Jesus of Cool: Six Degrees of Bo Donaldson

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music

When I worked at Billboard in the mid-’90s, a stroll past dance editor Larry Flick’s cubicle was a necessity — he sat near the door — as well as an adventure. His turntable was always hopping with a new house, trance, or hi-NRG 12-inch, and often he could judge a remix’s merits by the spontaneous boogying (or cringing) of the passersby.

One day, probably on my way to the loo, I was stopped in my tracks by a song that had long been buried in the recesses of my consciousness, yet it was spinning right there on Larry’s desk, albeit at a profoundly different tempo. Larry, unimpressed, looked up at me and said, “Want it?” And thus came into my life Saint Etienne’s 1993 remake of Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods’ “Who Do You Think You Are.”

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I can’t remember any other remake that has seemed to come from so far out of the blue — particularly because it was released as a single, and particularly because it wound up sprinting to #5 on Billboard’s dance chart. The song actually fit Saint Etienne’s groove nicely — the U.K. group, led by vocalist Sarah Cracknell and featuring a couple of music journalists, earned a living by putting an acid-house vibe behind what were essentially paeans to ’60s-era Britpop. Still, “Who Do You Think You Are” was hardly a staple of oldies radio, there or here; most stations reserved their one Heywoods slot for the band’s beloved/behated #1 hit “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero.”

To me, however, “Who Do You Think You Are” was something like the grail, or at least the first of many. As the legend in my own mind has it, I heard the song only once — on the radio, or maybe on the jukebox at the town swimming pool — when it was charting during the summer of ’74. It stuck in my eight-year-old head, without a band name — or even a song title — attached to it. And it was still there seven years later, as I was discovering the joys of hunting down old vinyl in used-record shops.

During that summer of ’81 my friend John (the Shooting Star superfan) returned from Puerto Rico with a radio-station list of every number-one song of the rock era, and with that list as my Rosetta stone I became absolutely obsessed with the pop charts. (These were the days before Joel Whitburn and Fred Bronson turned chart hounding into a publishing matter.) I would spend hours in the microfiche room at the Virginia Tech library, scanning decades-old copies of Billboard and tracking the rise and fall of various favorite songs. Somewhere in the “Jul-Sep 1974” fiche roll came the chart showing the debut of “Who Do You Think You Are,” and once I’d tracked its chart progress (only #15? damn!) I bolted out of the library and the search was on, a search that wouldn’t end until a year later, when the grail was finally located in a little shop in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods had been around for about a decade before they made their first big splashes in 1972 (a minor hit called “Special Someone”) and ’73 (when they were featured prominently on Dick Clark’s prime-time series Action ’73). That year they were signed to ABC Records, whose grand poobah, Jay Lasker, decided to build repertoire for their album the old-fashioned way — by poaching songs that had been hits for other acts overseas.

Bo Donaldson & the HeywoodsIn that sense, the story of “Who Do You Think You Are” actually is quite similar to that of “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero.” The latter was cowritten by the semilegendary British songwriter Mitch Murray, who during the ’60s had written Freddie and the Dreamers’ #1 hit “I’m Telling You Now” as well as Gerry and the Pacemakers’ “How Do You Do It,” which is now more famous as the song the Beatles refused to release as their first single (though their halfhearted version appears on 1995’s Anthology 1). “Billy” was originally recorded by the British group Paper Lace, which took the song to #1 in England; however, that band was having trouble finding a U.S. label during the winter of ’74, so Lasker rushed the Heywoods into the studio and released “Billy” three days later. Soon enough, Murray and songwriting partner Peter Callander polished off “The Night Chicago Died” for Paper Lace — apparently without bothering to ascertain whether or not there is, in fact, an “east side of Chicago” — so there’s no use feeling sorry for them. They finally got their own gloriously cheesy #1 hit in America, and we can only hope that eventually Murray and Callander picked up some geography and history books (Al Capone never was involved in a shoot-out on the streets of Chicago, either).

Meanwhile, “Who Do You Think You Are” had been written by Aussies Des Dyer and Clive Scott, and a recording of the song by Candlewick Green reached #24 on the British charts during the winter of ’74. That band had been winners on a British Star Search-type show called Opportunity Knocks, but it unfortunately only knocked that one time for them — they never had another hit. Still, Lasker and the Heywoods’ producer, Steve Barri, knew a good (and available) thing when they heard it, so “Who Do You Think You Are” was chosen to follow “Billy” up the charts.

All this chart action must have pleased Dyer and Scott, who had been floundering around for a while with their own band, Jigsaw. Their U.K. label hadn’t seen fit to release “Who Do You Think You Are” as a single off Jigsaw’s 1974 album I’ve Seen the Film, I’ve Read the Book, so they switched labels and agreed to record a theme song for the film The Man From Hong Kong, a martial arts flick starring George Lazenby, the one-shot James Bond. That song was, of course, the classic “Sky High,” which went on to become a big hit in England (#9) and the U.S. (#3 in the fall of ’75, and one of the first five singles I ever purchased). The only YouTube videos in existence feature scrolling karaoke lyrics — so crank it up and sing along!

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The Heywoods, Paper Lace, and Jigsaw all disappeared quickly from the scene, though you can still catch Bo Donaldson occasionally on the oldies circuit. (He’ll be in St. Paul on Friday as part of the Taste of Minnesota festival, on a package tour called “Original Idols Live!” with the Bay City Rollers and the Cowsills, and hosted by The Brady Bunch‘s Barry Williams. Who can resist?!)

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Oh, and by the way, Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods sang “Who Do You Think You Are,” which was written by members of the band Jigsaw, whose song “Sky High” was featured in a film starring George Lazenby, who also appeared in Kentucky Fried Movie, which also featured Donald Sutherland, who was in JFK with … Kevin Bacon. Boo-yaa!

Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods — “Who Do You Think You Are” (Amazon)
Saint Etienne — “Who Do You Think You Are” (buy on vinyl through Amazon Marketplace)
Jigsaw — “Sky High” (Amazon)