits with “Talk, Talk, Talk” (1945) and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (1949), respectively. The ’50s saw more successful duets such as 1957’s “Love is Strange” by Mickey & Sylvia (which enjoyed a second life 30 years later on the “Dirty Dancing” film soundtrack). The early ’60s brought dialog-type duets like Paul & Paula’s “Hey Paula” (1962), Dale and Grace’s “I’m Leaving It All Up to You” (1963) and Inez and Charlie Foxx’s “Mockingbird” (1963).
Country music, Motown, “easy listening,” dance, hip hop, rock and roll –just about every genre has made liberal use of the duet format ever since. Indeed, in recent years, the charts have seen albums comprised exclusively of duets. In 1993 and ’94 before his death, Frank Sinatra released two hugely popular albums of duets of swing tunes and torch songs (although they were achieved electronically — his collaborators were never in the same studio with him when recording). Tony Bennett has had great success with four albums of duets in the past ten years, and he sang his songs live in the studio with his partners, most recently a whole album with Lady Gaga. Barbra Streisand had a #1 album of duets in 2014, and Van Morrison recently released an LP of re-recordings of his songs with different duet partners.
I’d like to examine 15 of my favorite duets from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — some of them big hits, some more obscure but still worthy of your attention.
“Easy Lover,” Philip Bailey & Phil Collins, 1984
When Bailey — one of the two lead singers in Earth, Wind & Fire — chose to spread his wings for a solo project in 1984, he chose Genesis singer/drummer Phil Collins to produce it. When the album, “Chinese Wall,” was completed, Bailey asked Collins if they might take a stab at writing a song together. They started jamming that very night, and “Easy Lover” came tumbling out. They liked it so much they added it to the album, and although I think it sounds like it belongs more on a Collins LP, it’s a very catchy track that reached #2 in the US and #1 in a half-dozen other countries.
“You’re a Friend of Mine,” Clarence Clemons & Jackson Browne, 1985
Sax giant Clemons had spent more than a decade as “The Big Man” in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and he took advantage of that popularity by testing the waters with a solo album, “Hero,” in 1985. For the single, he recruited singer-songwriter and friend Jackson Browne to record a duet on this rollicking rocker that sounds like it would have fit nicely on one of Bruce’s albums. It turned out to be Clemons’ only entry on the charts as a solo artist, but he enjoyed many more years touring and recording with Springsteen before passing away in 2011 at age 69.
“I Got You Babe,” Sonny & Cher, 1965, and Chrissie Hynde and UB40, 1985
Bob Dylan wrote a song in 1964 called “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and Sonny Bono, then a producer/songwriter who was on the verge of launching a duo act with girlfriend Cher Sarkisian, decided to compose a kind of response with a more positive view on life and relationships. “I Got You Babe” featured the twosome taking turns on every two lines of lyric, their voices so similar it was sometimes hard to tell who was singing. It was #1 for three weeks in the summer of ’65 and has become an anthem for lovers everywhere who are just scraping by. Twenty years later, reggae group UB40 and its lead singer Ali Campbell got together with Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde to do their own reggae duet, which reached #28.
“Up Where We Belong,” Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes, 1982
Written by the unlikely trio of Buffy Saint-Marie, Will Jennings and Jack Nitschke, this inspiring song caught the attention of producer Stewart Levine, who brought together the unlikely duo of Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes to record it. Their disparate singing styles somehow worked in an “opposites attract” kind of way. Movie producer and screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart chose to use it behind the final scene of his film “An Officer and a Gentleman,” and both the film and the song were enormous hits. The duet won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Grammy, and was the #1 song in the country for three weeks in 1982.
“What’s That You’re Doing,” Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder, 1982
Following John Lennon’s death, McCartney reassessed his solo career, disbanded Wings and, for the first time, started co-writing songs with others. He had huge chart hits working with Michael Jackson (“The Girl is Mine,” “Say Say Say”) and more modest results with Elvis Costello (“My Brave Face,” “Veronica”). With the great Stevie Wonder, he topped the charts for seven weeks in 1982 with “Ebony and Ivory,” but I much prefer his other collaboration on the “Tug of War” album, the mostly unknown “What’s That You’re Doing,” a marvelously funky piece written primarily by Wonder. It deftly demonstrates the pleasing interplay between these two titans of pop music.
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, 1967
Gaye’s extraordinary recorded legacy includes hundreds of tracks on which he sings alone, but some of his best work came on duets with superb Motown female singers like Mary Wells (“What’s the Matter With You Baby,” “Once Upon a Time”), Kim Weston (“It Takes Two”) and Tammi Terrell (“Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing”). To my ears, though, it is Gaye’s duet with Terrell on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that stands as one of his finest moments, and is perhaps one of the top two or three songs in the entire Motown catalog. The vocal tradeoff between the twosome is truly phenomenal.
“Under Pressure,” Queen & David Bowie, 1981
Queen was working on a song called “Feels Like” for their next album, “Hot Space,” but felt it needed something more. Bowie had been invited to the studio to sing on another track, “Cool Cats,” and although that vocal was eventually discarded, Bowie stuck around and helped out on a jam improvisation on “Feels Like,” propelled by John Deacon’s mesmerizing bass line. Bowie wrote and sang multiple lines of lyrics as Freddie Mercury did some impressive scat singing in and around him, and the resulting track became “Under Pressure,” a #1 hit in their native England but curiously stalled at #29 in the US.
