Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

One for the Dance Floor: I’m Your Puppet by James & Bobby Purify

Song Title: I’m Your Puppet
Sung by: James & Bobby Purify
Released: September 1966
Recorded: 1966, FAME Recording Studios, Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Genre: Soul
Length: 2:59
Label: Bell Records (Bell 648)
Writer(s): Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham
Producer: Papa Don Enterprises

As I wrote in the introduction to this series, it all relates to song and those “… school-sanctioned social events, especially for those in junior and senior high school, … the dances they threw”. Finding a way for male teens like myself to get passed the notorious “ness” brothers — awkwardness and self-consciousness — in junior and senior high represented a big step. Especially true for one who somehow found the nerve to ask another to join them out in the middle of the gym floor to shake a leg.

Doing this with the opposite sex and to the beat of popular song, no less. Can’t minimize the leap this represented. The music of the time more than helped bridge the gaps, in this case culturally, even if songs weren’t contemporary. Then, there was the ever-fluid concept of identity I’d become well aware of in this period, too. All of this the crux of the following segment.

As I was raised primarily on my mother’s side of the family, was steeped early in what her parents wanted for their children and offspring. And truthfully it was mainly what her mother sought for her niños — assimilation1. Becoming fully accepted in the United States meant adapting to the everyday practices of the dominant culture through language and appearance. My early upbringing emphasized speaking unaccented English in public, and as my grandmother made clear, not dress like some cholo2.

Earlier in the century this would have been termed pachuco by those my grandparent’s age

Downplay the Mexican in Mexican-American the goal my 1st-gen abuelita3 sought. Why she moved her immediate clan from the unincorporated community of Florence, which lay on the “other side of the tracks”, to the blue-collar community of South Gate during the ’60s. Where better to soak up the Anglo5 culture than being raised right smack in the middle of it, even if we’d be a distinct minority there. Still, it would be much harder than she thought for the nieto4 that lived with her.

The Mexican-American culture in southern California is uniquely resilient as it has to be to survive in a more often than not hostile environment. Impassioned, too. A pocho6 like me was naturally drawn to it and wanted to be more Chicano7 when exposed to its ways and my peers when I reached junior high. Besides sharing a heritage, the expressions and musical traditions within its trifecta of social events I’d find myself attending by high school was also appealing.

The dance floors of house parties, wedding receptions, and quinceañeras8 primed for this.

The Saturday night celebrations of weddings and social transitions were found at the local rental halls9 in South Gate and its surrounding communities. And all one needed was a friend with an “invite” to get you across the threshold to meet chicas my age at these gatherings. Many of the house parties I’d attend were in the barrios10 across the tracks, including my grandparents’ former neighborhood, which mami would have had a sh*t-fit about if she’d have ever found out.

La Raza a Spanish expression for the people, the community, or literally the race

Now why did I select James & Bobbie Purify‘s greatest hit from 1966, I’m Your Puppet, for this segment? Because it is an oldie but goodie and very much rooted in all of this, and I have no doubt it’s still played and slow danced to (along with others I’ll list below) at events and dedications to this day. By young and old, which is dissected and analyzed affectingly in the Bittersweet Harmony article that underscores a tier of music and its role for those of La Raza:

“From the late 1950s to present day, doo-wop and sweet soul has been the unofficial soundtrack of the Chicano experience. Coming out of a landscape of racial inequality, Chicano lowriders found that these sentimental R&B ballads spoke volumes.”

Lowrider oldies, or just Oldies, is a loose category describing a certain sound that is inseparable from the expressive folkways that blossomed for me during this period. While not exactly Chicano Rock, which has its seeds in Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, even Country, these songs are of the low and slow variety. Having a tempo characteristic of songs found across half a dozen decades and genres, but most notably in the songs of the ’50s doo-wop and ’60s soul music.

Its lineage tied to the massive influx of workers to Southern California from the southern U.S. states and Texas to man the factories cranking out hardware for the war in the Pacific (1941-45). The introduction of new Black and Brown residents here skewed Los Angeles’ ethnic landscape. And with redlining11 in full effect, it segregated minority groups together, which led to greater intermixing of the groups. Again, from the Bittersweet Harmony article:

Chicano music historian Ruben Molina writes, “This ‘cool’ sound was gathering a ground swell of support during the mid-forties among Chicano teens and musicians who did not feel the same appreciation for ranchero and mariachi music as their parents did.”

Molina explains that alongside the Mexicans from Texas came “…African Americans from the South and from Texas, so they kind of congregated at work, and the music kind of jumped over. Rhythm and blues slowly became part of Chicano culture.” This would be on full display in the decades to follow in many music-filled12 get-togethers at some of the aforementioned rented halls or at someone’s home, with family and friends, and others like me who’d join in the festivities.

Bato is Spanish slang for “guy, buddy, or dude”, and always pertains to males. And Macho infuenced by both indigenous and European forms of masculinity, which results in heightened displays of bravado and stoicism

And traditionally at such bashes, the last song to be played was always a slow one, usually meant to cement bonds. And with males socially conditioned to keep their feelings to themselves, especially in Spanish-based cultures, the need to express feelings without having to say them required an outlet. Thus, batos could keep the strong facade while communicating their sensitive side to their partners through the demonstratively passionate ballads of Oldies music.

