There are classics and then there are CLASSICS! And one such monster of a hit just turned 40 years old!
It’s Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real,” the ubiquitous No. 1 R&B single that crossed over to the pop and disco charts in late 1978/ early 1979 and which has since become one of the most requested, most iconic jams in dance music history, particularly among us soul music fans.
Released in August 1978 on Columbia Records, “Got To Be Real” was the first single for Cheryl Lynn, a former “Gong Show” winner from a few months earlier who couldn’t possibly have imagined that she’d go on to record a song that would not only top the charts within six months, but become an essential part of the house party and club experience for the better part of the next 40 years!
Co-written by Cheryl and famed Canadian songwriter David Foster, along with David Paich of the band Toto, “Got To Be Real” was also produced by Paich along with his father, the noted jazz producer and TV show studio orchestra leader Marty Paich. The song also featured on guitar the up-and-coming talent Ray Parker, Jr. – a Stevie Wonder protegé who would go on to achieve fame in his own right and would later produce Cheryl on a future project.
Despite those strong credentials backing it, “Got To Be Real” wasn’t a guaranteed success out of the box. In fact, even its credentials were somewhat dubious at the time. Ray Parker, Jr. had only experienced his breakthrough hit “Jack and Jill” with his band Raydio a few months before “To Be Real” was released. David Foster hadn’t yet made a big name for himself as producer and songwriter. And Marty Paich was years removed from his 1950s and ‘60s heyday of having produced any major artists or hits.
And David Paich’s band Toto hadn’t even released its own first record when Cheryl Lynn teamed up with him for her début single fresh off of her “Gong Show” win. Toto’s “Hold The Line” (also on Columbia Records) wouldn’t be released until more than a month after Cheryl’s single.
At first – and perhaps understandably so – radio was slow to jump on “Got To Be Real.” After all, who could take an artist who’d competed on the very tongue-in-cheek “Gong Show” seriously, even with the considerable singing talent Cheryl possessed?
But Columbia Records knew they had a winner on their hands and their promotion people were behind Cheryl’s début all the way, as the next few months would prove.
The song was released in alternate versions in mid-August. The shorter radio edit included the famous “soo-hoo, soo-hoo, soo-hoo” call Cheryl sings during the break after the key modulation. The longer 5:10 version, which didn’t include the “soo-hoos,” was released in both 7-inch and 12-inch vinyl formats.
The single made its début on the Hot Soul Singles chart (now called Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) at No. 93 – the lowest of nine new entries on the list dated September 9, 1978.
What’s most interesting about the songs that debuted higher than Cheryl’s that week is that none of them are likely remembered today, including songs by Natalie Cole (a remake of the Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”) and two unrelated Jacksons: raunchy singer Millie (with the forgettable “Sweet Music Man”), and the second-youngest member of the famed Jackson clan, Randy, whose first and only chart entry debuted and peaked that same week at No. 91.
And so began the long grueling journey for Cheryl’s slow-climbing hit. It moved 93-83-73-63… and then lost its chart bullet at 58. It would continue its climb, nonetheless, moving 48-45 (once again without a bullet).
Then, in its eighth chart week, the song picked up steam, regained its bullet and climbed into the top 40, bunny-hopping from 45-35. The irresistible dance hit persistently boogied up the chart, entering the top ten in November and finally settling in for three frustrating weeks at No. 2 behind the Chic disco classic “Le Freak” that December.
Finally, in its 18th chart week, “Got To Be Real” had enough chart muscle to elbow Chic’s hit from the top, earning Cheryl Lynn her first No. 1 hit. That was in January 1979 – nearly five months after the song’s release. It would spend just one week at the top before giving way to another classic – Earth Wind & Fire’s “September” – and beginning its descent down and eventually off the chart.
But Cheryl Lynn’s “Real” story wouldn’t end there. By January, the song that wouldn’t quit had crossed over to the pop chart, ultimately peaking at No. 12 there (No. 10 in Cashbox) and earning a gold certification for one million copies sold.
Cheryl’s hit became a top-20 hit in discos as well, reaching No. 11 on Billboard’s Disco chart in a co-billing with the faster paced follow-up single, “Star Love” – itself containing what was becoming a Cheryl Lynn trademark – a pig-call-like “soo-hah!” which soared like nothing we’d ever heard before.
Throughout the first half of 1979, Cheryl’s popularity was clearly on the rise as artists and producers alike were soon clamoring to work with her. Her first musical gesture was to repay her label mates Toto by providing the hook to one of their follow-ups to “Hold The Line” – a smooth funk groove called “Georgy Porgy.” The song didn’t do that well on the charts, but it is still regarded as one of Toto’s best, thanks in large part to Cheryl’s soulful contribution.
After disco suffered its famous, hate-filled backlash in mid-1979, Cheryl herself struggled to crossover to pop again even while maintaining a respectable R&B base. After a spate of R&B chart hits with big names like Ray Parker, Jr. (“Shake It Up Tonight”), Luther Vandross (in the duet “If This World Were Mine”) and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (they wrote and produced her second-biggest hit “Encore” – another R&B No. 1 in 1984), Cheryl’s chart fortunes eventually faded for good.
But her first hit was one of those songs that never really went away. Years after its initial popularity, “Got To Be Real” continued to get recurring play – both at clubs and on radio. At parties and barbecues, it became the crowd-pleaser that would always get butts out of seats and on the floor. Women (and some men) couldn’t wait to get to the “soo-hoo” part, singing it at the top of their lungs when the bridge played, even if the version playing didn’t include it.
“Got To Be Real” became a sample favorite as well, with it being used in more than a dozen R&B and hip-hop songs over the years, including one of the first rap tunes – Funky Four Plus One’s “Rappin’ and Rocking the House,” plus Father MC’s “I’ll Do For You,” and a remix of Beyoncé’s 2006 No. 1 hit, “Irreplaceable.”
Forty years and at least two generations later, the song is still loved by many. It was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2005. It is easily soul music’s version of the little engine that could… and the one that won’t quit.
Despite a slow start by an unlikely star from a goofy talent show, “To Be Real” became about as real a soul classic as one can get, a powerful jam that has endured despite the many changes in musical tastes since it was released 40 years ago.
In the end, its 1978/79 No. 1 chart success may have been the result of a persistent campaign by a Columbia label that wouldn’t give up even when the song showed signs of slowing down. But its continued popularity today is truly a testimony to the song itself… and the very talented singer who brought it to us.
Here’s to the 40th anniversary of a true musical treasure – Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real.” Check out her performance of it on Soul Train – along with one of those famous Don Cornelius interviews – in the video below.
Purely Coincidental Trivia fact: In addition to the fact that the three songs “Best Of My Love” by the Emotions, “Got To Be Real” by Cheryl Lynn and “Emotions” by Mariah Carey have often been compared to one another – and understandably so, all three were also recorded for the same record label, Columbia Records, in 1977, 1978 and 1991, respectively.