Tina Turner once noted in an interview focused on her music that there is a big difference between “naughty” and “dirty.” She had always made a point of avoiding being vulgar — like so many hard-core rappers are today, but a little “naughtiness” now and then, well, that was a different subject.
Specifically, she was referencing a song she had just recorded titled “Steamy Windows,” about a passionate couple generating “body heat” in the back seat of a car.
If you’re going to talk about “naughty” — maybe a little raunchy too — you have to go way back, even to the term “rock and roll” itself. It was lifted directly from rhythm ’n’ blues and blues records. “Rock and roll” was a euphemism for having sex, and at one point in the 1950s a Cleveland radio personality named Alan Freed applied the term to the music and it stuck.
“I rock ’em, roll ’em all night long, I’m a 60-minute man,” sang the Dominoes in 1951.
A few years later, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters created a sensation with “Work With Me, Annie,” a sexually charged song that didn’t receive a lot of airplay for obvious reasons, but was still huge in the Black community. It fact, in 1954 it was No. 1 on the national R&B charts for an amazing seven weeks.
Believe it or not, Ballard sang these words: “Annie, please don’t cheat, give me all my meat.”
NOW, LET’S GO on an “adult lyrics” cruise, jumping from era to era. If some of the older songs seem to be “rated R,” give a listen to songs by R. Kelly, Usher, Jaheim and plenty of others.
Some stations wouldn’t play Eddie Kendricks’ great song “Get the Cream Off the Top” in 1975. It “kinda sorta” alluded to sex, but was not direct like, say, any of a number of songs by Prince during his “Sexuality”-“Dirty Mind”-“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” period.
On the one hand, Kendricks sang, “Come get the best that I got, it all belongs to you,” but in another part of the song he said, “Don’t be afraid to pleasure yourself. Don’t you remember how good it felt?”
Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle were never “nasty girls,” as Vanity 6 had identified themselves in another decade, but the Destiny’s Child trio laid it on the line with “Soldier” and “Cater 2 U.”
Luther Ingram made no attempt to do the right thing. He sang plaintively yet defiantly, “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”
Clarence Carter wanted a woman to “slip away without him knowing you’re gone,” so they could “meet somewhere we both are not known.” (But we are going to stay away from Carter’s lascivious song “Strokin’.”)
IN THE MID-1980S, Whitney Houston was soaring to superstardom, also widely noted as a former gospel singer and daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston (who had also sung a lot of R&B).
That being the case and despite the beauty of the song, Houston’s second hit song was morally bankrupt, with lyrics like these: “A few stolen moments is all that we have. You’ve got your family and they need you there. Though I’ve tried to resist being last on your list. But no other man’s gonna do, so I’m saving all my love you.”
And then there’s Marvin Gaye. He pulled no punches with his 1973 classic “Let’s Get It On.” Marvin practically bellowed, “You know what I’m talkin’ about!” He traveled that road many additional times, including “You Sure Love to Ball” (no, he wasn’t talking about partying) and “Sexual Healing.”
Teddy Pendergrass got women excited when she sang about “taking a shower together,” rubbing each other down with hot oils, etc.
BARRY WHITE was sometimes referred to as “the love man,” and with good reason. He created romantic scenarios in his lavishly produced records, always using a full orchestra, including “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me” and “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby.”
However, he went a bit far, almost comically so, with “Love Serenade” in which he said salaciously, “I want you the way you came into the world. I don’t wanna see no panties, and take off that brassiere, my dear.”
Diana Ross was all sweetness and elegance when she sang “Touch Me in the Morning.” But she and her partner knew it wasn’t a permanent relationship. “We don’t have tomorrow,” said Ross, “but we had yesterday.”
When the Temptations sang “Bare Back,” they weren’t talking about riding a horse!
Master songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson had a question they wanted to ask in one of their compositions, so they did. Sample lyrics: “Been a long time since you touched me. Been a long time…so I wonder what’s come over you. Seems like such a funny thing to talk about. I wanna know, give it to be straight, is it still good to ya?”
IN 1977 the O’Jays had an exciting single titled “Work On Me” that a limited number of people thought was too risqué. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but it’s hard not to smile when you hear lyrics like these: “Listen, girl, why don’t you scratch my back, make me relax. Why don’t you rub my head, give me a bath, put me to bed.”
One my coworkers got very upset when Billy Paul had a hit with a song titled “Let’s Make a Baby.” She felt it was irresponsible.
Sylvia (Robinson) wrote her smash “Pillow Talk” specifically for Al Green. He appreciated the gesture, but felt the song was too sexual. He said he couldn’t sing words like, “What I’m teaching you tonight you’ll never learn it in school.” So Sylvia recorded it herself and got a No. 1 hit.
Now that she is a born again Christian, Donna Summer only sings a small segment of her first hit, the orgasmic “Love to Love You Baby” that was loaded with moans and groans. (Which she says she felt silly doing in the studio in the first place.)
PEOPLE WERE a bit surprised when Stevie Wonder included sexual lyrics in his top-seller “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” In addition to saying, “I’d like to see you in the raw under the stars above,” he said, “I’d like to do it to you till you holla for more.”
There was no shame in Ann Peebles’ game. She sang bluntly, “Got nowhere to turn to, tired of being alone. I feel like breakin’ up somebody’s home.”
Rick James (wisely) never set himself up as role model. He had a record titled “17” in which he put caution to the wind and got wild and sexually loose with a teenager. “She was only 17, but she was sexy,” said James in an attempt to justify his actions.
If some of this story seems to tread on shaky ground with regard to lyrics and themes cited, look at it this way: We’re all adults, and as a friend of mine likes to say, “What is, is.”