30 Years Ago: ‘Dirty Dancing’ Time Warp Helps Soundtrack Become One of the Best-Selling Albums of All Time
One of the quintessential lessons of the '80s was the now well-worn mantra, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” But it turns out nobody puts the Dirty Dancing soundtrack in a corner either. The original soundtrack from the 1987 film has continued to enjoy regular play by fans since Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey first danced into their lives, selling an estimated 32 million copies to become one of the best-selling albums of all time.
It is, in part, the soundtrack’s seemingly schizophrenic timeline that lends some intrigue to it. With half of the songs right at home in 1963, the summer when our narrator, the cloistered and innocent Baby Houseman (Grey) begins to grow up.
The other half are products of the ‘80s, both in style and release date. Of course, this makes at least a bit more sense when you consider the narrator is a grown woman in the Decade of Excess, who is reminiscing about the summer of ’63, just as the screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein did in the script that is largely based on her own childhood.
However, Otis Redding's "Love Man," used in the pivotal scene where Grey and Swayze first dance, was not released until 1969, two years after Redding had been killed in a plane crash.
Baby is the elder of Dr. Houseman’s (Jerry Orbach) two daughters, whom he brings to a Catskill Mountains resort with his wife (Kelly Bishop). Expecting a wholesome summer of talent show rehearsals and charades in the lobby, he has no idea that Baby, who has just graduated high school, is beginning to experience the other side of the hotel — the one the help inhabits. Baby falls for the tough and streetwise dance instructor Johnny (Swayze) while trying to help him and his friend, fellow dance instructor, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), out of a bind. The story delves into some serious topics like economics, class and abortion, amid a tale of summer lust instigated by dirty dancing.
The soundtrack, of course, fueled that dancing. It was already on back-order before any singles were released, but several of the songs charted once they hit the airwaves, including Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes,” Merry Clayton’s “Yes,” and Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind,” a song he co-wrote for 1984’s Grandview USA and which music supervisor Jimmy Ienner convinced him to sing for the film. All of this helped the soundtrack go multi-platinum and remain at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart for 18 weeks. The movie’s closing song, “(I've Had) The Time of My Life,” which the team found at the bottom of big box of contenders, reached No. 1 as well. Ienner had insisted it be recorded by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, and his judgement turned out to be top-notch; the song won a Grammy, an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
But in addition to what became ‘80s hits thanks to the movie, Ienner chose to keep much of the music that was used in rehearsals — which Bergstein selected from her personal record collection — in the film. That included the opening Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs and “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins. It even led to a re-release of the Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” which left off the original soundtrack but included the following year on More Dirty Dancing: More Original Music from the Hit Motion Picture.
While Dirty Dancing is a coming-of-age story that speaks to sheltered teenage girls everywhere — who among them can’t relate to an attraction to the forbidden or the awkwardness and instant mortification of declaring, “I carried a watermelon”? — it’s the film’s soundtrack that helped turn it into one of the most successful independent films in history.
It's also become a still-booming brand that spawned the expanded soundtrack More Dirty Dancing in 1988; Dirty Dancing: Ultimate Dirty Dancing in 2003, which contains every song, in the order in which it appears in the film; Dirty Dancing: 20th Anniversary Edition which was released in 2007, and includes remasters of songs from the original album, additional tracks and a DVD with promotional photos and videos. Outside of the music, some of the brand's products didn't fare as well, including a prequel of the film released in 2004 called Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (in which Swayze made a cameo as a dance instructor); a variety of 20th-anniversary re-releases; not to mention a TV remake starring Abigail Breslin and Debra Messing that aired on ABC 2017 and a Broadway play based on the film.
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