Fri | Jan 15, 2021

Story of the Song | I Can't Take It: A career's birthday song - Johnny Nash changes name, style of ballad

Published:Friday | September 15, 2017 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith recorded I Can't Take It as a ballad at Federal Studios in 1967. Eight years later, Johnny Nash did it over as a lovers' rock track, naming it Tears on My Pillow. It was, for Smith, an unfortunate title change, as that was the name of a Little Anthony and the Imperials hit.

However, there is no taking away the credit that I Can't Take It has been to Smith, the tearjerker ballad a sure hit with audiences. At concerts, Smith is wont to put some drama into the song, taking a pause for full effect before the closing lines of the chorus.

It is also the birthday song for his music career, as the 50th anniversary of Tears on My Pillow is the basis for the Solid Gold celebratory concert at The Jamaica Pegasus hotel, New Kingston, on Friday, September 29.




Smith was living in Bamboo, St Ann, and working at the Reynolds bauxite outfit when he wrote I Can't Take It, accompanying himself on guitar. Although the song comes across as intensely personal, Smith said it did not come from a first-hand or even someone else's specific experience. "

It was just music. I was enjoying everything I was doing," he said.

It does, however, seem to mark a new development in his writing.

"I usually tell people it is my birth as a songwriter," Smith said. "Birth is pain."

And so is I Can't Take It:

"I can't take it

I'm so lonely

Gee I need you so

I can't take it

Oh I wonder why you

had to go

But baby

Every night I wake up crying

Tears on my pillow

Pain in my heart and you on my mind"

Then comes the talking, which precedes the chorus:

"I will always remember the day you promised to love me 'til the very end. And I'll never forget the day you walked away, you walked on out of my life with my very best friend."

The first persons to hear I Can't Take It were members of the band Smith was in, The Vandals, and the persons who hung around them. He chose the ballad format, Smith said, because "there were songs like that on the radio I was listening to". There was also the matter of borrowing some lyrics from himself, as Smith said he had the line "but baby, where were you when I needed you" in another song.

He intended to pass on I Can't Take It to another singer, because when he went to Federal Smith, he asked if there was a singer who could do it. He was told to stick around - a band was coming in at 2 p.m. and he could record I Can't Take It with them.

Members of that band were Ernie Ranglin (guitar), who was also the arranger, Brian Atkinson (bass), Conroy Cooper (keyboards) and Joe Isaacs (drums). After the recording, Smith said, "I felt real good about it." However, he said, "I did not feel so comfortable singing it. I felt I could have done a better job singing it."

Smith first heard I Can't Take It over the airwaves some months after it was recorded.

"I waited and waited, hoping to hear it on the radio. One day, I was sitting in my father's car, and there it was. My heart was beating like I was onstage," Smith said.

While he performed I Can't Take It with The Vandals, Smith had no problems delivering the song. But when he first did it on television, for the Top Ten Tunes with Barry Johnson, he said, "I was real nervous again."

Then there was the female singer from a popular group who saw Smith and said he could not be the person who sang I Can't Take It.

"I looked like a real nerd at the time," Smith said.

Now, Smith said, he does the song he wrote under two names.

"I do it both reggae and slow. If I do it reggae, I call it 'Pillow Rock'. If I do it like a ballad, I call it I Can't Take It," he said.