Son of a Preacher Man


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In the late 1960s British singing sensation Dusty Springfield (1939-99) signed to Atlantic Records, home of one of her soul idols, Aretha Franklin, in the hopes of reinvigorating her career and boosting her artistic credibility. She wanted to make a true soul album with some of the folks who made some of the finest American soul music at the time.

So Dusty went across the pond to Memphis, where the Memphis Cats, the studio group that backed many records by Wilson Pickett, Elvis Presley, King Curtis and others, and vocalists the Sweet Inspirations , led by Cissy Houston (Whitney's mother), set about making it happen. Oddly enough, though, Dusty's vocals were actually recorded in New York.

Dusty in Memphis was released in early 1969 and its first single, “Son of a Preacher Man," became a worldwide top-ten hit. It is considered one of the best singles in pop history. Written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins (musicians who were apparently lovers at the time), writers of “Land of Milk and Honey" (The Vogues), “Love of the Common People" (The Four Preps) and “Bring Us A Better Day" (Friends of Distinction), the song was first offered to Aretha Franklin, who turned it down.

The song found renewed popularity when it was used in a pivotal scene in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction, helping the soundtrack album to sell more than two million copies, Indeed, the song was so important to Tarantino that he said he would not have included the scene in the film if he could not get the song to accompany it.

The song was also used in the film Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room as ex-Enron CEO Kenneth Lay is the son of a Baptist minister as well as in several hip-hop samples and Dusty in Memphis was reissued in a 30th anniversary CD package in 1999 with a bevy of extra tunes.

A year after Dusty Springfield hit with the tune, Aretha Franklin released her own version of the tremendously infectious song, with a slightly different, more Gospel-inflected treatment. It didn't get the attention Dusty's did, but the British singer claimed to like Aretha's version better, adapting some of Ms. Franklin's phrasings in her own performances of the tune hereafter.

Many others covered the song over the years, notably Peggy Little (who had a country hit with her version of the tune), Bobbie ("Ode to Billie Joe") Gentry (in an absolutely terrifically arranged variation), Nancy Wilson, Tina Turner and the always exceptional Dolly Parton.

In recent years, Joan Osborne and Sarah Connor have also covered the tune rather nicely. But one of the best versions I've heard of late is Joss Stone's 2006 performance in a tribute to Dusty Springfield at a British awards show. Despite the nightie and no shoes, she really gives the powerfully addictive tune the fire and passion it deserves—though I don't think this one's on record:

Jazz has also given “Son of a Preacher Man" (aka “Son-Of-A Preacher Man") its due in soulfully instrumental performances by Swedish guitarist Rune Gustafsson (Rune At The Top—also on Atlantic), blues guitarist Mel Brown (Blues For We), Pat(rick) Williams (Heavy Vibrations), Gene Ammons (Brother Jug), Mongo Santamaria (Stone Soul) and, in my favorite version, Steve Allen—of all people!—in an Oliver Nelson arrangement on Soulful Brass #2 (Flying Dutchman, 1970), also featuring Mel Brown—but sadly there's no sample of the Allen/Nelson variation on YouTube.


Billy-Ray was a Preacher's son,
And when his daddy would visit he'd come along,
When they gathered round and started talking,
That's when Billy would take me walking,
Through the back yard we'd go walking,
Then he'd look into my eyes,
Lord knows to my surprise:

The only one who could ever reach me,
Was the son of a preacher man,
The only boy who could ever teach me,
Was the son of a preacher man,
Yes he was, he was, oh yes he was.

Being good isn't always easy,
No matter how hard I tried,
When he started sweet talking to me,
he'd come tell me everything is alright,
he'd kiss and tell me everything is alright,
Can I get away again tonight?.

The only one who could ever reach me,
Was the son of a preacher man,
The only boy who could ever teach me,
Was the son of a preacher man,
Yes he was, he was, oh yes he was.

How well I remember,
The look that was in his eyes,
Stealing kisses from me on the sly,
Taking time to make time,
Telling me that he's all mine,
Learning from each other's knowing,
Looking to see how much we'd grown.

The only one who could ever reach me,
Was the son of a preacher man,
The only boy who could ever teach me,
Was the son of a preacher man,
Yes he was, he was, oh yes he was.

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This story appears courtesy of Sound Insights by Doug Payne.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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