David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 287: Jo Armstead (You Cut Up The Clothes)

September 28, 2023

As a guy who studied English and literature, I have to love a good figure of speech, especially in pop music, where the metaphor or simile is often the entire song. "Life Is A Highway," you ain't nothin' but a "Hound Dog," all in all you're just "Another Brick In the Wall," popular songs abound in figure of speech. However, it's rare when an artist completely commits to the trope.

My favorite complete commitment to an analogy comes from the little-known "You Cut Up The Clothes," sung by Jo Armstead, playing the role of Mrs. Washington in the 1972 musical Don't Play Us Cheap. It's not like I am some expert on Don't Play Us Cheap; I only scored this song from, ironically, Mojo Magazine's, The Score (which now has a score of 2 out of 284, given my recognition of this CD for turning me onto Moby's "God Moving Over The Face Of The Waters", Day 273).

Don't Play Us Cheap deserves a little more recognition if for no other reasons than some of the names associated with it. Armstead had been one of the original Ikettes from the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, while the song, the entire musical, had been written by Melvin Van Peebles, often called "the godfather of modern black cinema" (and the father of Mario Van Peebles). And one of the key cast members was Esther Rolle. Yep, none other than Florida from Good Times. In other words, this closet, so easily forgotten to history, is packed with a lot of influence.

From the little I have read, Don't Play Us Cheap mostly has a houseful of party-goers putting on records and then singing about what those records meant to them. Could there be a better figure of speech for this blog? "You Cut Up The Clothes" is the first song on the soundtrack album, so I assume it kicks off the whole show, making Armstead's "That's it, that's my song," spoken intro all the more understandable.

Then she gets to singing, following along with one of the most frolicking piano-playing ever heard, capturing the emotional violence that often accompanies a break-up:

You cut up the clothes in the closet of my dreams/

You pulled off the sleeves and ripped out the seams/

I got me a needle, got me a thread/

Cos' I'm moving on, moving on, I'm moving on./

I once lived in an apartment complex where the couple above me once had a very loud fight. At some point around 2:00 AM, all of his clothes came a-flying out of the window, down past my apartment, and into the parking lot. Within minutes the cops were there, the woman was screaming bloody murder from her balcony, and I couldn't help wondering why the discharging of the clothes was such a pivotal moment. I guess the emotional rift of any dying relationship often focuses on clothes, maybe the most visual (and visible) reminders of our feelings.

As usual, I digress. Back to the song: As the other guests start to provide more and more background vocals, Armstead, as Mrs. Washington, digs deeper into calling out the mad scissor man running through the closet of her dreams, tearing "out the lining and the buttons" and later burning "holes in the fur coat of the fine plans of our future." The only thing missing are cigarette burns on her lingerie.

I suppose any ensemble that features a woman who had to work with Ike Turner and Florida Evans is going to have strong women. The gospel nature of the piano and the vocal arrangements, support Mrs. Washington's affirmation that "if I said that I'll ever miss you," she sings, "well, I'd be lying." Predating Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" by six years, Armstead, realizing that "never ain't forever" and that she "now ain't got that time," can crow that she is now "wearing a brand new wardrobe of love." She is moving on.

Here's where I might have wanted to twist the figure of speech. I so long for her to be crowing, "and now I'm sporting the wardrobe of love/and, honey, I got nothing on. Cos, I've moved on, moved on." The sauciness of not needing clothes for a new lover would be so awesome. Maybe Melvin Van Peebles has a little more restraint that David Fleming. Then again, probably a lot of people have more restraint than David Fleming. Just not that woman who lived about me in Detroit.

Armstead, Jo. "You Cut Up The Clothes." Don't Play Us Cheap. 1972. Link here.

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See complete list here.