This Love Won’t Let Me Go

‘Angel of Harlem’ is a song by U2 recorded for their 1988 album Rattle And Hum.  The single charted #9 in the UK and it made it to #14 in the US.  The lyrics in this song refer to various New York City-area landmarks, including John F. Kennedy International Airport, WBLS radio, and Harlem.  It also refers to jazz-related history including John Coltrane and his 1964 album A Love Supreme, Birdland club which was named after Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Miles Davis and Billie Holiday who was known as “Lady Day”.  A line in this song says, “Lady Day got diamond eyes, she sees the truth behind the lies.”  The Angel of Harlem is Billie Holiday, who was a jazz singer who moved to Harlem as a teenager in 1928 during the Harlem Renaissance.  The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, politics and scholarship centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, spanning the 1920s and 1930s.

Holiday moved with her mother to Harlem when she was twelve.  She started performing in 1933 and she was one of the first black women to work with an orchestra working with Benny Goodman and others.  She was known for manipulating tempo.  Her unique and soulful voice was a gift.  She played a variety of nightclubs and became famous for her spectacular voice and ability to move her audience to tears.  She dealt with racism, drug problems, and bad relationships for most of her life, and her sadness was often revealed in her songs.  She died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959 at age 44.

This song is a tribute to the blues, jazz and gospel music that U2 heard while touring America.  U2 recorded this at Sun Studios in Memphis while the band was touring the US in 1987.  ‘Angel of Harlem’ was written during their 1987 Joshua Tree Tour supporting their fifth album where they became fascinated with various facets of American roots music.  They played two nights at Madison Square Garden in late September, (although the song mentions December) and U2 lead singer Bono said he was inspired to write this song.  They landed in JFK and were picked up in a limousine.  Bono said they had never been in a limousine before, which is surprising because they became renowned globally after their performance at Live Aid in 1985.  The limo driver was black, and he had the radio tuned to WBLS, a black music station when a Billie Holiday song came on.  They crossed Triborough Bridge (now renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge or RFK Bridge) and saw the Manhattan skyline.  This is not just a bridge; it is a complex of bridges that includes elevated expressway viaducts in New York City, linking the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx and what the Irish group U2 were able to see while riding on this absolutely amazing complex on their first trip to New York City, which probably took their breath away.  Bono had been thinking about Billie because a friend of his gave him a biography of the singer which fascinated him.  Another line in this song, “On BLS I heard the sound”, refers to New York radio station WBLS, where U2 heard the blues and soul music that influenced this track.

During the recording session, Bono learned the important lesson that alcohol and horn players do not mix.  He wanted to lighten the session up, so he sent out for a case of Absolut Vodka and gave it to the horn players, so they all could have a little laugh.  The late “Cowboy” Jack Clement a guitarist, recording engineer, bandleader, publisher, record producer, songwriter & talent scout who worked with Johnny Cash, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Snow, Cliff Richard, Ray Charles, Gram Parsons, Elvis Presley, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Townes Van Zandt and Charley Pride got an engineering credit on this song, but it was produced by Jimmy Iovine.  Cowboy came up to Bono and asked him how long was he doing this.  When Bono responded, “Ten years, nearly.”  The Cowboy said, “Ten years and you don’t know not to give the horn section Absolut Vodka?  You can give it to anybody else, but you can’t give a horn section Absolut.”  Bono was curious, so asked, “Why, particularly, the horn section?”  Cowboy said, “Listen, stupid, you try playing a horn when your lips won’t work.”

The song was recorded at Clement’s old stomping grounds, Memphis’ historic Sun Studio, as the band was exploring everything America had to offer, and by that time was successful enough to afford basically whatever they wanted to do.  It features the Memphis Horns, who recorded on many of the blues and soul classics recorded there.  When U2 asked him to work on this album, he had never even heard of them, but fortunately some of his friends were familiar with U2 and made it clear to Clement that working with them would be a good career move.  By using Clement, U2 was able to recreate the famous Sun Studios’ sound they were looking for.  The song also featured the Memphis Horns and organist Joey Miskulin, who is better known as one of the world’s premier accordion players and a longtime member of the old-school country-western band Riders in the Sky, where he’s billed as “Joey the Cow-Polka King”.

It was a cold and wet December day
When we touched the ground at JFK
Snow was melting on the ground
On BLS I heard the sound
Of an angel

New York, like a Christmas tree
Tonight this city belongs to me
Angel

Soul love, this love won’t let me go
So long, angel of Harlem

Birdland on fifty three
The street sounds like a symphony
We got John Coltrane and a love supreme
Miles, and she’s got to be an angel

Lady Day got diamond eyes
She sees the truth behind the lies
Angel

Soul love this love won’t let me go
So long angel of Harlem
Angel of Harlem

She says it’s heart, heart and soul
Yeah yeah (yeah)
Yeah yeah (right now)

Blue light on the avenue
God knows they got to you
An empty glass, the lady sings
Eyes swollen like a bee sting
Blinded you lost your way
Through the side streets and the alleyway
Like a star exploding in the night
Falling to the city in broad daylight
An angel in Devil’s shoes
Salvation in the blues
You never looked like an angel
Yeah yeah angel of Harlem

Angel angel of Harlem
Angel angel of Harlem
Angel angel of Harlem
Angel angel of Harlem

Written for Song Lyric Sunday where the theme is tribute songs written in memory of someone.

16 thoughts on “This Love Won’t Let Me Go

  1. Good song. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it before a long time ago. Nice write up about the song and Billie Holiday, though I don’t remember hearing any of her songs. 🙂

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