Stax act The Dramatics scored numerous hits in their 1970s prime, including "In the Rain" and "Get Up and Get Down," but they are also responsible for a still-unique single—1971's "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get." It can be considered a predecessor of the O'Jays' 1972 hit "Backstabbers" and a companion to The Undisputed Truth's 1971 single "Smiling Faces Sometimes" in that they all address issues of phoniness, suspicion, and the importance of honesty.
"Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" remains a unique track in that it combines soul and Latin rhythms, using a "cha cha" tempo right before the refrain. Right from the start, the track grabs the listener with its horns and Latin percussion--particularly claves and congas--seamlessly leading into the vocals. Songwriter/producer Tony Hester wisely chose an opening line that would further hold interest: "Some people are made of plastic." Immediately this phrase establishes the edginess of the tune, that this would be no typical "baby I love you" ditty. Similar to other paranoia-themed tracks of the time, such as the aforementioned "Backstabbers" and "Smiling Faces Sometimes" (first recorded by the Temptations in 1971), the lyrics warn against people who "have hearts of stone" and "are up to no good"; they "are made of lies to bring you down/ Just to shame your name."
But other lines clearly differentiate the vocalist from these two-faced people: "But baby, I'm for real/ I'm as real as real can get," they sing in the first verse. Breaking hearts "just ain't my game," and that (my second favorite lyrics): "All I want to do is love you/ And sugar, I won't pin you with regret." That image of branding someone with regret is a powerful one, and one that many listeners can identify with. Instead, "what you see is what you get." Each Dramatics member sings a line, further emphasizing each word. Clearly the group and Hester listened to some Pérez Prado before recording the track, as their grunts, shouts, and other mannerisms imitate the mambo legend. The distorted, fuzzy guitar cuts into the backing music, adding a rock element to the song.
This distinctive track proved to be The Dramatics' first major hit. While they were on the Memphis-based Stax label, they actually originated from Detroit. Eager to expand its reach, the label began recruited acts outside of Memphis, snatching up The Dramatics. Prior to their Stax stint, the group had scored a minor hit with 1967's "All Because of You" on a small label; despite this initial success, they grew discouraged, and some original members left the band. Thus they recruited a new lead singer (William "Wee Gee" Howard) and a bassist (Willie Ford), joining Robert Ellington, Larry "Squirrel" Demps, Ron Banks, and Elbert Wilkens. Their fortunes changed after signing with Stax shortly after 1967, eventually teaming with with Hester to record "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get," which reached number three on the R&B charts and number 9 on the pop charts. The subsequent album, which also included "Get Up and Get Down" and "In the Rain," was released in 1972 to equal success.
Similar to contemporaries War, The Dramatics fused Latin elements with rock and soul to create an irresistible slice of 1970s R&B. "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get" exemplifies not only "paranoia" themed soul, but also how artists were increasingly fusing international sounds in their music.