Song of the Week – Only the Strong Survive, Jerry Butler

Ignored           Obscured            Restored

‘60s soul man, Jerry Butler, earned the nickname “Ice Man” for his cool, baritone vocals.  He began his recording career with Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions in 1958, but quickly quit that group for a solo career.

By 1968, Butler found himself on Mercury records, working with writers/producers Gamble and Huff, later of Philadelphia International fame.  They helped Butler reach his apex with The Iceman Cometh album.  It contained two of Butler’s best known recordings – “Hey, Western Union Man,” and today’s SotW, “Only the Strong Survive.”

“Only the Strong Survive” reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard Black Singles chart in early 1969.  It is another in the long line of songs whose message resonated as a ‘60s civil rights anthem.

The spoken word intro (similar to Clarence Carter’s “Patches”) offers mama’s words of wisdom:

I remember my first love affair
Somehow or another the whole darn thing went wrong
My mama had some great advice
So I thought I’d put it into words of this song
I can still hear her sayin’

But the payoff is in the chorus, where mama’s message goes beyond how to deal with a break up.  It is a more universal life’s lesson.

Only the strong survive
Only the strong survive
You’ve got to be a man, you’ve got to take a stand
So I’m telling you right now only the strong survive
Only the strong survive
Hey, you’ve got to be strong, you’d better hold on

Elvis Presley released his popular version of the song on his 1969 long player, From Elvis In Memphis.  That’s the one that also included the hit “In the Ghetto.”

The Iceman is the perfect companion for a dark winter’s day.

Enjoy… until next week.

6 thoughts on “Song of the Week – Only the Strong Survive, Jerry Butler

  1. Great song, killer bass line plus Gamble and Huff, who get about one-tenth of the credit they deserve. I’ve said this before but the soul music of the late-60s/early 70s is criminally neglected by today’s cultural arbiters. I don’t know why – how the whole lot of them would howl if you called them racist – but I think the operative prejudice is (and was at the time) against the single, because singles were commercial and unhip compared to albums.

    Anyway, Jerry Butler had left The Impressions before they cut this classic. Minimal musical backing but every note in place, kind of a calypso feel, it was a hit again about ten years later by the insufferable Brian Hyland. I always thought it was a perfect song for Bryan Ferry.

  2. Jerry Butler’s original is way better than Elvis’, to me. It’s got the groove, drive, and soul that the Elvis cover is missing

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