If you figure that 90% of all pop songs are about love, you can figure that at least 80% of those are really about sex. Even a teen angst song like “Puppy Love” is dripping with pent-up urges. And “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” is downright saturated.
Cole Porter was always pushing the boundaries. Listeners knew that many of his songs of love were songs of sex. “Let’s Do It” is a sexy title, but after talking about how birds and bees and “even educated fleas” do it, the punch line is “Let’s do it—let’s fall in love.” In 1940, Lee Wiley did one of the better versions of the song. She has a good time with it, and is well-supported by a good band.
I read back in the early ‘80s about a study of what the researchers conducting the study called ANR—for acute nipple response. (I can hear the “scientists” saying, “Yes, ma’am, this is a scientific study. Now come over and sit in this chair, please, and put these clamps on.”)
This groundbreaking study—which took place in my hometown, Richardson, Texas, as it happens—measured the ANR of its subjects to various songs that they listened to on headphones. The winner? The Rufus song “Tell Me Something Good” won hands-down (so to speak), and particularly the heavy-breathing sections that precede each chorus. Off the charts! Now, I would’ve been rooting for Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” but, y’know, they probably didn’t even give that one a try.
“Tell Me Something Good” was not the first AM hit to include heavy breathing, but it was probably the first in which the breathing sounded sweaty and provocative, not fake and namby-pamby. It didn’t hurt that singer Chaka Khan, on this first exposure to the masses, revealed a very earthy and sensuous vocal quality. She couldn’t help but exude sex when she sang anything—“Sweet Thing,” “Once You Get Started.” If she had come out with a version of “Copacabana,” it may have also pegged out the ANR scale.
A side project of love for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention was the 1968 album Ruben and the Jets. Zappa became Ruben Sano, leading his band through some slightly warped odes to the doo-wop era. The songs are all originals [Frank and fellow Mother (fellow Mother—I like that!) Ray Collins actually wrote some doo-wop numbers in the early sixties during the waning days of the style], and almost could pass as a ten-years-older work recorded by a real doo-wop group, but the Zappa production and lyric touches keep pushing through the facade. A favorite is the album opener “Cheap Thrills,” which, after the slow, ice-cream-changes intro, is a driving, one-track-mind song of lust, harmonized over two chords. It says what the Crests, the Cadillacs, the Falcons, and every 16-year-old boy wanted to say in 1958 but couldn’t: “Cheap thrills in the back of my car” would feel so fine.
On the queasier side of things, Mae West returned in her seventies, after a long hiatus, to the entertainment world, a more tongue-in-cheek sexbomb than she had been in her ‘30s heyday—although her sex shtick was always over-the-top self-parody. She recorded an album, Way Out West in 1966, with a group of young pups who look on the LP jacket like they could use a little birds ‘n’ bees schoolin’ from the old pro. (Lecture only, of course—no demonstrations.) The album hit the middle reaches of Billboard, and until 2011, Mae held the record for oldest female solo artist to chart. (Wanda Jackson broke it.) It is a real piece of work, like its artist, with a line-up of covers of rockin’ hanky-panky hits, like “You Turn Me On” and “Twist and Shout.” She even covers John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” The only track I’ve listened to more than once is the delirious “Shakin’ All Over.” Her warbly delivery of the line “Quivers down mah backbone” sounds like a macho Tiny Tim, and gives me a whole different kind of backbone quiver. Not sure just what it is, but she’s still got it!
“Makin’ whoopee” is such an antiquated term these days that it has come back around as an innocent way to refer to sex. (Hasn’t it? Or is it just me?) There were three hit versions of the song “Makin’ Whoopee” in 1929, most notably the version by Eddie Cantor, who sang it on Broadway in the show Whoopee. I imagine it was pretty titillating for audiences to hear back then, even if sung by a funny-looking, bug-eyed comedian. I do, however, think it could make a comeback with a verse updated for the younger set. (And just using the phrase “younger set,” I know, puts me way out of it.) It’d go something like this: “He sits alone and oversexed / He grabs the phone, sends her a text / She puts her book up / She wants a hookup / They’re makin’ whoopee.”
Possibly the least sexy sex song ever is “Afternoon Delight.” I think of it every time I watch primetime network news, whose viewing audience now includes almost no one under 50, if you go by the target demographic of their incessant ads for heart pills, joint-pain pills, and other remedies for the aging. Most ubiquitous are the ads for help-you-get-it-up-and-keep-it-up pills.
These commercials feature fit and relatively unmarred senior couples sharing in an activity—a round of golf, a checkers game—that puts a twinkle in his eye and a bashful grin on her face, and, next thing you know, they’re out of control, heading toward the bedroom, with a brief stop on the way to pop a Cialis. So, whenever you’re angling for a little afternoon delight, just get out the checkerboard.
Honorable Mention: The gorgeous Duke Ellington composition “Warm Valley” takes on a whole new feel once you know that the title refers to a particular aspect of the female form. They had to be a lot more creative with their titles back then. Although “Ain’t Gonna Give You None of This Jelly Roll” leaves little to the imagination.
Great Song Titles: Randy Newman came up with my two favorite song titles related to sex. Both are like headlines in The Onion: You don’t need to hear the songs, really, like you don’t really need to read the Onion articles (but the songs are very enjoyable, as are most Onion articles). Oh, the song titles? “You Can Leave Your Hat On” and “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong.”
Conway Twitty had a #1 C&W single with “I Can See the Want To in Your Eyes.” I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard the song, but that title is nutty genius. The song was written by Wayne Carson and the aptly named Mischa Scorer.