Any regular reader of this column knows my particular affinity for Philadelphia soul, with its lush orchestration, smooth singers, and smart songwriting. Jean Carn's 1978 hit "Don't Let It Go to Your Head" embodies these characteristics, and Carn's jazz background adds a touch of sophistication to an already stellar Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff production.
Born in Columbus, Georgia but primarily raised in Atlanta, Carn (also spelled "Carne" on some releases) sang in the church choir at four years old. With her parents' encouragement, she soon learned piano, bassoon, and clarinet. Carn officially began her singing career with a bang: she sang "Misty" on a morning talk show, accompanied by jazz great Errol Garner, when she was still a teenager. Subsequently she earned a music scholarship to Morris Brown College, where, according to AllMusic, she learned virtually every instrument in the orchestra. In 1971 Carn recorded her first album, an acclaimed jazz effort produced by then-husband Doug Carn. Two more albums followed, along with extensive touring in America. In addition she became the last vocalist to perform with Duke Ellington, worked with Norman Connors on four albums, and sang on George Duke's classic tune "Reach for It."
Carn crossed over to R&B audiences in 1977, when she signed with Gamble and Huff's legendary Philadelphia International label. Her self-titled Philly debut spawned the successful single "Free Love," and other album tracks earned airplay on R&B radio as well as in discos. But her followup, 1978's Happy to be with You, scored the minor hit "Don't Let It Go to Your Head." Yes, despite its now classic dusty status, the track peaked no higher than 54 on the Billboard R&B singles chart. Despite its modest sales, the Gamble and Huff-penned "Don't Let It Go to Your Head" deserves to be ranked among the best of smooth seventies soul.
The song begins with a typically infectious groove, laid down by Philadelphia International's incredible house band M.F.S.B. Trademark Philly strings subtly weave in the gentle tempo, the mid tempo arrangement effectively cushioning Carn's rich voice. "Now that you know / How I feel about you / Don't let it go to your head, no," she sighs. Interestingly the tempo slightly increases, transforming the tune into a more typical disco track: "Don't take advantage of my love / Treat good, treat me fair," Carn warns. The lyrics reflect a feminist perspective, a tale of a woman afraid of losing her identity to her lover. The lines "Now that I've given you / Every part of me" and "Now that you know / I can't live without you" both end with the title phrase, signaling her fear of commitment. As the disco element returns, Carn expresses further ambivalence, adding that "if you're playing games / It would be a shame / Don't break my heart." Revealing her innermost feelings and thoughts leaves her vulnerable, and she fears her new love might take advantage of this apparent weakness.
Put another way, "Don't Let It Go to Your Head" functions as a 1970s update of the standard "All of Me"; here, the protagonist seems unwilling to tell her intended "why not take all of me?" Instead, Carn expresses doubt and discomfort by warning her man not to abuse her love and devotion. Apart from the subject matter, the song also features Carn's jazz chops, with her scatting and impressive vocal range on full display. Not surprisingly, the song has become an acid jazz standard, as its blend of jazz and soul foreshadows the movement. The UK act the Brand New Heavies covered it in 1992, while hip hop group Brand Nubian sampled it for their 1998 single of the same name.
Carn recorded one more album for Philadelphia International before moving to Motown in 1982. Her biggest R&B hit would come in 1986; after switching to the Omni Records label, she released the ballad "Closer Than Close" which earned her her first number one record. While she released her last album in 1995, she continues touring, frequently with longtime collaborator Connors. While "Don't Let It Go to Your Head" may not have been a smash hit, its influence lingers, and its sultry voice belongs to one of the more underrated artists in soul history.