Under pressure from her record company to produce a hit, Mitchell attempted to record with session players. It was the vogue for rhythm sections to have the bass played with dead strings and the drummer placing a pillow in his kit drum to keep the bottom end in the background. Mitchell – who was her own producer along with engineer Henry Lewy, who had produced Crosby, Stills and Nash – insisted on a more full-bodied, resonant bottom end, but she ran up against resistance from the musicians. She then took Lewy to one of Stevie Wonder’s sessions to show him that it was technically possible.
Finally, with the jazz-rock backing band LA Express and Larry Carlton on guitar, Mitchell got the sound she had been after. The finished recording’s soft-rock, up-tempo, swingy feel made both Lewy and Mitchell recognize that they had succeeded in recording a commercial radio hit.
Help Me is about a girl who knows she is falling for the proverbial bad boy: “You’re a rambler and a gambler and a sweet-talking ladies’ man.” Tellingly, Mitchell’s lyrics match up “flirting” and “hurting.” Her performance captures the sense of heady emotion, her words tumbling out in a rush. She recognizes that she should protect herself this time: “Help me, I think I’m falling in love again.”
With Help Me spurring sales, the album “Court and Spark” rose to No. 2 on Billboard’s album chart, was CHUM Radio’s No. 1 album for March 16, 1974, and eventually enjoyed double-platinum sales. “Rolling Stone Magazine” prophetically called it “a landmark in poetic songwriting, performing and in the growth of an artist.”
The single of Help Me (Asylum 11034, with Just Like This Train on the B side) became an even greater success than Mitchell’s previous singles, reaching Billboard’s No. 7 in June 1974. In Canada it fared even better, reaching RPM’s No. 4 Adult Contemporary and No. 6 Top 100.
With Mitchell on a roll, Help Me received a coveted Grammy nomination for record of the year (which was won by Olivia Newton-John), and the “Court and Spark” album was nominated for album of the year (won by Stevie Wonder) as well as best pop performance by a female (won by Olivia Newton-John). Mitchell was also nominated for the Juno Awards’ composer of the year for 1975 (Paul Anka was the winner).
Help Me has since been recorded by Divine Brown, John Hart, Wynonna Judd, Nicole Kramer, k.d. lang (on a 1999 tribute album), Ginger Mackenzie, Katharine McPhee, Mandy Moore, Jodi Proznick, Gillian Snider, Becca Stevens, Michelle Williams, Will Young, and others. The song was sampled in Riot Gosling’s electronic dance recording Hey Gurl.
Since Mitchell’s songs usually followed the modern trend to autobiographical song-writing, many felt the man in question may have been one of her boyfriends, perhaps John Guerin or Glenn Frey, but his identity remains a mystery.
Joni Mitchell (born in Fort Macleod, Alberta, 1943), was the first Canadian woman to be inducted into the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; her compositions such as Woodstock, Both Sides Now and The Circle Game defined a generation and her poetic lyrics influenced countless songwriters following her. She earned several Grammy awards including Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award as well as three Junos, and is an inductee to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.