In 1967 Fenton Robinson penned and recorded a blues classic, Somebody (Loan Me A Dime). Unfortunately, it was released on a small Chicago label, Palos records, which had distribution problems and the record received little notice on radio outside of Chicago.
It was, however, known to someone involved with Boz Scaggs’ eponymous album released two years later in 1969. Scaggs’ album was an effort by Atlantic records to showcase a newly signed artist and highlight the talents of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section (including guitarist Duane Allman). The track, here simply called “Loan ME A Dime”, at twelve and a half minutes allowed “The Swampers”, as the group was known in the studio, to stretch out as never before being previously restrained to recording singles for artists like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.
Originally, the album credited the song to Boz Scaggs. For some reason this seemed to happen to blues and folk artists in 1969 on Atlantic Records – See Led Zeppelin. Somehow between Jann Wenner (the record’s producer) publisher of Rolling Stone magazine and Jerry Wexler (Atlantic Records boss who asked Wenner to produce) they couldn’t locate a copy of Robinson’s record which was less than two years old at the time, or even Robinson himself. Hmm.
Perhaps, someone, likely in management, thought that since the music had been rearranged it could be claimed as an original composition. I say likely in management because managers know that the songwriter keeps more of the money than a mere performer. Yet, a quick call to Atlantic’s legal department would have revealed that you could only claim an arranger’s credit and only after clearing the rights with the copyright owner.
The original does not need improvement. It begins with the turnaround. In blues, the turnaround is a short cadence at the end of a section, say of twelve bars, leading back to the beginning of the verse (I chord). It starts in F#, modulates down a half step to F and ends in Bb. It is spelled out again by Fenton’s lead playing after the first two verses are sung. You have to hear it to appreciate why it is such an effective way to open the song and break up the verses. Robinson’s playing throughout is soulful and inspired.
Robinson’s reading of the lyrics gives the impression that he has just learned that his lover whom he thought was unfaithful has actually been true to him. He is so excited that he can’t wait to call her but doesn’t have the right change to do so. He exclaims, “Somebody better give me a dime.” His excitement and joy are backed up by his exuberant playing and singing, as well as the major key and tempo of the song.
The version on Boz Scaggs uses an A minor blues pattern that gives the song a mournful feel. This interpretation suggests that the reason the singer is asking for a dime is that he is destitute. It reminds me of the depression era song Brother Can You Spare A Dime? While I think the arrangement misses the point of the lyrics the performance is top notch and Duane’s solo is a masterclass in blues guitar.
Boz’s version got some airplay on underground radio in the early 1970’s, largely due to Duane Allman’s involvement and the success of the Allman Brothers Band at the time. Thankfully, Fenton Robinson’s career got a second chance when Bruce Iglauer at Alligator Records signed him in 1974 and released the album Somebody Loan Me A Dime featuring a new recording of the title song as well as a Larry Davis song that Fenton played lead guitar on originally – Texas Flood (yes, the one Stevie Ray Vaughn later made famous). He also cut the original of As The Years Go Passing By famously covered by Albert King. If you have never heard Fenton Robinson, do yourself a favor and look him up on YouTube. Here is a link to get started: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07gSULP48i4