By the time 26-year-old Brenton Wood released his debut album, Oogum Boogum, in 1967, he’d been skirting around the edges of the music business for the best part of a decade, singing with vocal groups like the Quotations and Little Freddy and the Rockets in the late ’50s before releasing a few singles under his own name (or, rather, his stage name; Wood was born Alfred Jesse Smith). Having taught himself piano by copping licks from other players, he also penned songs for other artists to record–figuring if he wasn’t going to find success as a singer himself, he could at least gain a foothold as a professional songwriter. As time went on, however, Wood found he was making more money as a mechanic than he was a musician, and he began to rethink his future.
That’s when Double Shot Records handed him a song called “Casting My Spell on You.” Not overly impressed, Wood rewrote it as “The Oogum Boogum Song,” namechecking ’60s fashions – “And you wear that cute mini skirt/With your brother’s sloppy shirt,” “When you wear your bell-bottom pants/I just stand there in a trance” – while working up a catchy nonsense hook and an earworm piano line. The reworked track scored him a Top 20 R&B hit and even cracked the Top 40. He quickly followed up on the runaway success of that single with a 30-minute collection of sun-kissed R&B titled Oogum Boogum.The album proved Wood, whose decade-plus experience gave him a laidback confidence in the studio, was no one-hit wonder.
Finding himself on bills with everyone from Motown legends The Temptations to countercultural icon Janis Joplin, Wood picked up an audience that included both lovers of soul music and a new breed of revolutionary youth. But while his second single, “Gimme Little Sign,” hit No. 9 on the Hot 100, indicating that longterm crossover success was within reach, the hits dried up as quickly as they’d started. Wood settled into the role of cult artist, tirelessly performing live shows for the faithful well into his 70s. Meanwhile “The Oogum Boogum Song” took on a life of its own through placements in movies and commercials, casting its spell on generations of new fans and proving that some styles never go out of fashion.
A deeper look at how Brenton Wood rewrote “Casting My Spell On You,” giving it a fresh hook and scoring his first hit.
With a number of stations about to broadcast that night’s football game, Wood has less than 40 seconds to explain why a planned Italian version of “Oogum Boogum” fell through. “What’s different about ‘oogum boogum’ in Italian than English?” “Complications.”
Catching up with a septuagenarian Brenton chilling in his car after a show, Urban Melody TV founder Saul Maldonado discovers why the singer, whose family relocated to San Pedro, Los Angeles, when he was a child, has a large Latin-American following.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“I Think You've Got Your Fools Mixed Up” - Such was Wood’s confidence by the time he recorded his debut album, he chose to open Oogum Boogum with this ballad and tucked the hit single away at the end of side one on the original vinyl. A kiss-off to a former lover sung in a sweet high register trailed by acoustic guitar lines, it could be a message to those who’d written Wood off during his years of struggle: he wasn’t begging anymore. This was an artist finding success on his own terms.
“Runnin' Wild” - Whether true or not, this roll-call of misbehavior – “Drinkin’ hard liquor at the age of ten/Chasin’ wild women since I don’t know when/Rollin’ them dice at the age of 11” – sat knowingly on Wood’s shoulders. Over an infectious chugging riff, Wood realizes the error of his ways, warning future troublemakers to follow his advice, not his path: “If you’re headin’ for trouble, you better stop right now.”
“Gimme Little Sign” - Released hot on the heels of “The Oogum Boogum Song,” “Gimme Little Sign” was the bigger hit, but has since been eclipsed in memory due to its predecessor’s use in pop culture. Legendary producer J Dilla remembered it, though, sampling the cut for “Signs,” which appeared on Donuts EP: J. Rocc’s Picks, the follow-up to Dilla’s epochal 2006 album Donuts.
“Psychotic Reaction” - Brenton Wood’s easygoing soul may seem at odds with Count Five’s bratty garage rock, but this cover of his labelmates’ most famous song shows why he managed to appeal to soul heads and hippies alike. Effectively jumping on the group’s original backing track with organ overdubs, Wood turns a ’60s nugget into an R&B jam by sheer dint of his voice.
DID YOU KNOW?
- The phrase “oogum boogum” was Brenton Wood’s equivalent of “abracadabra.”
- Big Star mastermind Alex Chilton covered “The Oogum Boogum Song.”
- Wood himself re-recorded “Gimme Little Sign” in 2014 with the Americana duo William Pilgrim & the All Grows Up.
- Despite being called “Gimme Little Sign,” Wood actually sings “Just gimme some kinda sign” in the chorus.
- His lesser-known 1972 funk cut “Sticky Boom Boom Too Cold” was co-written with Earth, Wind & Fire guitarist Al McKay and co-produced by cult Trinidadian-American funkster George Semper.
Words: Jason Draper