In this way, that last dance gave many a closing embrace of their longtime sweethearts and granted others another chance to know their new flames a little bit better. Or as the case may be, give some Americanized Mexican a few more wondrous moments of an experience they’ve come to appreciate. Getting one more slow sway with the latina they’ve enjoyed dancing with for the evening before heading back. Likely to never see that young woman ever again, sadly enough.

And I’m Your Puppet, written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham13 with its slow distinctive rhythm, splendid harmony, and absolutely yearnful lyrics epitomized all of this. Music writer Dave Marsh in his book may have summed it up best:

“All of them make it sound so easy, you can believe it’s all just a matter of ‘Pull them little strings and I’ll do anything.’ if the best definition of cool is that which never has to expand any energy defining itself, ‘I’m Your Puppet’ may be the coolest soul classic ever recorded.”” ~ The Heart of Rock & Soul [Songfacts]
I count all of this as one of key periods in my life that made me the person that I am today. And while I treasure that it better framed my identity, by my senior year of high school I’d move on in a different direction, musically. And while I was at it, take what I learned here and expand it further, culturally. To my grandmother’s chagrin since it’d again crossed the boundaries she had staked out. But for a time, this style of music and the people who cherished it would hold me close.

Oldies well-known to VIEJOS like me:

I Only Have Eyes For You – The Flamingos
Baby I’m for Real – The Originals
Donna – Ritchie Valens
That’s All – Thee Midniters
Angel Baby – Rosie and the Originals
Earth Angel – The Penguins
La La Means I Love You – The Delfonics
Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind) – The Delfonics
Yes I’m Ready – Barbara Mason
Hello Stranger – Barbara Lewis
Oh What a Night – The Dells (their original Doo Wop version)
Tears on My Pillow – Little Anthony and the Imperials
Ooh Baby Baby – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
The Tracks of my Tears – Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
When a Man Loves a Woman – Percy Sledge
Smoke Get Into Your Eyes – The Platters
96 Tears – Question Mark & The Mysterians
Since I Don’t Have You – The Skyliners (noted in another piece found here)
Then He Kissed Me – The Crystals (East Coast Goodfellas weren’t the only ones listening to this)
Suavacito – Malo (the unofficial Chicano National Anthem noted in another piece found here)

The entire series can be found here.

Pull the string and I'll wink at you
I'm your puppet
I'll do funny things if you want me to
I'm your puppet

Mm, I'm yours to have and to hold
Darling, you've got full control of your puppet

Pull them little strings and I'll kiss your lips
I'm your puppet
Snap your fingers and I'll turn you some flips
I'm your puppet

Mm, your every wish is my command
All you got to do is wiggle your little hand

I'm your puppet
I'm your puppet

I'm just a toy, just a funny boy
That makes you laugh when you're blue
I'll be wonderful, do just what I'm told
I'll do anything for you

I'm your puppet
I'm your puppet

Just pull them little strings and I'll sing you a song
I'm your puppet
Make me do right or make me do wrong
I'm your puppet

Mm, treat me good and I'll do anything
I'm just a puppet and you hold my string
I'm your puppet

Your walking, talking, kissing, loving puppet
I'm hanging on a string
I'll do anything, love you 'n' kiss ya

  1. “Cultural assimilation is the process in which a minority group or culture comes to resemble a society’s majority group or assume the values, behaviors, and beliefs of another group whether fully or partially.” 
  2. Slang term in my day (1960s-70s) that meant to denote people of Mexican ancestry who were low income, thought of as riffraff, and who wore stereotypical clothes; typically hassled by law enforcement for their appearance, too.
  3. Both my maternal and parental grandparents made the move from Texas to California post-World War II for a better life rather than being of “…a suspect class” in the Lone Star State. 
  4. Grandchild in Spanish. 
  5. A white American of non-Hispanic descent, as distinguished especially from an American of Mexican or Spanish descent. 
  6. Slang for a culturally assimilated Mexican-American; it is less derogatory nowadays — but the term has a long history and also means “spoiled fruit,” and is often used as a pejorative — and was not a label I or others wanted to be placed on us or have the peer pressure that came with it.
  7. Chicano or Chicana is a chosen identity of some Mexican Americans in the United States. The term became widely used during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s by many Mexican Americans to express a political stance founded on pride in a shared cultural, ethnic, and community identity. 
  8. The celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday marks her passage from girlhood to womanhood; the term is also used for the celebrant herself.
  9. Many halls included the American Legion, Knights of Columbus, and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). 
  10. The word barrio means “neighborhood” in Spanish, and in the US, the Spanish-speaking quarter of a town or city, especially one with a high poverty level. 
  11. Redlining can be defined as a discriminatory practice that consists of the systematic denial of services such as mortgagesinsurance loans, and other financial services to residents of certain areas, based on their race or ethnicity. Redlining disregards individual’s qualifications and creditworthiness to refuse such services, solely based on the residency of those individuals in minority neighborhoods; which were also quite often deemed “hazardous” or “dangerous.” ~ Cornell Law School, LII 
  12. Mostly by DJs hired or volunteering to keep attendees happy with the songs they craved and out on the dance floor.
  13. The duo also wrote “Cry Like A Baby“, performed by The Box Tops, and “It Tears Me Up” for Percy Sledge. 

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