How “Rocky” Spawned the Most Philly Love Song Ever
The fanfare of the movie’s theme may be more recognizable, but it’s a quiet duet that’s the real heart and soul of the Rocky love story.
The first Rocky film, the 1976 release that garnered the Academy Award for Best Picture (and, in my book, the only one in the franchise that matters), possesses the most powerful, yet unheralded, duet. Sure, you know about the fanfare of its excellent theme, “Gonna Fly Now,” which introduces the vocal team of DeEtta Little (now West) and Nelson Pigford, but it is their duet on another, quieter composition that is the heart and soul of the Rocky love story.
I know there are many who’ve had more than they can bear hearing praise heaped on this 40-plus-year-old movie. But the movie wouldn’t be memorable if Bill Conti’s masterful soundtrack did not accompany it. From the opening credits, Conti’s music is understated, yet powerful, in telling the late-in-life career and love story masterfully portrayed by Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire.
From the tentative first piano notes and quiet orchestration of “First Date,” you feel (almost see, really) the shy bespectacled pet store clerk morph into a desirable woman who needs (and deeply wants) the down-but-not-out boxer. Likewise, you feel (and envision) Rocky’s emotions as Adrian’s comfort level grows.
But it’s the following song on the soundtrack, the romantic ballad “You Take My Heart Away,” that would go on to become Rocky and Adrian’s signature love theme throughout the Rocky series.
In the original Rocky, the audience never sees the couple do more than kiss. During Adrian and Rocky’s first date scene, after a wintery night out (he calls in a favor to allow her to ice skate at a closed rink while he runs alongside her), they return to his shabby apartment. He gets comfortable and undresses down to his A-shirt, stating, “It’s hot in here, ya’ know.” Adrian, on the other hand, is absorbing the situation she’s in. While she ponders, Rocky says, “I could go for some music,” fires up the record player and drops the needle on that ultimate slow jam: “You Take My Heart Away.” Savvy listeners recognize the film version of the song is very different from the soundtrack album. But the tune serves its purpose in underscoring the fraught emotions the couple tackles in Rocky’s apartment on the night that he kisses Adrian for the first time in the movie.
“Touch me,” intones West in the opening words. “Hold me in your arms / Shelter me from harm / Let me love you for a million years or more / I never felt this way before your kiss / You take my heart away … away”
Her plea is answered by Pigford: “Love me / Love me from your heart / Let us never part / Bring me all the dreams you thought would never be / We’ll make them all reality / Just you and me.”
Then, West’s and Pigford’s voices join together in crescendo: “You’re my dream come true / Baby I love you!”
On screen, this passionate scene is played out without Rocky or Adrian undressing. He kisses her on the cheek, she folds into his arms and the duet continues: “You take my heart away … away!”
I need not tell you that Cupid’s job here is done.
“You Take My Heart Away” left a mark on radio listeners and album buyers. The now-classic soundtrack album charted at number 4 on Billboard, with the hit single “Gonna Fly Now” going to the number-one position on the Billboard charts for the week of July 2, 1977.
In Philly, the late-night jocks on WDAS-FM incorporated “First Date” and “You Take My Breath Away” as “Quiet Storm” standards, along with the uncredited Kool & the Gang’s instrumental “Summer Madness,” that funky number Rocky tunes in on his radio when he returns home after his match against Spider Rico.
Interestingly, both West and Pigford have been all but invisible since their 1976 “Rocky” pairing, for which they received a RIAA-certified gold record and two Grammy nominations (Best Instrumental Composition and Performance). Even with the help of the Internet, I’ve found only one interview featuring West and nothing on Pigford.
“There are some amazing things that can happen in the studio. Strong, powerful voices can be overdubbed once and it sounds like an amazing choir,” West explains in an interview about the recording process of “Gonna Fly Now” with the Total Rocky fan site in 2015.
While the end product sounds like a huge chorus, West reveals that there are only three voices: hers, Pigford and Bill Conti’s wife, Shelby Conti, who was not credited on the track.
However, “You Take My Heart Away” was recorded a separate studio session at United Artist Records. “Right off the top, I fell in love with the song,” recalled West. Billboard called the ballard “a rousing, romantic, soulful duet by vocalists DeEtta Little and Nelson Pigford. The singers and the big orchestral production combine for an intense and commercial crossover sound.”
Of her singing partner, West said, “I knew Nelson before he started the Rocky project. What a phenomenal bass/baritone voice.”
Pigford, who worked behind the scenes as a songwriter throughout his 40-plus year career, seemingly disappeared after penning his most famous work as co-writer on Barry White’s 1977 song “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me.” “It’s Ecstasy” has gone on to become a long-running R&B chart-topper, with its string arrangements incorporated in latter-day tunes such as Mary J. Blige’s “You Bring Me Joy,” a popular track from her 1994 album, My Life and UK music star Robbie Williams’s hit “Rock DJ.”
The UK proved to be a legacy music home for the Rocky ballard when a year after its release Welsh singer Shirley Bassey recorded “You Take My Heart Away” as the title track of her 22nd studio album. Bassey, whose powerful voice was behind the themes of three James Bond films, dramatically changed the tenor of the song to a pop style that served as the opening number during her ’70s-era concerts.
Yet, this is a story about a tender love song create to tell a rough love story. Despite all that the Rocky movies have come to mean over the years, it is this softer and more subdued soundtrack ballad that ultimately lays the foundation for the initially awkward relationship that goes on to reveal the inner power of a underappreciated woman and the soft heart of a man who loves her. Without a doubt, Conti’s soundtrack is brilliant in conveying the musical theme of Rocky, but it is the subdued 5-minute ballad that perfectly captures the inner voices of these star-crossed lovers.
“You Take My Heart Away” provides the emotional underpinnings of a Philly love story that is all the more memorable when Rocky yells to his beloved, “Yo, Adrian — I did it!”