Delirious desire

It’s easy to understand why we remember songs when we’ve heard them dozens or hundreds of times. But there are also songs that seize a permanent spot in our memory despite being heard only, say, four or five times.

For me, one of those songs is “Say You” by Ronnie Dove. It barely cracked the Top 40 in late September 1964. It was the last track on the B-side of Ronnie’s Right or Wrong LP — kind of a weird position for a single… The follow-up single, a cover of Wanda Jackson’s great “Right or Wrong,” and a bigger hit, was the last track on side A. (Incidentally, Wanda’s song is another of those I heard only a handful of times back in the day, but never, ever forgot — like “Say You,” it’s one of my favorites.)

“Say You” is a great-sounding Nashville record (maybe recorded at Studio B, like Dove’s “Right or Wrong”? Listen to that gorgeous echo chamber…). But I think what made the song stick for me was the vocal delivery. Even as a kid in ’64, I sensed something unusual in its emotional intensity, seemingly relaxed and frantic at the same time.

“Say You” is a fantasy (“I think you’re gonna be my girl”), but it’s not just some guy dream-dream-dreaming in the privacy of his own home. It’s a story with a real setting (a party, a nightclub?) and real characters: a guy named Ronnie and a “girl” across the room (we don’t know her name, ‘cause we haven’t been introduced). There’s the awkwardness of a first encounter: “I know we’re strangers, from different places… don’t be afraid…”

It’s all about desire, and desire is one of the most sung-about topics in all of music. Sometimes, though, desire gets expressed in a way that’s almost out of control. Delirious desire. (But more precisely, the feeling of out-of-control-ness is artfully simulated — this is, after all, art.) It has the emotional intensity (and the Bolero bridge, and the climactic high note) of a Roy Orbison ballad, but Roy’s voice is more controlled. Roy never sobs, even when he’s “Crying.” Johnny Ray sobbed. Timi Yuro sobbed. And Ronnie Dove sobs, after the line “I know we’re strangers from different places….”

I think what has given this song staying power for me is the sheer expressiveness of Ronnie Dove’s vocal. All the many nuances — the matter-of-factness of “my name is Ronnie,” the mix of self-assuredness and doubt in the line “I think you’re gonna be my girl,” the Elvis-like lilt of “I’ll treat you tenderly,” the evocation of a hallucinatory scene, almost swooning in desire:

Tonight, mister moon
Shines his light
Tonight, be mine
Let me hold you tight
Tonight your lips
Glisten so bright
I think you’re gonna be my girl

The background singers seem to provide a happy ending: “Say, you are my girl” — but is it real or are we still in the fantasy?

If you’ve forgotten this song, or haven’t heard it in a long while, it’s well worth revisiting. I recommend headphones.

Listen to Ronnie Dove’s “Say You” on YouTube