I think this song, by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, might be the best song ever written. It’s a beautiful melody, given superb life by producer Luther Dixon’s luscious string arrangement (over a cod-Latin beat which I like less, but Leiber & Stoller had made it fashionable) and the precise singing, but it’s the extraordinarily poised lyric that makes it so exceptional.
In 1960, you couldn’t talk about fucking on record, however politely, and get mainstream play and sales. There had been plenty of black hits, on the ‘race chart’, with overtly raunchy subject matter (‘Sixty Minute Man’, by Billy Ward & the Dominoes, was a giant hit in 1961, #1 for 16 weeks; before that there are plenty of unmistakeably sexual jump blues numbers, most notably by Wynonie Harris), but the white chart was different. This song says not a single word about sex, and one could interpret peerless lines like “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes / But will you love me tomorrow” as being concern about whether love can last, if you were so inclined. That was enough to get it play, but we all know what was really going on: I love you, but if I give in to you and have sex, will you still give a damn about me afterwards? It’s clear that they are going to make love – the “and I won’t ask again” line can only mean that – and I’m sure its audience knew what it was all about. It’s that delicate balance, a high wire strolled across with confidence and total grace, that is so special here.
Lead singer Shirley Owens (later replaced while she got married by a young Dionne Warwick) doesn’t have such a lot to offer as a singer or storyteller – the Shirelles gave us the first giant girl group hit, but she totally lacked the power of Darlene Love or Ronnie Spector, or the acting genius of the Shangri-Las – but her simple and straightforward, even somewhat flattened, reading is probably necessary here. A more overtly soulful or emotive vocal would have disturbed the equilibrium between the readings, and rendered this either insipid or unplayable on mainstream radio, and that might also have made the lyric seem hopelessly coy. This may be why most of the countless cover versions of this (a surprisingly large number of them by men) don’t come off, and I don’t suppose many people are trying these days, where the lyric would seem merely quaint.