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Rolling Stones songs: Can I Get A Witness
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But it hurts me so inside/ To see you treat me so unkind/ Somebody, somewhere tell her it ain’t fair…
Written by: Holland/Holland/Dozier
Recorded: Regent Sounds Studios, London, England, Feb. 4 1964
*Data taken from Martin Elliott’s book THE ROLLING STONES COMPLETE RECORDING SESSIONS 1962-2012
Marvin Gaye wrote many of his own hits, but “Can I Get A Witness” was written by the famous Motown team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland. The title is a phrase commonly used in black churches and has a very spiritual connotation: When the preacher asks, “Can I get a witness,” he’s asking the congregation for affirmation, often met with the response of “Amen!” This song helped popularize the phrase.
All three members of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team had a background in gospel music. Dozier explained to NME in 1984: “That was the thing a lot of black people played; a lot of gospel music and a lot of classical. When I was coming up, my aunt played piano and my grandma instructed her what to sing in church since she was one of the church’s directors. My aunt played different classical music and I remember sitting on the stool and she would serenade me with these tunes and they sort of stuck with me, influenced me throughout the years. The gospel music on the other hand influenced myself and the Holland brothers because it was the thing you had to do every Sunday – go to church. Black gospel music was part of the lifestyle.”
They’re barely audible, but The Supremes added background vocals on this track along with the song’s writers, Holland-Dozier-Holland. The call-and-response style mimicked a church congregation shouting back to the preacher.
The Supremes had a lot of support from Motown head Berry Gordy, but no hits to show for it when this song was recorded in September 1963. Holland-Dozier-Holland had some success with songs like “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave” and “You Lost the Sweetest Boy,” but no #1s. That changed in 1964 when H-D-H wrote “Where Did Our Love Go,” and The Supremes very reluctantly recorded it. The songwriting trio ended up writing nine more chart-toppers for the group, which became the biggest female act on Motown. In 1973, Diana Ross – by then the “first lady of Motown” – and Marvin Gaye released the duets album called Diana & Marvin.
The Holland-Dozier-Holland team also wrote Gaye’s hit “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You.” With Gaye, they wrote songs in keys that were higher than he was comfortable singing, which got him into his falsetto. “We would stretch it a key higher, or even half a key higher, so it was out of his comfort zone and when he sang it, he could develop his own style and make the song his,” Lamont Dozier told Songfacts.
The Rolling Stones covered this in 1964. They recorded “Now I’ve Got a Witness,” one of the first songs Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote, at the same session, using the keyboard riff from this for inspiration. The Stones also covered Gaye’s “Hitch Hike” in 1965. Says bass player Bill Wyman: “Andrew Oldham was always pushing us to get us to do Motown things like ‘Can I Get a Witness?’ And he was right as well; he was more right than we were. And, of course, when Mick and Keith got into writing, the songs came out more like he was looking for. Keith was always more into Soul music than me or Charlie, and Mick loved soul performers like Wilson Pickett and James Brown.”
A cover version was a US #39 hit for Lee Michaels in 1971. This is the only other version of the song to make the Hot 100.
Elton John played this to close out his set at Live Aid in 1985. His performance from the London stage was a highlight of the concert.
From the Rolling Stones – All the Songs, The Story Behind Every Track book:
In addition to its religious dimension and the enormous subtlety and sensitivity of Marvin Gaye’s voice, the success of “Can I Get a Witness,” which peaked at number 22 on the Billboard pop chart in December 1963, rests on the boogie-woogie piano of Earl Van Dyke (a member of the famous Funk Brothers) Ian Stewart was one of Britain’s most faithful proponents of this style of piano playing. His role is therefore key to the Rolling Stones’ version, in which Mick Jagger is recast in the role of a preacher for the good cause. In fact, the Stones’ version relies even more heavily on the piano than Marvin Gaye’s. This gives it something of a Ray Charles flavor, despite being fundamentally more rock ’n’ roll. Jagger adopted a more rasping, bluesy voice with a rapid-fire delivery that makes him almost unrecognizable.
Oldham explains why. He suggested that the Stones do a version of “Can I Get a Witness,” but Jagger did not know the words very well. “I called Freddy Bienstock, who published the song,” recalls Oldham, “and Mick ran from Regent Sound to pick up the sheet music left in reception at Freddy’s Savile Row office.” Upon his return, Mick rushed straight to the mic “and that’s the reason the vocal on our ‘Can I Get a Witness’ sounds so breathless.”
The bass-drums duo lay down the perfect groove, and Keith plays rhythm on his Harmony 1270 12-string. Brian has abandoned his Gretsch and makes do (at least it is presumed to be Brian) with the tambourine. Yet Oldham, in his memoirs, mentions guitar overdubs. Does he mean Brian or Keith? Finally, the vocal harmonies are sung by Keith, Brian, and Bill. Hand claps can also be heard, no doubt overdubbed.
Categories: Can You Hear the Music?