Earworm Weekly: The Jarmels’ “A Little Bit of Soap”

This week’s earworm reminds me of an old joke. It goes like this:

Person A, riffing off an old Billy Crystal routine: “You’re so dumb, you probably have no idea what band Paul McCartney was in before Wings.”

Person B, foreshadowing the future response of most Kanye West fans: “Who’s Paul McCartney?”

That said, the song in question this time is “A Little Bit of Soap” by The Jarmels.

Most people of my generation, however, are more familiar with De La Soul’s reworking of this song for their classic 1989 album, 3 Feet High and Rising. And, most folks younger than me consider both of these songs irrevocably dated, at least judging from a recent review of 3 Feet High and Rising by critic David Turner for MTV. One of Turner’s main beefs about this classic hip-hop album is its use-slash-overuse of samples, which kind of boggles my mind – yes, it’s a sound collage! Exactly! That’s the point! I guess “A Little Bit of Soap” could be Exhibit A in Turner’s argument.

I am quite literally the only person of my generation I have ever met who heard The Jarmels’ version before De La Soul’s, thanks in large part to my pre-teen obsession with a vinyl triple-album compilation my parents owned called 40 Funky Hits. The record is most memorable for its cartoon cover featuring a caricature of Stagger Lee (mildly racist or staggeringly racist? You decide), and, secondarily, for its surprisingly well-curated collection of ’50s and ’60s one-hit wonders and novelty songs.

40 Funky Hits was published by the infamous K-Tel of television commercial fame and is now apparently a collector’s item worth hundreds of dollars in good condition – which my parents’ copy most assuredly is not in by now. 40 Funky Hits was released in 1974, the same year that Dr. Demento’s radio show went into syndication, and was probably intended to capture the same audience. I would be willing to bet a small but respectable sum that, like me, at least one of the members of De La Soul also owned a copy of this album growing up. (As an aside, I suspect Ini Kamoze did, too – he sampled the earlier and lesser-known Cannibal and the Headhunters version of “Land of 1,000 Dances” for his 1995 hit “The Hotstepper” rather than the later, more famous Wilson Pickett version. It’s what a poker-playing sample-head might call a tell.)

“A Little Bit of Soap” was The Jarmels’ second single, released in 1961, and their only hit. Formed as a doo-wop quintet called the Cherokees in Richmond, Virginia, the group renamed themselves after a street in Harlem when a road trip to New York secured them a record deal.

The heartbreak is palpable in “A Little Bit of Soap,” the melodrama heightened by the dated-but-effective string section in the back, which is in turn seasoned by the sprightly and slightly Latinized percussion. The song was written by Bert Berns, and it was his first hit, as well, though he would go on to pen dozens more, from “Twist and Shout” and “I Want Candy” to “Piece of My Heart.”

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