31 Days of Faves: Santa Esmeralda – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

#27 Santa Esmeralda – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Here’s a “Cinco de Mayo” special.

The tune was originally written for Nina Simone by Bennie Benjamin, Horace Ott and Sol Marcus in 1964. The Animals bluesy cover, recorded later that year would become a top 20 hit on both sides of the pond. But I’ll never forget the first time I heard Leroy Gómez and Santa Esmeralda perform it.

I was working at WVIC in the summer of 1977 when “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” first appeared in the Extra box, where records we though might be “hitbound” found a home. I was calculating the time I needed to get to the top of the hour and the 4:02 radio mix ended cold and took me right where I needed to be.

I read the notation about the length of the opening ramp and pulled out a promo card that came close to fitting the space. There wasn’t time to preview it, so I had no idea what to expect. The commercial set came to an end. I hit the one shotgun jingle we were allowed to play in those days and the opening hand-clapping filled my headphones.

Disc Jockeys will tell you that there are moments when the music inspires words you say. As John Lennon wrote, “It came through us, not from us.” I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember that I wished I had recorded an air-check that night. It was damn near perfect in a time when my on-air performances were far from it.

The phones lit up. “What’s that song?” “Who is singing this?” “Can you play it again?”

It felt that night like we had a tiger by the tail and I admit to breaking format to have a chance to listen to Santa Esmeralda one more time before the end of my shift. The production had everything that I loved: Great drums, horns, a catchy hook and a soaring lead vocal.

It was the height of the disco era, so what was thumping out of overly bassed sound systems at the local clubs was the 16:12 version, much too long and way too repetitive for my taste. Still, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, the Radio Version, peaked at number 15 in the US.

Years later, when I was streaming my pirate radio station to my friends on Saturday nights, I was surprised at how many remembered, and requested Santa Esmeralda.

Certain songs define our generation. And for some, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was up there with Vicki Sue Robinson, Cheryl Lynn and Gloria Gaynor. It far surpassed the formulaic Bee Gees and had every bit the soul of Tavares, the Trammps and The Brothers Johnson.

When I took the 45 to record hops, it was in the box next to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star” and “Too Hot Ta Trot” by the Commodores, three tunes that always filled the dance floor.