‘To Make A Poor Man’s Heart Break . . .’

While I was wandering around YouTube this morning, cataloging tunes from early 1972, I ran across a juxtaposition – an original track and a cover – that I found fascinating. Others have no doubt discovered the pairing long ago, but that’s okay: I find it enlivening (if occasionally humbling) that I still have so much to learn about the music I love.

As I happen to think about these two particular tracks, however, it’s really not surprising that I’d not come across them earlier: One is the title track to an album by a group I’d only known through one single from late 1970, and the other was a minor Top 40 hit during my freshman year of college, a time when I was slowly moving away from Top 40 toward album rock.

The song is “Fire and Water,” which was the title track of a 1970 album by Free, the British band best known for the classic “All Right Now,” which went to No. 4, also in 1970. Free’s take on “Fire and Water” – written by the group’s Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers – is very much of its time and is pretty typical of the blues-based band’s power-chord approach. It got my head bobbing as I sat here writing.

I should note that I’m a little chagrined to acknowledge that I’d not heard Free’s take on “Fire and Water” before today, but Free’s audacious boogie was not a style I gave much attention. When “All Right Now” was getting airplay in late 1970, I was still catching up with the Beatles and the Guess Who. A little more than a year later, when another version of “Fire and Water” got some attention, I was spending my time trying to catch up with Bob Dylan and the Doors. So I never dug too deeply into Free’s music (although “All Right Now” did end up on 2010’s Ultimate Jukebox).

That second version of “Fire and Water” – the one I heard first – is one I found this morning through the Billboard Hot 100 for January 15, 1972, forty years ago this week. There, sitting at No. 37, was Wilson Pickett’s cover of “Fire and Water,” which was pulled from Pickett’s 1971 album Don’t Knock My Love.

Having listened to the two versions several times this morning, I still have no clue how Pickett managed to hear the R&B record sitting inside Free’s crunchy chords. But Pickett confounded me – and others, I assume – with other intriguing covers over the years, most notably his unlikely take on the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” (after some encouragement from Duane Allman, or so the story goes) and his even more unlikely version of Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come.”

From what I can tell, there aren’t many other covers of “Fire and Water.” A glance at All-Music Guide and at the website Secondhandsongs finds listings for versions by Far Corporation, Joe Lynn Turner, Great White, Pat Travers, Joe Moss, Michael Burks and a few more. I’ve listened to some of those and not found anything nearly as intriguing as Pickett’s version. And it’s worth noting that when Pickett’s cover of “Fire and Water” peaked at No. 24 in early 1972, it was the last of his sixteen Top 40 hits. (The record also hit the R&B Top 40, spending two weeks at No. 2 on that chart.)

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One Response to “‘To Make A Poor Man’s Heart Break . . .’”

  1. Paco Malo says:

    I loved “All Right Now” so much I bought the album, so I knew Fire and Water immediately. My introduction to Free was also my introduction to the category I just put up a post at my blog on: Great Rock Vocalists. I’m writing about Peter Wolf and Jagger, and you weigh in with Paul Rodgers. Way cool Echoes, bro’.

    Free, as you know, was the band Paul Rodgers broke out with. In my rating system, Rodgers ranks as the best rock voice ever. Jagger is second and Peter Wolf in the top ten. And I haven’t even mentioned the ladies division (Chrissie Hynde and her sisters).

    “It All Right, Now.” “Fire and Water, gonna make you their daughter” “In the Midnight Hour”. Thanks for the memories whiteray.

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