Gone But Not Forgotten: ‘Picture Me Gone’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #103)

‘Picture Me Gone’ is a sassy, bold ‘60s tune, on the timeless theme of “you’re thinking about dumping me? Yeah? Well, think about me dumping you first”. The most recent version of it appears to have been released in ’92, which is a shame; this gem is just waiting to be rediscovered.

‘Picture Me Gone’ was written by Chip Taylor and Al Gorgoni in the early ‘60s, when they were working at a New York music publishing company based across the street from the renowed Brill Building. The first artist to record the song was Evie Sands, a teenager from Brooklyn who Gorgoni and Sands met when she was working as a demo singer for another publisher; Taylor recalls hearing “an amazing soulful voice” from behind the closed door of another office in the building. At the time, Sands told Andy Morten of this parish, “I was a newbie kid who wasn’t playing guitar, piano or writing songs yet. My parents met with them to see if they’d pass muster, so we could work after school without a family member present.”

Having received the parental seal of approval, Gorgoni and Taylor embarked on a collaboration with Sands that resulted in some truly marvelous records. Taylor described the experience as “working with a great girl and the most soulful singer on the planet. From the beginning, we made music that was always so spiritually rewarding for the three of us.” Sands had the frustrating experience of seeing songs that she recorded first become hits for other artists – “I Can’t Let Go” for the Hollies, “Angel of the Morning” for Merrilee Rush. She recalled this as “unreal – and again, disheartening. It was hard to fathom how these things could happen. But I kept going and moved on. I didn’t – and don’t – look back as much as I look forward.” Her version of ‘Picture Me Gone’ was released in ’66, and while it didn’t chart, Sands’ assertive performance and the dynamic brass arrangement are sensational. It was also part of the soundtrack for the unreleased ’68 film Step Out Of Your Mind.

Dave Berry also recorded ‘Picture Me Gone’ in ’66 – quite a contrast to the sentimental singalong ‘Mama’ that made the UK Top 5 that same year. Berry was well-known by then from his other hits (‘The Crying Game’, ‘Little Things’, ‘This Strange Effect’), and ‘Picture Me Gone’ evoked the R’n’B sound that started his career in the clubs of Sheffield. Although the record suffers somewhat from the shouty backing vocals, it’s now recognized as one of the stronger tracks from the later part of Berry’s recording career. It was also one of only a few Berry songs to be released as a single in the US, and was the title track of an excellent two-CD compilation released in 2010.

Madeline Bell, an expat from the US, was the next UK artist to record ‘Picture Me Gone’. Bell was born in New Jersey, and came to the UK in ’62 as part of a touring company performing the gospel oratorio Black Nativity. She decided to stay because, she told Melody Maker, “President Kennedy was killed and it made me think then what a violent place [the US] was.” Bell became an in-demand backup singer, appearing on such notable albums as the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, Donovan’s Barabajagal, and the ‘concept album’ version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Philips Records then signed her as a solo artist, and ‘Picture Me Gone’ was the first single from her ’67 debut album, Bell’s A-Poppin. The song was an obvious fit for what one writer called her “world-class voice”, and while she went on to bigger success with ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me’ and as vocalist of the band Blue Mink, her ‘Picture Me Gone’ has become a favourite with Northern Soul aficionados.

Another version of ‘Picture Me Gone’ was released in ’67, and it took a bit of digging to uncover this one’s intriguing story.  Dianne Brooks, like Bell, grew up singing gospel in New Jersey; she moved to Toronto in 1960 and became a frequent performer on Canadian radio and TV, in addition to touring in Ontario and the eastern US. Jerry Schoenbaum, the founder of Verve Records, saw one of Brooks’ shows and was impressed enough to offer her a record deal. ‘Picture Me Gone’, the second of Brooks’ two singles for Verve, was produced by Harvey Brooks, who had played bass for Bob Dylan and been part of The Electric Flag (and who, incidentally, was no relation to her).

But for some reason “Dianne” was listed as “Diane” on the record’s label, resulting in ‘Picture Me Gone’ usually missing from Brooks’ discography and being credited to one Diane Brooks who never made a record again. Those mistakes are particularly lamentable, because Brooks’ incredible vocal makes this version of ‘Picture Me Gone’ one of the best ever. It shows why Emmylou Harris once said, “I know I’m a valid singer, but when I hear Dianne I feel like handing in my contract.”

Other than a largely overlooked ’70 Australian single by Yvonne Barrett, ‘Picture Me Gone’ seemed to be ignored until ’92, when Barbara Randolph included it on her album Breaking Into My Heart. ‘Picture Me Gone’ always sounded like it could have come from the creative hive at Motown, and here was the opportunity to hear it sung by an actual Motown artist. Randolph had two mid-60s singles on the Motown subsidiary label Soul Records – ‘Can I Get A Witness’ is particularly catchy – and, it’s said, was being considered as a replacement for Florence Ballard when Ballard left The Supremes. However, that idea was allegedly rejected by Diana Ross, who thought Randolph’s beauty would outshine hers. By the time Randolph recorded ‘Picture Me Gone’, her voice had deepened since her Motown days, but her interpretation is polished and confident, with the smooth Temptations-style backup vocals adding a nice touch.

That, for the moment, is where the story of ‘Picture Me Gone’ ends. But this story should have more chapters. ‘Picture Me Gone’ isn’t suitable for every type of vocalist; it really needs a strong singer who can convey its righteously defiant attitude. But, hopefully, some performer out there might consider giving this superb song the renewed attention it deserves.

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