Why is a song that didn’t make the top half of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964 having its best chart year ever in 2018?
When the U.K. anthology series Black Mirror first aired in the U.S., it was seen on Audience, the DirecTV channel. The season one episode “15 Million Merits” starred Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey) as Abi, who competes on a slightly futuristic version of an American Idol type show. The song she performs is “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand),” first recorded by Irma Thomas in 1964. Her original single peaked at No. 52 on the Hot 100 and has remained fairly obscure – it’s hardly a staple on oldies radio.
Findlay’s outstanding rendition brought the song back into public consciousness, but there was more to come. In “White Christmas,” a special holiday episode of Black Mirror that aired after season 2, Janet Montgomery’s character Bethany sings the same song in a karaoke bar. In season three, “Anyone” was heard again, this time sung by Madeline Brewer’s character, Raiman, in “Men Against Fire.” Then, in season four, Irma Thomas’ original plays on a car radio in the “Crocodile” episode.
The four-time use of the song propelled the decades-old tune onto Billboard’s monthly Top TV Songs chart, where it peaked at No. 2 this year.
Surprisingly, the R&B song was written in 1963 by a future country star, Jeannie Seely, and a future Oscar and Grammy winner, Randy Newman. Seely, 23 years old at the time, was working at Liberty Records on Sunset Blvd. in Los Angeles. “I was secretary to Kenny Rivercomb, who was in charge of national sales,” Seely tells Billboard. “I got the idea for the song from a pantyhose ad in a magazine. It read: ‘Anyone who knows what comfort is…’.”
Seely stayed after work one day to use the company piano. “It was the only instrument I could play. I had the first verse. I could hear these chords in my mind but I couldn’t play them. I thought if I could corner a musician at the office, I could get some help. I saw Randy Newman walking in the hallway. I didn’t really work with him that much. I was a secretary and he was a songwriter. We didn’t hang together. I figured the worst that could happen is that he would say no.”
But Newman said he would help. He was 19 years old and signed to Liberty’s publishing company, Metric Music. He had his first recording by a pop act one year earlier when the Fleetwoods, a vocal group out of Olympia, Wash., cut his “They Tell Me It’s Summer” for the flip side of their single, “Lovers by Night, Strangers by Day.”
“It’s one of only three collaborations in my career,” Newman tells Billboard about the song he wrote with Seely. “I also co-wrote songs with Bobby Darin [‘Look at Me’] and Jackie DeShannon [‘She Don’t Understand Him Like I Do’].” Newman had all but forgotten about “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” when he heard it on Black Mirror. “I was watching the show and I heard this song and it sounded familiar. I knew where the song was going. It took a day for me to remember it.”
Irma Thomas found out about the song being used in the TV series from her friend Reginald Toussaint, son of the late musician Allen Toussaint. “He asked me if I watched Black Mirror.” Thomas still hasn’t seen any of the episodes.
She was, by her own admission, a naïve 22-year old when she flew from her home in New Orleans to Los Angeles to record an album for Imperial. She had released several singles on the Minit label when that imprint was purchased by Liberty/Imperial. Thomas wrote her first single for Imperial, “Wish Someone Would Care.” The song was a hit, peaking at No. 17 on the Hot 100 and No. 2 on the R&B singles chart. During the same week-long recording sessions, she cut “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand).” While it didn’t become as big a hit as its predecessor, its B-side made an impact; Jerry Ragovoy wrote that flip, “Time Is on My Side.”
“I was in the U.K. doing five shows a night for three weeks,” says Thomas. “I met Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They told me they were going to record the song. When I came back to the States and sang it, people said I was doing a Rolling Stones song. I stopped singing it. [Years later] I put it back into my repertoire when Bonnie Raitt was in New Orleans doing a New Year’s Eve gig. She asked me to sing ‘Time Is on My Side’ with her and she told me time has been on both our sides.”
Thomas had two more of her Imperial singles appear on the Hot 100 and while she didn’t have any more pop singles enter the chart, she did continue to appear on R&B singles. From 1998 to 2008, she had three albums appear on Top Blues Albums: Sing It! with Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson peaked at No. 6 on June 13, 1998, After the Rain (a Grammy winner for Best Contemporary Blues Album) went to No. 12 on July 29, 2006 and Simply Grand reached No. 4 on Aug. 30, 2008. Local officials in the Crescent City have called her the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”
After her first appearance on the Billboard as a songwriter, Seely signed as an artist with the Monument label in 1966 and returned to the Hot 100 that same year with “Don’t Touch Me.” That single peaked at No. 2 on the country chart. She released her 16th studio album in 2017. Written in Song marks the first appearance of Seely’s own recording of “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is.” “I wrote the song when I was 23,” Seely tells Billboard. “I never thought I would still be getting royalties for it at 78.”
Two months ago, Seely was on stage at the Grand Ole Opry when she was presented with a plaque of the Billboard Top TV Songs chart, showing “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” at No. 2. “It is absolutely amazing to me the way this song just keeps showing up in different genres and uses,” said Seely. “One of the reasons, I believe, is the haunting melody, and the other is the vulnerability of the lyrics. Whatever the reason, I’m sure glad that it does, and I’m very grateful to all who have recorded it.”
The story of “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is” is not over. It has been heard on other TV shows, including Big Little Lies, Orphan Black, NFL GameDay Morning and a promo for HBO’s Here and Now as well as trailers for the films Moonlight and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. And since it signals to viewers that the separate episodes of the anthology Black Mirror are somehow connected, it would be no surprise to hear the song again in the upcoming fifth season – and beyond.