Saturday, September 29, 2012

Time's Mysterious Passage: Penny & The Quarters' "You and Me"

Michelle Williams & Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine
In Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010), when Dean (Ryan Gosling) selects a song that he clearly hopes sustains the love between himself and Cindy (Michelle Williams), he's in a very familiar and popular movie tradition. That tradition includes Dooley Wilson calling up the lost romantic days in Paris for Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) when he sings and performs "As Time Goes By" in Casablanca (1943), or Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) holding his boom-box high above his head outside the bedroom window of Diane Court (Iona Skye), the girl he's smitten with, so she can hear Peter Gabriel's touching "In Your Eyes" in Say Anything (1989). The romanticism in these songs not only serves to enhance the desires of the characters on the screen, what you could call an urgent yearning in them to make their love work, but it also speaks to the way pop music so often captures the fleeting innocence of what it feels like to fall in love. While in real life, relationships change, the songs always remain the same, fixed in the time in which they were first recorded. And if the relationship falls apart, or especially if it ends tragically, these tunes can quickly bring us heartache. When they suddenly come on the radio – often in a flash – they remind us of who we once were, but are no more.

Along with his co-writers Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, Cianfrance in Blue Valentine seems to understand the ways in which pop songs can define the way we love. He underlines it by introducing the couple's song in a completely new way. And the song he's chosen has a fascinating history of its own which hauntingly mirrors the dashed hopes of the couple on the screen. Blue Valentine is a devastating and accomplished work, a heartbreaking film about the dissolution of the relationship between Dean and Cindy, but it's not told to us in linear time. Throughout the film, we jump back and forth and through the various moments in their love affair and marriage, those moments that are both poignant and ultimately wounding. Cinafrance nimbly contrasts those changes, too, even in the body language of the characters. As they both come to know each other, we can see in their bodies the eager and giddy anticipation of the sparks they hope to set off in each other. (It's there in the musical sway of their courtship.) But that eagerness is then boldly juxtaposed with the present, where the music is suddenly gone and a revulsion at being physically touched dramatically mirrors the ways in which their marriage is coming apart. In most romantic pictures, we usually hear the couple's song the first time they choose it, when it clearly signals the love they begin to feel for each other. And we come to believe in that song, just as Rick and Ilsa believe in "As Time Goes By." In Blue Valentine, we encounter their song early in the picture, but it comes late in their marriage when it no longer has any meaning left for them. It is, in fact, in a moment when Dean is desperately trying to get it back. Then we hear it again, later in the film. But this time, it's right at that moment when it first became their song, a moment that becomes unbearably wounding because we also now know where their marriage is heading.

In an e-mail exchange last spring with Amanda Shubert of Critics at Large, she correctly pointed out to me that Blue Valentine "[uses] the poetic evocation of time's mysterious passage to express the exigencies of love and companionship...the end of love is a kind of death...through the damning sense that we can't escape the way time saps the spirit out of us, wears us down, as we age and take our parents' place." That notion of time's mysterious passage is also present in the couple's choice of song: Penny & The Quarter's' "You and Me." You'd be forgiven if you had no clue as to where this song came from because it's very likely you've never heard it before. But chances are, when you do hear it, you'll never forget it. In the most stylistic way, "You and Me" doesn't tie itself to the contemporary story being told in this picture (which is scored to music by Grizzly Bear); its sound, the gentle doo-wop of the Fifties, doesn't even come out of the era it was recorded in, which was the Seventies. But the tale of how it found its way into a picture made in 2010 is as enigmatic as the drama it became part of.

According to The Other Paper, a young woman named Jayma Sharpe, who was studying in Italy, was having dinner with some acquaintances there. At this meal, one of the guests turned out to be a huge record collector who specialized in jazz and r&b. As they ate, he told this fascinating story about how an old demo tape that had been recorded years earlier in Columbus, Ohio, was gaining notoriety after being discovered in Blue Valentine. Recorded sometime between 1970 and 1975, the song "You and Me" by Penny & The Quarters, a group of Ohio teenage hopefuls who had been invited to do some demo recordings at Harmonic Sounds Studio in Columbus, were now getting hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube even though no one knew who the group was. But Jayma recalled that her mother, Nannie Sharpe, along with her uncles, had once been involved in Columbus's soul music community in the late Sixties. So Jayma decided to check out what she could find on the Internet. She discovered plenty. Nannie's phone soon began to fill with texts from her daughter. The mystery song that found its way into Blue Valentine had been sung by her mother.

Eccentric Soul: The Prix Label
When interviewed by The Other Paper, Nannie Sharpe recalled that "You and Me' was done as a one-take rehearsal demo and then put in a box for possible release in the future. (At the beginning of the song, as a guitar gently strums, you can even hear someone adjusting the mike in front of one of the singers.) But when the studio manager, Clem Price, passed away in 2006, the tape ended up being sold along with other recordings in an estate auction. The buyers were Numero Group from Chicago, a label that reissued rare r&b records done at small, independent labels. The owner Rob Sevier and his associate, Dante Carfagna, had no trouble identifying all the songs they had bought except this one box where, written in pencil, were simply notes that identified tracks one and two as "Penny & The Quarters." Numero Group released a CD, Eccentric Soul: The Prix Label in 2007, featuring all the songs recorded at Harmonic Sounds – including "You and Me." But given the unknown quantity of the material, the CD's sales tanked. 

