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It’s perhaps fitting that a song about fidelity should take a long time to become a hit. The story behind Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together” could well be called “I’m sticking at it”, even if the composer might not have appreciated being reminded of his travails. In one form or another, the track has had such stickability — with versions by artists from Bryan Ferry to Dwight Yoakam, and Canned Heat to KT Tunstall — it’s a surprise it wasn’t used as an anti-Brexit anthem in the UK’s EU referendum.
Harrison was a second world war navy veteran turned R&B journeyman. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he had achieved a US number one in 1959 with “Kansas City”. That song is notable, too, for being among the earliest collaborations by the songwriting team Leiber and Stoller (they wrote it in 1952), who later provided Elvis with much of his finest material.
Harrison probably intended “Let’s Stick Together” as his follow-up single, but a contract dispute prevented him from releasing it while his star was in the ascendant. Lyrically, “Kansas City” is all about chasing skirt; by contrast, “Let’s Stick Together” deals with the reality of settling down. Harrison declaims the need to stay the course in marriage — largely for the sake of the kids — over rumbustious rhythm and blues. It’s raw and compelling, with some piercing harmonica playing (Bob Dylan doubtless took note, as his cover on the much-maligned Down in the Groove album of 1988 would attest). Belatedly put out in 1962, however, Harrison’s song failed to chart.
Eight years and alternative lyrics later, he finally got somewhere with it. Even then, Harrison was soon overshadowed. Using the same tune, he had reworked the song as “Let’s Work Together”, a suitable sentiment during the Age of Aquarius. It came to the attention of the band Canned Heat, famous for getting the hippies dancing at Woodstock. The band’s founders, Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson and Bob “The Bear” Hite, were an odd couple of blues aficionados: one a skinny scholar, the other a record-store guy who fancied himself as Howlin’ Wolf. They insisted their release be delayed once Harrison looked likely to have a hit with his own version.
Harrison’s “Let’s Work Together” peaked at number 32 in the US in February 1970. Canned Heat’s rabble-rousing rendition, with Wilson coaxing a fantastically gritty and fuzzy tone from his slide guitar, only went six places better in the US that November, but was a UK number two and huge in Europe and Australia. It would be resurrected in the movie Forrest Gump (1994), decades after Wilson, a sensitive proto-environmentalist, and Hite, a bulky man with a large appetite, had lost their lives at 27 and 38 respectively. Drug abuse played a part in both their deaths. Canned Heat, remarkably, boogie on as a live act, the tireless drummer “Fito” de la Parra the only original member still going.
The next incarnation of “Let’s Stick Together” couldn’t have been more different, slipping into a suit and tie to become Bryan Ferry’s biggest solo hit in the UK. It was 1976. Chris Mercer’s sax was sultry and Jerry Hall sexily seductive in the video. If Ferry was singing the song for her, it didn’t do the trick. The leggy model was soon to leave him for Mick Jagger.
The best subsequent version of “Let’s Work Together” came in 1990, with the country musician Dwight Yoakam giving it a meaty twang and a side order of Hammond organ; the most bizarre is the Leningrad Cowboys’ 1994 effort, sounding like a Nordic Nick Cave backed by the Munsters. “Let’s Stick Together”, meanwhile, had a bracing makeover in 2007 by the Scottish folk-rocker KT Tunstall, channelling her inner Bonnie Raitt for an album celebrating the 40th anniversary of BBC Radio 1.
Like many relationships, the song has had its ups and downs, but it remains a keeper.
Photograph: Petra Niemeier — K & K/Redfern