Irma Thomas: “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)”
If you are a devotee of the great Black Mirror anthology series on Netflix, you will most certainly know “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand).” But whether you are or not, everyone should know this song. Somewhat shockingly, though, I’m pretty sure that I’ve never heard it on the radio, and the reason I’m fairly sure of that is, sadly, that to the best of my knowledge I hadn’t heard it before the Season 1 episode of Black Mirror in which it first appears so effectively. (The song goes on to make appearances in several other episodes throughout the series, as a kind of nod and wink to loyal viewers, and as a way to bind the series together even though each episode stands alone.)
I don’t know how I had gone my whole life without knowing “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is,” because it is simply one of the most gorgeous songs I know. Admittedly, I mostly knew Irma Thomas as the original singer of “Time Is on My Side,” which the Rolling Stones turned into a massive hit later the same year she released it (1964). But knowing that fact didn’t prepare me for how amazing this song is. Irma sings it so powerfully and so full of wisdom (an odd description, maybe, but her singing here simply seems wise) — and she manages that feat without really ever belting it out. The recording sounds so timeless that it just doesn’t seem like it even belongs in our musical universe. That may seem like hyperbole, but when I first heard it in Black Mirror, it really did sort of feel to me like it had just been beamed in from outer space. When I looked it up afterward and found out the facts, it broke my heart just a little that it had been out there waiting for me to discover it all my life and only now had I finally come across it.
The song first appeared in 1964 as the A-side of “Time Is on My Side,” as it turns out, so I was just one flip side away from having heard it. But as sometimes happens, even an amazing song doesn’t climb the charts the way it should, and the single only made it to number 52 on the Billboard charts (which may explain why it doesn’t get much radio play now). And here’s another remarkable thing about “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is”: it was written in part by Randy Newman, who at the time was an unknown songwriter still years away from recording his own music. It was the first charting single that he had a hand in, and was co-written by Jeannie Seely, who would go on to have several hits of her own as a country singer. Whatever the ratio of songwriting input from the two, they came up with a whopper, and I can only imagine they were extremely pleased with the results as sung by Irma Thomas. The closest thing I can compare “Anyone Who Knows” with is the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” — the twilight mood, stately pace, and similar backing vocals (“anyone” vs “do-bop-she-bop” — or “dew-a-drop” as I always heard them) all combine to put both songs in the same timeless alternate reality.