Two years later, though, Ryan Gosling just happened to be visiting his PR agent's home in Chicago. Kathryn Frazier, of Biz 3 Publicity, also represented the Numero Group and so she started playing some of the soul CDs from their releases. The conversation abruptly stopped when Gosling began to hear "You and Me" billowing from the CD player. It stayed with him for many months. Later that year, while in rehearsals with Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine, Gosling still couldn't get the song out of his head and he finally came to the conclusion that this was the song needed to express the love Dean felt for Cindy. It would only take days after the movie's release before audiences themselves began to express their love because Numero Group's website was quickly deluged by downloads of "You and Me" even though the band itself was still a mystery.

Penny & The Quarters (minus Penny)

The Other Paper, based in Ohio, first ran a cover story on the song in January 2011, at which time, Glodean Robinson came forward. She was the widow of Jay Robinson, the man who apparently wrote this mysterious track. "I was totally shocked. I knew the song," Glodean would tell The Guardian, "but I didn't know that version, with a lady singing. When I heard my husband's voice in the background, it just blew me away. I started crying. It brought back the loss – and all the memories." She had met Jay in 1975 and felt quite keenly his disappointment with the music business. "He wasn't successful with music," she remembered. "He never made any royalties. But it was something he gave himself freely to all his life." Given the dramatic trajectory of the couple in Blue Valentine, where jealousy and resentment partly determined their fate, it's a little unnerving how much of that texture is part of this song. "I felt very, very angry when I heard the song," Glodean continued in The Guardian. "I didn't know who Penny was, and something in her voice arose some jealousy in me." It also stirred some indelible recollections. "I remembered my husband told me he had went in the studio and redid a song he made – with a young girl. The studio was hot that day, everybody was cooking, and he only had a penny and a quarter in his pocket, so that was how he named the group."

Jay Robinson
But Jay didn't live to discover that the song he wrote was being used in Blue Valentine, and he also wasn't around to tell the world that the artists were Penny & The Quarters. That task was taken on by the daughter of the song's singer some forty years after it was recorded. Nannie Sharpe, who was nicknamed 'Penny' by her father, came from North Carolina and always had aspirations to sing. "I probably started singing with my brothers and sisters when I was five," she told The Other Paper. "We'd sing all the time, in church, in the house. We'd stand around, helping whoever's turn it was to wash dishes that week, singing together." (You can hear that close camaraderie Nannie describes in the tight, but generously affirming harmonies that surround her in the opening bars of "You and Me.")  In 1970, Nannie and her brothers Preston, Donald and Johnny, barely out of high school, were simply answering an ad in a newspaper. Harmonic Sounds was looking for singers to launch a label. "We would go over there every Saturday morning and stay all day, from 7am to 4pm  I remember thinking, ‘Do we have to stay all day?,'" she recalls. Jay Robinson taught the group his song and helped them enunciate the doo-wop harmonies. "We were just trying to get ourselves on record," Nannie remarked. "It was exciting. It hadn't really set with us as to what we could be yet. We were just trying to get on board." But after "You and Me" never saw the light of day, the family just continued singing gospel at the Bethany Presbyterian Church. (Apparently, they tried to do a CD as DC and the Gospel Quest but it also went nowhere.) Rather than starting a recording career, however, Nannie Sharpe simply became a mail sorter for some thirty years until moving to Woodbridge, Va., in 2006. Now 62, she's back singing gospel at the Harvest Life Changes Church.

When they first performed "You and Me," Penny and The Quarters had no idea they were being taped. They thought it was a run-through for some better take they'd record down the road, not recognizing that there would be no second act. Little did they know also that they were heading down a road that led for a time to obscurity. But it took a poetic evocation of time's mysterious passage, what Amanda Shubert described Blue Valentine as employing to tell its story, for Penny & The Quarters to actually exist as a real popular group within the movie, real enough for Dean to actually know their song (perhaps in that world it was even a hit) and to introduce his love Cindy to its sweetly hopeful cadences. "You and Me" is alive within the bitter-sweet world of Blue Valentine; it's also vibrant enough to define a marriage, a relationship, even the hopes of what two people thought they could uphold. In "You and Me," Nannie Sharpe sings of her own dreams in a pining voice that invokes the youthful aspirations of Frankie Lymon from some fifteen years earlier, aspirations that would ultimately end for him in a heroin overdose in 1968; but maybe even more closely, she borrows some of the yearning confidence of the young Michael Jackson, who was still two years away from making his debut album and leaving the Jackson Five, beginning a lucrative and successful career that would also end tragically. There's indeed a scent of death that wafts all through Blue Valentine, but it is not just the death of a marriage, or of people like the man in the nursing home, or of the couple's favourite family pet, but also the innocence we must let go of in order to face the reality of our adult lives. Yet it's in the affirmative grooves of "You and Me," this quiet, once lost, unassuming masterpiece, that we finally get to recover the adolescent hopes and longings of what we painfully left behind.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.


  1. this is great! thanks for writing this :)

  2. What a treasure. I keep hearing this song on a tv commercial. I’m totally lost as to what product is being promoted but I Shazam it and voila!! Great article!!
    I just downloaded all of their songs; 4 in total.
    Thank you for the info.

  3. Love finding hidden treasure like this, Kevin. Thanks for the great post!

  4. I had just recently watched Blue Valentine and immediately was drawn to the song. What a beautiful story and wish Penny and her brothers had the recognition they deserved 40 years ago!
    Great write-up! Thank you