Lord knows there has been no shortage of songs about failed marriages, going back to before the rock era and continuing to this day. Hell, you can’t swing a cat in Nashville without hitting someone who’s had a country hit or two on the topic. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” by Tammy Wynette may be the most famous example, and it is notable for coming out at a time coinciding with a national upswing in the divorce rate that would continue to rise through the 1970s.
Far more interesting to me are the songs about cheating. There is something extra special about the crop of really kick-ass good R&B hits about cheating spouses that came out between late 1971 and late 1972: The Golden Age of Adultery if there ever was one.
The songs seem to fall into a few categories, ranging from the violent revenge in “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” by the Persuaders (1971) to the self-blame of Betty Wright in “Clean-Up Woman” (1971); from the anger and disappointment in his sneakin’ so-called friends of the only slightly paranoid protagonist of the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” (1972) to Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s disappointment in each other, seemingly for not having an adulterous affair, in the more boring but pretty “Where Is the Love” (1972).
Which brings me to the real juicy stuff: the morally ambiguous adultery hits filled with longing, guilt, frustration, and yes, celebration of that special someone on the side. The two most famous examples I can think of are “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” by Luther Ingram (1972) and the biggest, most celebratory adultery hit of them all, Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones.” That happened to be the last #1 hit of 1972.
After that came a lot of chart-topping, melodramatic music by white people about adultery telling fairly complicated narrative tales from the point of view of a person scorned, and they of course end in murder. Very popular! I’m talking about the “little sister” (who should have just stayed out of it, as it turned out) in “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” (1973) and Cher’s “Dark Lady” (1974). Both were #1 hits. Props to the Amazing Rhythm Aces for “Third Rate Romance” (1975), though: a song about adultery by white folks that succeeds because it’s truly funny. Great song.
R&B adultery did make a nice comeback. In one of the more interesting of mid-70s pop music adultery phenomena, Shirley Brown famously called out Barbara Mason for messing with her man in “Woman to Woman,” a brilliant hit that charted in late 1974. “Now, Barbara, I don’t know how you’re gonna take this–whether you be cool or come out of a bag on me,” said Shirley in the long spoken-word intro to the song.
That’s not all. While Shirley’s hit was still on the charts, Barbara released her response, a song called “From His Woman to You.” I think that qualifies as “coming out of a bag” on Shirley. The two songs were actually on the chart at the same time, but Shirley’s did a little better, peaking at #22 (and #1 R&B)…so at least she had that satisfaction. I never did find out what happened to the man.