Giving S.F. a Little Sign

Lowrider soul legend Brenton Woods tells the stories behind his most famous songs.

Back in the day, Brenton Wood was a ladies’ man. The soul singer — renowned for his classic ’60s hits like “Gimme Little Sign” and “Oogum Boogum” — had a knack for crooning about love, relationships, and the spellbinding charms of women in high-heeled boots and hip-hugger suits.

“[I wrote about] how you feel when you first meet a girl that you like, how stupid you feel,” Wood tells SF Weekly.

“You break up, go back together, make all the telephone calls, your heart’s going pound, pound, pound. It’s all human nature.”

Wood’s easy insight into romance might be the reason his piano-forward, light-hearted hits have stuck with lovers across generations. It’s also why, at 75, he’s still touring and selling out shows, like his upcoming performances at Slim’s on Thursday, Feb. 9, and Friday, Feb. 10, which will mark his first S.F. appearances in years.

Wood grew up in Compton in the 1940s and started singing and playing the piano, as well as collaborating with local, one-off bands. In the mid-’50s, he signed to Double Shot Records, but although he released a steady stream of singles, he didn’t land a hit until 1967. “Oogum Boogum,” a poppy, tongue-twister with Smokey Robinson-like vocals about a spellbinding woman, was originally written by Double Shot.

“I thought it was corny, so I rewrote the whole story, and I put in the fashion change that was happening at the time: bell-bottom pants, miniskirts, hot pants,” Wood says.

At the time that “Oogum Boogum” came out, Wood was working as an overhead crane operator at Harvey Aluminum in Torrance, where he would have long stretches of time with nothing to do. He rewrote “Oogum Boogum” in his employer’s cafeteria in about six weeks.

The track hit No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and No. 19 on the R&B charts, and the singer-songwriter started studying how to make more hits. Wood would listen to local radio stations and teach himself how to make music that would get airtime and sell.

His next single on Double Shot, “Gimme Little Sign,” cracked the Top 10 on Billboard and has since been covered by the likes of Ricky Nelson and L.A. rocksteady band Hepcat, and also sampled by the iconic hip-hop pro-woman, I had a lot of girlfriends. [But] sometimes one is more serious than the other, so you write about stuff like that and then people relate to it.”

Wood’s streak continued, and he released more hits, including “Baby You Got It” (the B-side to “Oogum Boogum”), “Some Got It, Some Don’t,” and “Me and You,” in 1968. Wood says he was seeing seven women in those days, some of whom served as inspiration, while others were early sounding boards for hit potential.

“I’d call these girls up and let them hear [my songs],” he says. “They’d direct me about what to talk about.” Wood’s goal with his music, he says, was to give his “homeboys a conversation piece to [use when talking] to a girl.” When they would slow dance with girls, they could mimic the lyrics from his songs, he says.

Wood’s life changed drastically following the ’60s. He went from working at the aluminum factory to touring regularly and getting recognized on the street. Yet, like many artists of the time, he never saw any money from record sales.

“I got shortchanged,” Wood says. For the bulk of the decade, he forfeited recording for touring, but he did land another charting single in 1977, a breathy disco number called “Come Softly to Me.”

Although Wood has since stopped writing songs, his hits and B-sides are still in heavy rotation on fans’ turntables, particularly in the Latino lowrider community, which favors love songs and ballads. Not only has Wood maintained his original fanbase, but he has a slew of younger fans as well.

“My fans have a tendency to pass what they like down to their kids, and their kids get more deeper and deeper [into the music],” Wood says. “They support me … and their kids support me … and that gives me incentive to keep doing it.”

Wood expects to see multiple generations of fans at his shows at Slim’s, where he will front a four-piece band and perform both his own songs as well as covers. He also plans on wearing one of his trademark zoot suits — of which he owns 14 in different colors and patterns.

The self-described “oldie but goodie” is confident that those who attend his shows will be able to take away one tangible thing from his music: hookup prowess.

“Every generation may have a girlfriend or boyfriend that listens to Brenton Wood music,” he says, “and that gives them a conversation piece — to get in the door anyway!”

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