‘Be Thankful For What You Got’ This Thanksgiving

November 26, 2020 by

Though you may not drive a great big Cadillac
Gangsta whitewalls
TV antennas in the back
You may not have a car at all
But remember, brothers and sisters
You can still stand tall
Just be thankful for what you got

Way back in the 1970s, William DeVaughn, a Washington D.C. government worker and aspiring singer-songwriter saw an ad in a magazine for Philadelphia’s Omega Sound. This record operation had a unique business model as they would seek out artists then charge them to record at the studio. DeVaughn sent Omega some demos and eventually paid $900 so he could record “Be Thankful for What You Got,” a re-written version of his original “A Cadillac Don’t Come Easy,” in 1972.

Members of MFSB, the legendary house band for the Philadelphia International Records label, played on the track, DeVaughn’s sole Billboard Hot 100 hit. Interestingly, despite playing on countless Philly soul hits in the ‘70s, MFSB were also one-hit wonders. Their “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” (the Soul Train theme) topped the R&B and pop charts in April 1974.

Produced by Frank Fioravanti and arranger John Davis and issued on the Roxbury label, “Be Thankful” debuted on March 30, 1974. The song about gratitude and keepin’ your chin up sold nearly two million copies, skyrocketing to the top of the R&B charts and peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“Be Thankful” has, in my view, one of the sickest laid-back grooves of all time. It begins with congas before the organ and fat bass line slide in. Norman Harris’s funky guitar riffs sound like they could be in a Blaxploitation flick of the era. There are only two chord progressions in the song, which helps to accentuate the lyrics and chorus. When the song hit the radio, many people thought (and still think) the high tenor and positive message was Curtis Mayfield. “Be Thankful” even got some play on gospel radio stations.

Another single, “Blood Is Thicker Is Water,” which sounds similar to “Be Thankful,” was a Top 10 R&B hit the same year but just missed the pop Top 40, peaking at #43. However, DeVaughn’s success was short-lived as he lost interest in the music business not long after his big hit and became a Jehovah’s Witness.

Producer John Davis told the British music magazine Blues & Soul: “By the time the record was number one, [DeVaughn] was going door-to-door in Washington, handing out pamphlets. That’s why the album, which was recorded after, was all religious. William didn’t feel he could put the two things together. He’d come into a club to do a gig, and instead, he’d tell people, ‘You’re crazy, you shouldn’t be in here, you shouldn’t be drinking, you shouldn’t be chasing women!’”

However, DeVaughn returned to music in 1980 to release the album Figures Can’t Calculate. The title track peaked at #37 on the R&B charts, and the album featured an updated version “Be Thankful.”

His third album, Time Will Stand Still, which featured yet another version of “Be Thankful,” came out in 2008. DeVaughn is now retired from his government job and just this year dropped a single, “New World Living,” on his Mighty Two Diamond Records imprint.

Here’s a cool clip of DeVaughn singing his signature tune at his 2011 retirement party:

DeVaughn’s hit got new life in the early ‘90s when Massive Attack covered it on their trip-hop classic Blue Lines. Here’s the group performing on the UK talk show Tonight with Jonathan Ross in 1992:

Many hip-hop songs have sampled “Be Thankful,” including NWA’s “Gangsta Gangsta” (1988), De La Soul’s “Keepin’ The Faith” (1991), Ludacris’s “Diamond in the Back” (2003), and Ice Cube’s “Stand Tall” (2008).

In 1993, DRS, a one-hit wonder group that fused gangsta rap topics with smooth R&B, had a hit with “Gangsta Lean,” peaking at #4 on the pop charts and topping the R&B charts. Also, Cash Money Records duo Big Tymers referenced “Be Thankful” in their sole Top 40 hit, “Still Fly,” which peaked at #11 on the Hot 100 chart in 2002. Mannie Fresh raps: Got a superman Benz that I scored from Shaq/With a ol’ school Caddy with a “diamond in the back.”

Rihanna’s 2007 hit “Shut Up and Drive” featured the line: I’m a fine-tuned super-sonic speed machine, with a sunroof top and a gangsta lean.

Released the same year as DeVaughn’s, the Philly soul group The Intruders did a more up-tempo version of “Be Thankful” for their album Energy Of Love:

Also in 1974, Arthur Lee’s band Love covered it on their album Real to Reel:

Parliament referenced “Be Thankful” on “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” the leadoff track from the 1975 funk classic Mothership Connection:

So you can feel cool, gangster lean, y’all should dig my sunroof top

Even indie-rock darlings Yo La Tengo covered it for their 1997 EP Little Honda:

With a global pandemic, rising unemployment, racial unrest, fires and hurricanes, 2020 has been a crummy year. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the negative. But, even if you don’t drive a [insert your dream car of choice], you can still count your blessings and focus on the positive this Thanksgiving. If you find yourself on the couch in a food coma today, give William DeVaughn a spin, I guarantee you won’t regret it. Happy Thanksgiving!

Diamond in the back, sunroof top
Diggin’ the scene
With a gangsta lean, woo-ooh

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