If you listened to the radio in 1960s America you were sure to hear two things: catchy pop songs and the polished acts that sent them soaring up the charts. Songs were hammered out amidst slick high rises in the big city, before being passed onto the artists who were responsible for making them sell. Doris Troy changed the rules, when her self-penned “Just One Look” took off in 1963, making her one of the first women to both write and record a charting song.
Doris had the unlikely fortune of being discovered by James Brown, while she worked as an usherette at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater. At the time, she was writing and performing under the name of
Doris Payne. After cutting a demo, she began shopping it around, starting with Sue Records. Unfortunately for Sue, they had lost ground in the R&B stream to bigger soul labels like Atlantic, Stax and Motown. Their lack of response to “Just One Look” caused Doris to bring her demo to Jerry Wexler, of Atlantic.
Wexler and everyone else went crazy. Immediately, plans were made to rush release “Just One Look” as a single, but since Doris was currently on the road with Chuck Jackson, she had no time to come back and recut it. The version the world came to know and love was the original demo she cut on a shoestring budget. From the moment that walking piano bass line is met by the riffing guitar and free-falling, high octave piano chords, the listener is in a soul-drenched pop heaven. Doris’ low mezzo voice dips down into the depths, before reaching high into an ecstatic cry, as the first line comes screaming at the audience. It’s a well-crafted pop line about instant attraction; the message is as direct as a clarion call, but the thing that really makes it is Troy’s vocal line. The melody takes an otherwise plain line and turns it into a memorable piece of pop that you can’t get out of your ears. You may have no idea where you’ve heard it before, or what exactly she’s saying, but when she hits that first phrase, you want to hear it again and again.
“Just one look, and I play online blackjack 21 fell so ha-a-aaaarrrrrdddd in love with yooouuuuuuuuu! Oh, oh! Oh, oh!”
It’s also important to know that this was a demo, not intended for radio play. This was meant to be shown to record labels, with the hopes of getting it re-cut professionally and released for radio play. Yet, had it been redone, some of the primal rawness of her scream would have been lost. When she hits those high notes, she’s actually topping out the mic she’s singing into, giving a small amount of tinny feedback on top. The overall mix is great, but had it been recut by Atlantic, some of the rough edges would have been smoothed out, pushed back, other things enhanced, etc. The brightness and raw edge would have been missed, and in my mind, those are the things that make this song stand out.
Though Doris didn’t find lasting success in America, “Just One Look” climbed to #10 on the Billboard charts in 1963. Her true fan base was in the UK, where Brit pop/rock band The Hollies recut “Just One Look” in 1964, sending it to the #2 spot in Britain and eventually #44 on the American charts. In the years since its original release, it has subsequently been covered by Anne Murray, Linda Ronstadt Lynda Carter, Lulu, Harry Nilsson and others.
I think it’s important to note, that although you would expect to hear this song in the same itunes playlist as Ray Charles and Etta James, when I recently created a Genius Mix using “Just One Look”, other artists that appeared in the mix were Buddy Holly, The Allman Brothers, The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and The Velvet Underground, cementing the fact that this song was instrumental in bridging the gap between Pop and R&B, even before the Philadelphia sound of the 70s.
Between Buddy Holly’s plane crash and Bob Dylan’s emergence as our newest folk hero, a slew of girl groups and one hit wonders kept our feet tapping along with the beat. Though most of them weren’t ever responsible for putting pen to paper, Doris Troy stands out as a trailblazer for female singer/songwriters. Unbeknownst to her, “Just One Look” would become an important piece of America’s vivid musical patchwork quilt.