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Labi Siffre (born 25 June 1945) is a British poet, songwriter, musician, and singer most widely known as the writer and singer of "(Something Inside) So Strong", "It Must Be Love", and "I Got The", the sampled rhythm track which provides the basis for a number of well-known hip-hop tracks such as Eminem's breakthrough hit single, "My Name Is".
Early life and education[edit source | edit]Edit
Born the fourth of five children, at Queen Charlotte's Hospital in Hammersmith, London to a British mother of Barbadian–Belgian descent and a Nigerian father, Siffre was brought up in Bayswater and Hampstead and educated at a Catholic independent day school, St Benedict's School, in Ealing, west London.
Musical career[edit source | edit]Edit
Jazz and blues records provided his musical education: Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus among many. Jimmy Reed and Wes Montgomery loomed large as guitar influences; Billie Holiday, Jimmy Reed and Mel Torméas vocal influences.
While trying to become a full-time musician, Labi worked as a warehouseman in Bethnal Green, a filing clerk at Reuters in Fleet Street and as a minicab driver and delivery man. In the early 60s, in a Jimmy Smith style trio, with Bob Stuckey on Hammond Organ and Woody Martin on drums, Siffre, on guitar, played for nine months at Annie's Room, a jazz club fronted by the singer Annie Ross. He then toured as opening act and backing singer for Jackie Edwards, the Jamaican songwriter, soul and reggae star. Labi went on to form another three-piece group called Safari, playing London's Soho clubs. Then, though he did not play folk songs, his first solo gigs came in Amsterdam at the folk clubHet Kloppertje, and at the then haven of psychedelic hippiedom Paradiso. Most of Siffre's thirty-year performing career has been as a solo artist.
In 1969, while working in Amsterdam, friends sent a tape of his songs to the DJ Dave Cash and music publishers Management Agency & Music Ltd. (MAM). Siffre soon signed a publishing and management contract with MAM. However, since the MAM Records label was not yet in operation Siffre's recordings were licensed to other labels. His first contract was with Festival Records. His recording debut in 1970 was released in the U.K. on the Pye Internationaldivision of Pye Records. He had a "turntable hit" in 1970 with the single "Pretty Little Girl (Make My Day)/Too Late" which despite being heavily played on Radio Luxembourg never made it to the charts.
Six albums were released between 1970 and 1975, and four between 1988 and 1998. In the early 1970s, he had UK hits with "It Must Be Love" (No. 14, 1971) (later covered by and a No. 4 hit for Madness, for which Siffre himself appeared in the video); "Crying Laughing Loving Lying" (No. 11, 1972); and "Watch Me" (No. 29, 1972). Both "It Must Be Love" and "Crying Laughing Loving Lying" were released as singles in the U.S. by Bell Records but failed to chart.
During this period, Siffre toured Britain and Europe, both headlining and supporting the likes of Ike & Tina Turner, Daliah Lavi, the Hollies, Chicago, The Carpenters and The Supremes. He often appeared on television, including the series "In Concert" and "Sounding Out".
He moved to Los Angeles in 1977 and wrote with Tom Shapiro. Around this time Siffre decided to quit the music business as a performer and concentrate on writing. After nine months in California he moved back to the UK when, in 1978 two of his songs, "Solid Love" (performed by Siffre) and "We Got It Bad" (co-written and performed by Bob James) reached the UK finals of the BBC's A Song for Europe.
In December 1979, Siffre released 'One World Song' a duet with Jackie which received heavy rotation on Radio Luxembourg in the final week of that year into 1980. The lyrics of the song reflected a theme which has run throughout much of his songwriting; robust peace and harmony. Siffre had his first U.S. singles success as a songwriter when, in 1983, the cover version of "It Must Be Love" by Madness peaked in the Billboard Magazine chart at #33. Siffre appeared in the cover version's music video.
1985: Retirement[edit source | edit]Edit
Siffre came out of self-imposed retirement from music in 1985 when he saw a television film from South Africa showing a white soldier shooting at black children.  He wrote "(Something Inside) So Strong" (No. 4, 1987), an anti-apartheid anthem, a song of defiance in the face of oppression and bigotry, a song of personal inner strength and more. The song has remained enduringly popular and is an example of the political and sociological thread running through much of Siffre’s lyrics and poetry since the single "Thank Your Lucky Star" and the album "For the Children" (1973). It won the Ivor Novello Award for "Best Song Musically and Lyrically", and has been used in Amnesty Internationalcampaigns, a television advertisement and Alice Walker's film against female genital mutilation: Warrior Marks. His stance on civil and human rights has further enhanced his reputation.
Writing and poetry career[edit source | edit]Edit
In 1990, collaborating with the South African R&B, jazz-fusion singer-songwriter and guitarist Jonathan Butler, Siffre wrote the lyrics of five of the nine songs on Butler’s album "Heal Our Land".
Searching for expression beyond the "limitations of songwriting" he wrote his first poems in 1984. Three books of his poetry have been published: "Nigger" (1993), "Blood on the Page" (1995) and "Monument" (1997). More appear on his poetry blog "Labi Siffre - Into The Light". "In one of Labi’s poems "An Audience Request" he writes - 'show us the world / rub our faces in it / show us the hurt / and our place in it' – and that’s exactly what a poet should do" … Benjamin Zephaniah
"On first reading I found many of these poems to appear direct and simple, both in statement and in mode of address, but on looking closer I discovered that they were multi-layered, often challenging their own apparent stereotypes and preconceptions, much as Blake did in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It is his sense of being an outsider which enables Siffre to expose and yet understand hypocrisy and prejudice. His poetry is compassionate and often succinct and aphoristic" … PQR (Poetry Quarterly Review). His play, "DeathWrite", staged at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff (1997) was televised the same year by HTV.
