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It has been crooned so often to a warm Jamaican rhythm that it would be easy to assume that it has always been a reggae song. “Everything I Own” is seen as one of the great romantic ballads of the 1970s, expressing emotional loss in a tender, undemonstrative way. It appears straightforward: boy loses the love of his life, expresses deep regret, longs for her return. However, there is more to “Everything I Own” than that.
The song was written by David Gates, the singer of Bread, a group who were airbrushed from rock history because they were never hip or rebellious. Instead the quartet relied on Gates’ winning way with melodies and lyrics. “Make It With You”, “If”, “Baby I’m-A Want You” — these songs were part of pop’s furniture during the early 1970s. Bread? They made plenty; a compilation, The Best Of, shifted 5m copies in the US alone.
One of their hits was “Everything I Own”, which rose to number five in the US charts in 1972. It didn’t do so well in the UK, but the song’s success was just beginning.
Five months after its US release, genial middle-of-the-road TV star Andy Williams covered it. Barbara Mason, a Philadelphia soul singer, sang it, as did southern soul belter Oscar Toney Jr. In 1973, Shirley Bassey tried it on for size, but her version, in which she threw every decibel she owned at it, went unreleased for two decades.
“Everything I Own” started its unlikely parallel life as a reggae classic when Lloyd Charmers, a Jamaican record producer, suggested to one of his clients, Ken Boothe, that the song would suit him. Boothe, one of the most expressive singers in reggae, delivered it beautifully, holding back the power in his voice to produce a spine-tingling intimacy. Charmers’ arrangement, with tinkling glockenspiel and mournful, brass band-like horns, matched it perfectly. Boothe actually sings “anything I own” several times in the song, perhaps suggesting, having risen from the Denham Town ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica, that he wasn’t prepared to abandon all his hard-won chattels for love. Nobody minded this reticence: his cover hit number one in the UK and “Everything I Own” was reborn.
Taking Boothe’s version as his template, Boy George remade it in 1987, and it became his only solo UK chart-topper. Jason Mraz and Chrissie Hynde melded it with The Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” for the 2006 children’s movie Happy Feet, and that same year, Rod Stewart growled it on one of his numerous albums of covers. There have been interpretations galore but curiously, every one has been a misinterpretation.
“Everything I Own” was never a romantic ballad — not in the boy-meets-girl sense. Gates said that a friend approached him at his father’s funeral and told him: “Your father was so proud of what you were doing.” This so touched Gates that he decided to pay tribute to his father in song. The lyrics make perfect sense in that context: “You sheltered me from harm, kept me warm, kept me warm. You gave my life to me, set me free . . .” The love Gates had been missing was parental, not romantic.
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For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: Rex Features