Making me feel alright since 1990.
UB40 first burst onto my radar in 1988 with their ubiquitous single “Red Red Wine.” A song that had originally been released to great success back in 1983, it found a new US audience several years later, no doubt aided by the movie Cocktail. Also released in 1988, its blockbuster soundtrack and Jamaican location helped usher in a wave of reggae-tinged hits (most notably “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys). A Neil Diamond tune originally, UB40 had actually modeled their version off of a cover by reggae artist Tony Tribe. For the 1988 release, they added a toasted verse by member Astro, no doubt linking up with the popular burgeoning rap genre in the ears of US listeners.
UB40 has apparently had much more success on the charts with their cover songs, for their next big single in the US was another cover of a cover. The Temptations originally recorded “The Way You Do The Things You Do” as a peppy Motown love song back in 1964. With this Smoky Robinson number, the group perfectly captured the Motown image: dapper matching suits, tidy haircuts, and neat choreography combined with the group’s rich harmonies and the exquisite falsetto of Eddie Kendricks. This was their first hit single, climbing all the way to No. 11 on the Billboard Top 100 and to #1 on the then-Cash Box R&B charts:
Jump to 3:15 for the song in question
In 1976, Jamaican artist Eric Donaldson recorded a reggae version of the tune for his album Keep On Riding. The production is quite different, both from the Temptations and from earlier reggae music. Here, the sound is percussive, staccato, and sharp, each of the separate instruments easily distinguishable in the mix. The resulting sound, in which all the components work together but yet seem never to actually touch one another, is both densely layered and interestingly spacious. In a sly nod to Donaldson’s own breakthrough hit, the keyboard quotes his “Cherry Oh Baby.” It’s easy to hear the influence of this style on later reggae-borrowers such as The Police, even Bruno Mars.
And its influence on UB40 is undeniable. The British group’s version borrows liberally from Donaldson’s vocal phrasing and style, imitating the reggae-fied melodic lines and using the cover’s instrumentation as a starting point for their own version. UB40’s cover definitely works within the stop-and-start of the Donaldson, but is more tightly meshed. The extra percussion has been removed, while they’ve added a rich horn section and some backing vocals that eventually begin to answer the verses throughout the song. The instrumentation, narrowed down to the keyboards, the drum set, the bumped-up bass, and Ali Campbell’s lead vocals, thus locks in with itself in a different, more pop-friendly reggae groove than what is in the Donaldson cover.
As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t grow up listening to much pop music, but shortly before I became interested in Top 40-type music, we started listening to a lot of oldies music around the house, particularly in the mornings as we’d get ready for school, or in my mother’s car. The Temptations were a group I had had serious radio-friendly exposure to, and this song was certainly inescapable on oldies radio in the late 80s. UB40 released their album Labours of Love II (another covers album—the first Labours of Love had spawned their first hit, “Red Red Wine”) in 1989, and this single hit the top of the charts in 1990. I remember thinking of it as another affirmation that I was getting the hang of this pop music stuff. I had heard the original many times over, I was familiar with it prior to this cover coming out, so when I realized that this hit reggae song was actually a cover of a song I already knew, and furthermore that many of my friends weren’t familiar with the Temptations original, I felt like I was finally starting to put the pieces together. I could hear elements of the original as I listened to the new version, and I can remember comparing the two with regard to style and instrumentation, although I certainly didn’t think about it in quite those terms yet. I was more concerned with making sure I knew how these two songs related to one another, though, as that, to me, was information that I thought people who had grown up on pop music certainly must have known already. Furthermore, it definitely raised my awareness of the entire idea of cover songs, a genre that has continued to pique my interest to this day.
UB40 as a group hit their peak popularity in the early 1990s, and by 1995, with the advent of harder-hitting or more risqué reggae artists (Shabba Ranks, Maxi Priest, Shaggy), they weren’t as much in the public eye in the US. In the UK, however, they continued to record and tour through 2008, when lead singer Ali Campbell announced that he was leaving the group after 30 years. The following year, his brother Duncan took over lead vocal responsibilities, occasionally joined by reggae artist Maxi Priest. Not everyone was particularly thrilled with this turn of events, though; in 2011, despite selling over 70 million records worldwide, five original members of UB40 and former lead singer Ali Campbell were all declared bankrupt, and the following year, several members of UB40 defected, joining Ali Campbell in a new group called UB40 Reunited.