Soul Serenade: William DeVaughn, “Be Thankful For What You Got”
It’s been a rough week. It actually began last Friday when I woke up in the middle of the night violently ill. It must have been something I ate. I spent the weekend lying in bed literally staring into space, and head still hasn’t fully cleared.
When Monday rolled around I had to start working on my stories for the newspaper I write for, but my heart wasn’t in it, and I put a lot of the work off. The Wednesday morning deadline is not a suggestion however, so Tuesday became a flurry of interviews, followed by the actual writing. By Tuesday night the work was done, but I was exhausted. This column, which I write on Wednesdays, was still ahead of me and ideas were hard to come by.
I happened to be speaking to my old friend Jerry last night. Jerry has had some health issues recently, and he’s recovering from some serious surgery. He’s a terrific musician, and knows a lot about the subject. So I made a simple request: name a classic soul song. The one he came up with was perfect. Here’s a guy who has had a rough time, and the song he chose was one called “Be Thankful For What You Got”. It showed me that his head is in the right place as he recovers, and it reminded me that we should all be counting our blessings because we never know what life is going to bring us.
William DeVaughn was born in Washington, DC in 1948 and as an adult he worked as a government employee. He had written a song called “A Cadillac Don’t Come Easy,” but then rewrote it as “Be Thankful For What You Got.” It was recorded in the legendary Sigma Sound studios in Philadelphia featuring members of MFSB including Norman Harris on guitar, Earl Young on drums, bass player Ron Baker, and Vince Montana on vibes.
A deal was made and the record was released on Roxbury Records in 1974. “Be Thankful For What You Got” skyrocketed to #1 on the R&B chart and #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, selling a million copies. The song’s inspirational lyrics and smooth groove led many people to think that it was a Curtis Mayfield record, a view that is still widely held.
“Be Thankful For What You Got” has inspired a number of cool covers, including versions by Arthur Lee and Love in 1974, Massive Attack in 1991, and Yo La Tengo in 1997. It has also been sampled by hip-hop luminaries like NWA (“Gangsta Gangsta”), Ludacris (“Diamonds in the Back”), and Ice Cube (“Stand Tall”). “Be Thankful” even got a shout-out from Parliament-Funkadelic on “P. Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up).”
So the next time that you’re facing some adversity in your life like my friend Jerry is, remember the words of William DeVaughn:
Though you may not drive a great big Cadillac
Gangsta whitewalls, TV antennas in the back
You may not have a car at all
But remember brothers and sisters
You can still stand tall
Just be thankful for what you got.
Diamond in the back, sunroof top
Diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean