I recently was invited to see the Broadway show about The Temptations, Ain’t Too Proud’. It was no surprise that there were a lot of great songs in it. Included was a favorite of mine (and many people): “Just My Imagination.”
While enjoying this song, I was struck by the power of its story, relative to its Chorus. What a good example this song is of taking a wonderful Title and finding a strong position (in the Verses) from which to set it up… which to me is, once you’ve got your Title, the biggest lyric challenge .
Think about it…It’s 1970. You’re Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. You have a Title you like—Just My Imagination. How will you approach it from the Verse?
Since it’s a Motown song, it will almost definitely be some kind of love song, boy meets girl or vice versa (given the era). It could be an upbeat song about how “I used my imagination to bring us together.” It could be about how “I’m with another girl, but in my imagination I’m thinking of you.” They could’ve gone in any number of different directions.
The approach lyricist Barrett Strong chose is beautiful and interesting. First Verse (opening the song):
Each day through my window I watch her as she passes by
I say to myself you’re such a lucky guy,
To have a girl like her is truly a dream come true
Out of all the fellows in the world she belongs to you
Then the Chorus turns everything around:
But it was
Just My Imagination,
Runnin’ away with me.
It was Just My Imagination
Runnin’ away with me.
We’re inside the guy’s head as he tells himself the story of the two of them together…a story that’s pure fantasy.
Who hasn’t done that? It’s a bold choice that works brilliantly.
Whitfield’s soulful arrangement is as much Brill Building/Atlantic Records of a few years earlier (records like Spanish Harlem) as it is Motown. But “Just My Imagination” takes bigger chances than those songs (not saying it’s better…)
The chords are very simple and repetitive. But the melody is about as far as a pop song can get from being simple and repetitive.
Soon we’ll be married and raise a family
A cozy little home out in the country with two children maybe three.
I tell you I can visualize it all
This couldn’t be a dream for too real it all seems.
The melody and the scan of the lyric is different from that of Verse 1 (even some of the rhymes are in a different place). A very unusual move for a song of its time. Far from breaking the mood and the flow, though, they’ve only enhanced it with a melody that’s even more dream-like than Verse 1’s.
After Chorus 2 and a brief instrumental interlude…the song doesn’t go a 3rd Verse…it doesn’t go to another repeat of the Chorus. It doesn’t even go to what I’d call a Bridge (which would imply a change of mood in some way).
Next the song goes to a whole new part…A painfully vulnerable and sad hymn-like section where the music and lyrics blend to bring the song to a climax that’s all the more chilling for being so understated.
This section stays within the feeling of the rest of the song, but it digs even deeper.
Ev’ry night on my knees I pray
Dear Lord, hear my plea
Don’t ever let another take her love from me
Or I would surely die
Her love is heavenly
When her arms enfold me I hear a tender rhapsody
But in reality
She doesn’t even know me…
Just My Imagination…
Norman Whitfield was a great songwriter. Along with writing many hits with collaborators such as Eddie Holland, of Holland-Dozier-Holland (with whom he wrote “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “I’m Losing You,” and others), Whitfield paired with Barrett Strong to write monumental classics like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Cloud Nine,” “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “War,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”… and “Just My Imagination.” Yow!
“Just My Imagination” also reinforces a point I’ve made before: A strong and simple Chorus can buy a songwriter a lot of freedom in the other sections of the song.
This article originally appeared on tonyconniff.com