“Whenever I Call You Friend,” Kenny Loggins & Stevie Nicks, 1978
Loggins wrote this effervescent song with the underrated Melissa Manchester one night in 1978. Nicks, who was still riding high on the unparalleled success of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” LP, was itching to do more recording but the rest of the band was uncooperative. In the meantime, she eagerly accepted Loggins’ invitation to record this duet, which became a #5 hit. Manchester also recorded her own version as a duet with Arnold McCuller, longtime background vocalist for James Taylor.
“Jackson,” Johnny Cash and June Carter Nash, 1967
I could write a whole column just on country duets. They just love to guest star on each other’s records in Nashville! I’d wager every major country music star has recorded at least one duet in his or her career. One of the first to reach widespread success was “Jackson,” first recorded in 1963 by Billy Edd Wheeler, but recorded twice in 1967 as duets. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood had a #14 single on the US pop charts, but the version by Cash and his wife went all the way to #2 on the country charts. It has only gained in popularity in recent years in light of Cash’s biopic “I Walk the Line” and the use of “Jackson” in the film “The Help.”
“My Secret Place,” Joni Mitchell & Peter Gabriel, 1988
Mitchell’s work in the ’80s got nowhere near the attention it deserved, especially 1988’s “Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm,” which includes compelling duets with several artists, including Willie Nelson and Don Henley. Most arresting is “My Secret Place,” an arresting track that combines Mitchell’s voice with the great Peter Gabriel. Joni and her husband/bassist Larry Klein visited Gabriel at his England home around the time he was completing his masterpiece “So” LP, and he offered her the use of his home studio. As they laid down the basics for “My Secret Place,” Gabriel was drawn to the song and ended up singing the other half of the duet.
“Gone at Last,” Paul Simon & Phoebe Snow, 1975
Most of the songs on Simon’s Grammy-winning album “Still Crazy After All These Years” were relatively dark, as they were written and recorded in the wake of his divorce from his first wife Peggy. But the LP’s first single was a feel-good gospel romp called “Gone at Last,” a modest hit (#25) that features the incredible voice of Phoebe Snow in a duet with Simon. It’s impossible to sit still to this track, and Snow’s high notes and vocal range will leave you with your jaw on the floor.
“You Mean So Much to Me,” Southside Johnny & Ronnie Spector, 1976
Emerging from the same Jersey Shore musical scene as his buddy Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny never quite achieved the success he should have. He and the Asbury Jukes knew how to wring every ounce of energy and sweat from their catalog of horn-driven soul songs, especially in concert. The band’s debut LP includes songs by The Boss and also E Street Band guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt, including “The Fever” and “I Don’t Wanna Go Home.” But don’t miss the album closer, Bruce’s “You Mean So Much to Me,” a frenetic duet with R&B diva Ronnie Spector. Fantastic.
“Unforgettable,” Nat King Cole & Natalie Cole, 1991
This track broke ground in recording technology by taking a decades-old recording and grafting on a new vocal to create a duet. The fact that it was jazz legend Nat King Cole and his now-grown daughter Natalie made it both heartwarming and maybe a little surreal. The widely loved song “Unforgettable” is indeed unforgettable, and this new release was even more so. It won just about every accolade the industry had to offer — Record of the Year, Album of the Year, and was the #1 song in more than a dozen countries.
“Dancing in the Streets,” David Bowie & Mick Jagger, 1985
This one-off recording is truly special, featuring the only pairing of two of rock’s finest vocal stylists. Bowie was in the middle of recording some songs at Abbey Road studios, so Jagger flew over, and the track was completed in thirteen hours. And what song did they choose to do? A classic slice of Motown, one of the most contagious dance tunes ever, reinvigorated with crisp, clean ’80s production values. Conceived as a way to raise funds for the Live Aid famine relief cause, the record topped the charts in England and reached #7 in the US, and all profits went to the charity. It has since become an unofficial anthem in England whenever there’s cause for celebration, as with the 2011 Royal Wedding.
“Don’t Know Much,” Linda Ronstadt & Aaron Neville, 1989
The Brill Building songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill came up with this lovely song in 1980. Mann, an occasional recording artist as well, released a version, as did Bill Medley and Bette Midler, but it was the duet recorded by Ronstadt and Neville in 1989 that became the definitive rendition. Their superb recording peaked at #2 in the US and the UK and was #1 in Canada and four other countries, and won a Grammy as well.
Honorable mention duets:
“(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes, 1987; “Leather and Lace,” Stevie Nicks and Don Henley, 1981; “Baby Grand,” Billy Joel & Ray Charles, 1986; “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” Neil Diamond & Barbra Streisand, 1978; “Where is the Love,” Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, 1972; “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Frank Sinatra & Bono, 1993; “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” Elton John and George Michael, 1991; “What Am I Supposed to Believe,” Christopher Cross & Karla Bonoff, 1983; “Please Read the Letter,” Robert Plant & Allison Krauss, 2007; “Girl From the North Country,” Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash, 1969; “This is Us,” Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris, 2004; “To Sir With Love,” Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe, 1995; “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, 1981; “Close My Eyes Forever,” Lita Ford & Ozzy Osbourne, 1988; “Don’t Give Up,” Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush, 1986; “From Here to the Moon and Back,” Willie Nelson & Dolly Parton, 2013; “The Man,” Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson, 1983; “Melissa,” Dave Matthews & Gregg Allman, 2007; “Reunited,” Peaches & Herb, 1979; “The Lady is a Tramp,” Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, 2015.