From James Brown to Jimmy Dean: These 10 Artists Scored Spoken Word Hits (2023)

Initially due for release in early January, Lana Del Rey‘s spoken word album, provisionally titled Violet, has been delayed “about a month”following the disruption caused by a robbery. When it does arrive, half of its proceeds will go toward Native American organizations.

Of course, the Grammy album of the year nominee isn’t the first major pop artist to embrace the art form. Janet Jackson, TLC and Usher are just a few of the R&B names who have regularly interspersed their albums with spoken word interludes. Mike Posner released not just one but two spoken word efforts in recent years, while The 1975’s recent self-titled track consists of little more than the world’s most famous environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, delivering a call to arms.


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However, only a limited number ofacts have managed to chart with an entirely spoken word effort. Discounting anything that could be classified as hip-hop, as well as any tracks that feature an especially prominent semblance of singing (hence no Madonna’s “Justify My Love” or Paul Hardcastle’s “19”), here’s a look at ten.

Byron MacGregor – “Americans”

Where better to start than with one of the biggest spoken word hits, and a No. 4-peaking Billboard Hot 100 entry? Once hailed by Ronald Reagan for its comforting patriotism, “The Americans” was ironically the brainchild of two Canadians. It began life as a newspaper editorial by commentator Gordon Sinclair, who on hearing about an American Red Cross funding crisis, felt compelled to highlight the disparity between the generosity the U.S. offered and received. Sinclair’s powerful words reached a much wider audience when news anchor Byron MacGregor read them aloud on his CKLW Radio show and subsequently put them on record with musical accompaniment from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “Americans” reached No. 4 on Feb. 9, 1974, the same week that Sinclair’s own take hit No. 24 and two weeks before country star Tex Ritter’s version peaked at No. 90.

James Brown – “King Heroin”

Of course, “Americans” wasn’t the first spoken word hit of the 1970s. In 1972, James Brown had reached No. 40 on the Hot 100 by reciting Manny Rosen’s anti-drug poem over a suitably melancholic blues-soul production. Despite boasting one of the most impassioned singing voices of his generation, the Godfather of Soul often ventured into spoken word territory (see “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Don’t Be a Drop-Out”). And although his future substance abuse problems proved that Brown was very much a “do as I say, not as I do” kinda guy, “King Heroin” remains his most powerful monologue.

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Wink Martindale – “Deck of Cards”

Let’s go back to 1959 for an early spoken word Hot 100 hit. The tale of a WWII soldier who finds spiritual solace in a pack of cards (“When I look at the ace, it reminds me that there is but one God”), the recitation song was a hit in 1948 for country singer T. Texas Tyler. However, it was Wink Martindale, future host of game shows Tic-Tac-Dough and Gambit,who truly propelled “Deck of Cards” into the mainstream, bringing it to No. 7 on the Hot 100.

The Shangri-Las – “Past, Present and Future”

The Shangri-Las were always a little darker than their 1960s girl group contemporaries. After all, their biggest hit was a doomed love story that concluded with a fatal motorcycle accident. But set to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” the entirely spoken word “Past, Present and Future” remains perhaps the most unnerving entry in their melodramatic back catalog. Mary Weiss never explicitly states what exactly happened between her and the man she’s addressing (“Don’t try to touch me/’Cause that will never happen again”). However, it’s this air of mystery, not to mention Weiss’ impassive, matter-of-fact tone, that makes this No. 59 Hot 100 hit from 1966 all the more unsettling.

Telly Savalas – “If”

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A much bigger hit across the other side of the Atlantic, Telly Savalas’ bizarre rendition of Bread’s wedding dance favorite actually reached pole position in the U.K. But it also saw some Billboard action, peaking at No. 12 on Adult Contemporaryin 1974. Equipped with a booming baritone and backed by sweeping strings, the lollipop-loving Kojak star was no doubt aiming to replicate the sensuous late-night vibes of Barry White. Instead, “If” sounded more like a slightly sinister self-hypnosis tape than a bedroom jam.

Jimmy Dean – “I.O.U.”

After a decade’s absence, singer, Diamonds Are Forever actor and notable sausage maker Jimmy Dean returned to the Hot Country Songs top 10 with this unashamedly sentimental ode to the world’s moms. Strategically released just before Mother’s Day in 1976, “I.O.U.” also peaked at No. 35 on the Hot 100 as the nation’s most ill-prepared offspring rushed to their nearest record store for the most perfunctory of gifts. Unsurprisingly, Dean’s tribute to the sweet lady who “managed by simply doin’ without a whole lot o’ things that she needed herself” became a holiday favorite, returnng to the country chart in both 1977 and 1983.

Gil Scott-Heron – “B-Movie”

One of the leading figures of the spoken word movement, Gil Scott-Heron reached the Hot R&B/Hip-HopSongs chart eight times in his late ’70s/early ’80s heyday. However, “B-Movie” was the only such hit where the legendary jazz poet did nothing but talk. And as always, Scott-Heron had plenty important to say, even if it’s unlikely that many Republicans were willing to listen. Peaking at No. 49 in 1982, this state of the nation address took aim at the newly-elected President Ronald Reagan and those responsible for his unlikely rise to power, taunting the 40th with the witty zinger, “We would rather had John Wayne.”

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Faithless – “Insomnia”

Faithless scored four No. 1s on the Dance Club Songs chart in the late ’90s by mixing the euphoria of British club culture with a vocal delivery akin to modern-day preaching. But sleep deprivation anthem “Insomnia” was the only to grace the Hot 100, reaching No. 62 in 1997. Maxi Jazz’s hypnotic but increasingly frustrated rhymes (“I toss and turn without cease/Like a curse, open my eyes and rise like yeast”) may scream post-party comedown. But nearly a quarter of a century on, the house classic is still guaranteed to get the glow sticks waving (and “Insomnia 2.0” became Faithless’ fifth Dance Club Songs leader in 2015).

Baz Luhrmann – “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”

Fresh from reinventing Romeo and Juliet for the MTV generation, Baz Luhrmann then borrowed from its soundtrack — the choral version of Rozalla’s club anthem “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good)” —to score a surprise turn of the century hit. Contrary to popular belief, the booming voice espousing such words of wisdom as “Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly” doesn’t belong to the Aussie auteur, but voiceover artist Lee Perry. Nor is the legendary cult writer Kurt Vonnegut responsible for such advice – the lyrics were taken from a Chicago Tribune column by Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Schmich. But the various myths surrounding “…Sunscreen” only added to its allure; in addition to reaching No. 45 on the Hot 100, it hit the top spot on the Official UK Singles Chart.

Daft Punk – “Giorgio by Moroder”

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Having failed to organize a proposed collaboration for the Tron soundtrack, Daft Punk finally got the chance to work with one of their biggest musical inspirations on comeback albumRandom Access Memories. But instead of utilizing his production talents, the Frenchmen simply asked Giorgio Moroder to record a monologue about his early career. The result was a nine-minute electro-disco epic which perfectly synchronized the Italian’s anecdotes with playful musical flourishes. Despite its length and unusual structure, “Giorgio by Moroder” still peaked at No. 22 on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart, while also scoring a measure of success in both France and Sweden.


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