Fred & Ginger to Kanye & Jay-Z: The History of Collaborations
On the 12th July, Ed Sheeran’s surprise album of collaborations was released. In an interview regarding his choice to create an album with a whole host of other artists, he mentioned that one of his inspirations to do so was the Moulin Rouge version of Lady Marmalade, a song which features Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and P!nk in what is probably the best all-female collaboration in history.
It was far from the first, however. There are music purists out there who, in a time where collaborations in the charts are on the rise, long for a time when “musicians were talented enough to make a song on their own." In reality, this time never existed. Collaborations are not a new invention, and the first time the term ‘featuring’ was used, it was in 1954 in the UK Singles Chart. The notion of collaboration back dates even that, however. Let’s take a look at some of the most noteworthy collaborations over the history of pop music to see how they have evolved.
1937 - Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
The original power couple team up for a "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off", a song all about coming together despite our differences. The song is known for its "You like tomato / And I like to-mah-to" comparison, highlighting the actors’ different regional dialect and raising issues of class. But, more than anything, it’s just good fun, and holds a place amongst the history of great duets.
1967 - Frank and Nancy Sinatra
Frank Sinatra holds the record for the highest number of collaborations in music history, so it's unsurprising that some of them fall slightly flat. What is perhaps more surprising is that for one of his many collaborations with his own daughter, the aforementioned Nancy Sinatra, he chose the sultry harmony-fuelled love song 'Somethin' Stupid'. From a Freudian perspective, it's fascinating; from a musical perspective, it's exquisite. Overall, it's an uncomfortable mix of excellent music and questionable context.
1967 - Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood
"Some Velvet Morning" by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood is a track which is both completely bizarre and impenetrable yet also manages to convey the mood of the counterculture perfectly. The lyrics might refer to sex, to Greek mythology, to death, to drugs whilst the rhythm shifts between 4/4 and 3/4. It is a song of two distinct parts sung by two distinct characters with a whole host of imagery which is simultaneously beautiful, mysterious, scary and sexy. Pop duet perfection.
1981 - Queen and David Bowie
Two musical juggernauts collided in the early 1980s when Queen and David Bowie came together to record "Under Pressure". Often named as one of the best songs of all time, the song originated from jam sessions between the two acts (traces of this origin can be heard in the scat singing that can be heard throughout). With its accompanying music video interspersing images of Wall Street bankers next to footage of people queuing outside job centres and a few exploding buildings thrown in, the song’s political message was made abundantly clear, and with two of the biggest names in rock singing it, who could ignore?
1986 - Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C.
No list of collaborations would be complete without the genre-defying Aerosmith and Run-DMC collab, "Walk This Way". The song was originally released as part of the Aerosmith effort, Toys in the Attic in 1975, but it's the reworking by Run-D.M.C. in 1986 which not only helped revitalised the rocker's career but became a turning point in subgenre culture. Fusing rock and hip hop in the mainstream for the first time, it's this song which gives us rap rock, leading to bands such as Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys and Linkin Park. This collaboration made music history. It also marks the beginning of the use of collaborations to not only collaborate different artists, but different genres.
1995 - Coolio and L.V.
Sampling from Stevie Wonder, "Gangsta’s Paradise" is a song which redefined the sub-genre of gangsta rap for a decade. With lyrics about growing up learning how to survive on the streets, the song topped the charts in the UK, the US, Australia and a whole host of other countries, bringing rap to the mainstream. Coolio claimed that the inspiration for the song was divine in origin, stating that the song “wanted to be born; it wanted to come to life, and it chose me as the vessel.” When you listen, it’s hard to disagree.
2001 - Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and P!nk
Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and P!nk. Four names from all corners of the world of pop, rap and R&B come together to create a song so powerful it’s pretty much unanimously agreed that this is the best female collaboration of all time. A homage to women everywhere, "Lady Marmalade" features on the Moulin Rouge soundtrack and is so full of raw power and talent from some really diverse acts who come together to form a pretty good picture of what pop music sounded like at that moment. Oh, and it also includes a Missy Elliot producer credit and cameo.
2011 - Jay-Z and Kanye West
The lead single from the collaborative album between these two massive names in hip-hop is so much more than just the melding of two minds. It samples "Baptizing Scene" by Reverend W.A. Donaldson, "Victory" by Puff Daddy featuring The Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes, and makes use of dialogue from the 2007 film Blades of Glory, illustrating just how far collaborations have come on since the duets of the first half of the 20th Century. “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative” was a genius sample - it sums up the purpose of hip-hop lyrics and the meaning of this song, which is literally just about being in Paris. The Will Ferrell introduction is instantly recognisable, and this track is infectious.