Siffre released a new album, The Last Songs, on EMI in 2006.
Personal life[edit source | edit]Edit
Beginning with "Let's Pretend" on the 1973 album For the Children and especially in his poetry, Siffre has been and remains, a determined advocate for secularism.
Discography[edit source | edit]Edit
Studio albums[edit source | edit]Edit
- Labi Siffre (1970)
- The Singer and the Song (1971)
- Crying Laughing Loving Lying (1972)
- For the Children (1973)
- Remember My Song (1975)
- Happy (1975)
- So Strong (1988)
- Man of Reason (1991)
- The Last Songs (1998)
- Monument (Spoken Word) (1998)
Bibliography[edit source | edit]Edit
Poetry[edit source | edit]Edit
- Nigger (Xavier Books 1993)
- Blood on the Page (Xavier Books 1995)
- Monument (Xavier Books 1997)
Plays[edit source | edit]Edit
- DeathWrite (Xavier Books 1997)
Essays[edit source | edit]Edit
- Choosing the Stick They Beat You With (Penguin 2000)
In popular culture[edit source | edit]Edit
For rapper Eminem's hit single "My Name Is", hip hop record producer Dr. Dre wanted to use a sample (written by Siffre and including Siffre on electric piano) of his song I Got The for the rhythm track. Siffre took exception to the lyric objecting to what he describes as "lazy writing" (in the sleeve notes of the EMI re-mastered CD of the source album Remember My Song): "Attacking two of the usual scapegoats, women and gays, is lazy writing. If you want to do battle, attack the aggressors not the victims". This tune also featured English duo Chas & Dave who were at the time prominent session musicians.
Eminem and Dr Dre edited their song to get the sample cleared. Labi Siffre's original is available on his 1975 album "Remember My Song" (remastered on EMI CD in 2006) and on the 2006 EMI CD of re-mastered tracks "The Best of Labi Siffre". The song, "I Got The" is often incorrectly referred to as “I Got The Blues”, a title Labi rejected as being "a cliché too far". "Remember My Song" is also notable for the track "The Vulture", which enjoyed popularity on the British Rare Groove scene in the 1990s, particularly after its inclusion on the 1999 Capitol Rare 3 compilation.
Kanye West's 2007 album "Graduation" holds a song titled "I Wonder" in which he samples Labi Siffre's "My Song" from Siffre's album, Crying Laughing Loving Lying.
In 2008, Siffre's song "Down" was featured in the film JCVD.
Siffre's "I Don't Know What's Happened to The Kids Today" appeared on the second season finale of the UK TV series Misfits.
Cover versions[edit source | edit]Edit
- Olivia Newton-John (English-born, Australia-raised singer and actor) covered "Crying Laughing Loving Lying" in 1975 on her gold certified MCA album titled "CLEARLY LOVE" (catalog # MCA-2148). Olivia and Labi's paths have crossed more than once over the years, as illustrated by the fact that Labi and Olivia dueted on a live version of her # 1 pop hit "You're the One That I Want" (written by John Farrar, and originally featured as a duet with John Travoltain the 1978 film adaptation of the musical, "Grease").
- Madness covered "It Must Be Love" in 1981. The song reached #4 in the UK charts and #33 in the U.S. in 1983. Labi Siffre also made a cameo appearance in the music video.
- "(Something Inside) So Strong" was covered by Kenny Rogers in 1989 (and became the title track to a hit album). The song was also covered by Vanessa Bell Armstrong in 1988 and again by a host of gospel artists as a tribute toRosa Parks in the mid-90's. Also featured in the hit BBC comedy 'Gavin and Stacey' late 2009 where it was very successfully adapted into a Welsh chapel christening ceremony
- The Flying Pickets covered the song in their 1994 Album, The Warning.
- Michael Ball also released a cover of the song in 1996, which reached Number 40 in the UK.
- It has also been covered by Rik Waller in 2002, when it was released as a single.
- Fatboy Slim sampled Rosetta Hightower’s cover of Labi Siffre’s “A Little More Line” (from his 1970 debut album Labi Siffre) for the song “That Old Pair of Jeans” on Fatboy's 2006 album “Why Try Harder”
- Kanye West used a sample of "My Song" in "I Wonder" on his album "Graduation".
- Jay-Z sampled "I Got The" — the same song Eminem sampled for "My Name Is" — for his hit "Streets Iz Watching."
- Miguel sampled "I Got The" in his song "Kaleidoscope Dream", taken from his Grammy-nominated 2012 album of the same name.
- RJD2's song "Making Days Longer", from his album Since We Last Spoke, is a cover of Siffre's "Bless the Telephone", from The Singer And The Song. Siffre is credited as writer of the original song in the liner notes.
- Blank & Jones covered "Down" in their 2007 Chillout Album, Relax Edition Three.
- Joss Stone covered "I Got The..." on her 6th album The Soul Sessions Vol 2.
- Rod Stewart covered "Crying Laughing Loving Lying" on his 1995 compilation 'Handbags & Gladrags' (Mercury UK).
- Move4Parkinson's Voices of Hope Choir covered "Something Inside So Strong" in April 2013 to commemorate World Parkinson's Day. The song reached #1 in the Irish R and B iTunes chart.