You may not know Reg Presley’s name, or that of his rock band, the Troggs. But if you grew up in the mid-1960s and had an AM radio, you instantly would recognize the distinctive growl of his peculiarly half-spoken, half-singing vocal:
You make my heart sing
You make everything
“Wild Thing” – an earthy, thumping three-chord guitar ode to youthful lust, punctuated by an oddly erotic ocarina solo – soared to the very top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in July 1966. Nearly a half-century later, Presley’s and his bandmates’ rendition still resonates in our minds so irrepressibly that in 2011, Rolling Stone put it at 261 on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, well ahead of classic rock monsters such as Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” Indeed, the song’s catchy simplicity probably inspired countless teenagers to strap on guitars and form rock bands with crazy names in their parents’ garages, and dream, if only for a moment or two, that they could make a hit record just as great.
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So Presley, who died on Feb. 5 at age 71 in England, left behind quite a legacy. Here are some fascinating facts about the singer and his iconic recording:
- Presley, whose original name was Reginald Maurice Ball, was born in Andover, Hampshire, during World War II. He took up guitar as a teenager after being inspired by the likes of skiffle star Lonnie Donegan and later became a fan of American blues musicians such as Lightnin’ Hopkins. He worked as a bricklayer before forming the Troggs in 1964.
- The Troggs were signed in 1965 by record producer Larry Page, who also produced the Kinks, after they gave him a tape of their cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” After their first single didn’t garner much airplay, Page found them another song: “Wild Thing,” which already had been a flop for a band called The Wild Ones. (Here’s that version.)
- “Wild Thing” was written by an American songwriter named Chip Taylor, a.k.a. James Wesley Voight, who is the brother of actor Jon Voight and the uncle of Angelina Jolie. He also wrote “Angel of the Morning,” which became a hit for Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts. Here’s his own country-style version.
- According to music historian Fred Bronson, when Presley first read the song’s lyrics, he didn’t like them: “The seemed so corny that I thought, ‘Oh God, what are they doing to us?’ “
- Though “Wild Thing” was written in A major, during the recording session the Troggs didn’t tune their guitars precisely to C, so that their version is slightly sharp – a detail that’s reportedly often puzzled garage-band guitarists trying to imitate them.
- According to music writer Will Hodgkinson, it was Presley who got the idea of adding an ocarina – an oval ceramic flute, normally played by children – to “Wild Thing.” As songwriter Taylor told Hodgkinson, “He’s been carrying that damn ocarina around with him ever since.”
- In the United States, record companies Fontana and Arco both claimed ownership of the Troggs’ recordings, so that “Wild Thing” became the only number-one single to be released on two different labels, according to Bronson.
- “Wild Thing” went on to be covered numerous times by other artists. Perhaps the most famous is Jimi Hendrix’s rendition at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, which he ended by smashing his guitar and lighting it on fire. It’s also been performed by Bruce Springsteen, the Runaways and the late comedian Sam Kinison. Here’s a version by The Muppets.
- In 1967, Taylor, the song’s writer, released a parody by “Senator Bobby,” a Robert F. Kennedy imitator. It reached the top 20 on the charts.
- Presley, who continued to perform for decades, also authored a 2002 book on the paranormal and was regarded as an expert on crop circles.