At random times, I’ll just start singing to myself, “I’ve been trying…lord knows that I’ve been trying.” Don’t ask me why; that’s how ear worms work sometimes but it reminds me of how The Impressions could craft these simple but incredibly memorable lyrics out of just a few words, especially in the mid’60s with hits like “People Get Ready,” “Keep On Pushing,” and of course, “I’ve Been Trying.”
Every time I listen to this, I marvel at how unadorned it is. The guitar and horns are kept to a minimum and the drums are so subtle, they’re practically invisible. Even the vocals are relatively restrained, almost matter-of-factly in tone. I’d like to think it’s because the singers are trying to capture an emotion somewhere between despair and hope and in order to resolve that, you end up in the flat middle. Whichever way, the affect is haunting.
(I think the sparseness of the original is one reason I have a hard time getting into most of the covers of the song. Most of them sound overproduced to me, including versions by The Notations, Jerry Butler and Clarence Reid. Better would be Archie Bell’s flip, which adds some heavier brass but otherwise keeps it faithful. Likewise, my friend Sam turned me onto the Mayfield Singers’ version which, as you might expect, is also very loyal.)