Al Johnson sang a song in 1968 called "Court of Love," in which he was the complainant in a three-count indictment against a woman who had abused him, stripped him of his pride and lied.
"I got her letter today and cried with every word she had to say," Johnson crooned. "I was so hurt -- shamed and disgraced -- 'cause that woman didn't have the nerve to tell me face-to-face that she was seeing somebody else. She didn't tell me she was gonna let me go and I was the last one alive to know."
The song, which ended with the woman being convicted on all counts, rose to number three on the black music charts that year. Written by Guy Draper, a Washington publicist and talent manager, "Court of Love" had highlighted the cruel side of our most powerful emotion, and much to the delight of male audiences had provided a kind of poetic justice that many felt was lacking in real life.
Now, two decades later, Johnson is producing and arranging music. And if disputes over what songs to record make the studio where he works in Northwest Washington sound like a courtroom, then he has risen to become the judge, ruling on what songs will be included in the showcases of some of Washington's most promising young talent.
"The first question you always ask yourself is what story does it tell, what emotion does it touch," Johnson said during a recent interview. "As always, it's got to ring true."
While trials and tribulations associated with love are nothing new, Johnson notes, writing love songs has never been more challenging than today, when sex has been throughly demystified through television and videos, when Valentine's Day gifts -- such as the "Safe Sex Bouquet," flowers adorned with condoms -- cause recipients only to chuckle benignly instead of calling the police as they would have 20 years ago.
"When I was starting out, restrictions on what you could say forced the audience to use his or her imagination more, and I think that added to the fulfillment of listening to songs," said Johnson, who is 40. "Personally, I find a lot of new love songs boring. How somebody can get up and say, 'I want your sex,' and have a hit beats me."
On the flip side, Johnson remains encouraged by the enduring appeal of hassle-free, man-in-love-with-woman songs, which have consistently topped the charts while protest songs, drug songs, peace and brotherhood songs, sisterhood songs and even odes to mom rose and fell with the times.
An example of a song Johnson has judged in tune with the times is called "You'll Never Find Anyone Like Me," which he is working on with local recording artist Marilyn Ashford.
"It's about this relationship that has been going on for a while when, suddenly, this guy comes up and says, 'Before I can really commit myself I want to look around for a while,' " Johnson said. "The woman basically replies, 'Look all you want, take all the time you need, but you'll never find anyone like me.' "
Of course, it is only in love songs that a mate will give you "all the time you need" to shop around. And therein lies the appeal.
"For something that causes so much pleasure, love causes a whole lot of pain," Johnson explains. "Love songs allow you to experience the emotion without having to do the roadwork or, if you have been through the mill, make you feel that it was somehow for a worthy cause."
Reflecting on the success of his hit, "Court of Love," which he sang with a group called "The Unifics," Johnson noted that it was part of a powerful trend in love songs that roots lyrics deep in the personal experience of the audience.
"With that song, my character had men applauding because so many of them felt they had been fleeced in alimony court," he said. "But remember, that came out before we knew how many women were being cheated out of child support."
Asked how his character would fare in an updated version of the "Court of Love," Johnson laughed.
"Today, it would depend on who had the best lawyer," he said.