It’s a clarion call across Brooklyn every summer, and always on schedule: a smash of a cymbal followed by a guitar strum and piano chords quickly descending the scales before settling into a groove swinging back and forth. Then, you hear that velvet voice coo, “I want to thank you.”
A Brooklyn block party usually involves four essentials: a blocked-off street, a DJ who knows what they’re doing, massive speakers, and the song that kicks off the party. More often than not, Alicia Myers’ “I Want to Thank You” is the party-starter, setting the mood and getting people on their feet. The song was released as a 45 RPM single in 1982, first arriving just as boogie — one of the many offshoots of disco that thrived in this decade — gripped R&B radio.
It isn’t just a staple in the NYC boroughs these days; it continues to be a regular feature on old-school radio, a favorite at gay clubs and cookouts alike, and a fixture on playlists assembled by streaming services.
And yet, little has been written about the song itself. Sometimes erroneously credited as a “New York original” because of its popularity in the Big Apple, the song actually has roots in Motown — not the label, of course, but the still-booming musical city that pressed on after Berry Gordy pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles.
Alicia Myers was the first lead singer of the Detroit-based group One Way, formed by band leader Al Hudson. Eventually, she spun off her own career from the band, and both were signed by MCA Records. One Way charted with the roller-skating classic “Cutie Pie” and hits like “Mr. Groove,” “Push,” and the eventual quiet-storm classic “Something in the Past.”
While One Way kept a steady stream of hits on the radio throughout the ’80s, Myers’ run was a bit briefer. Maybe chalk it up to heady competition at the time, including Whitney Houston (who, according to Jet magazine, played “I Want to Thank You” at the reception of her wedding to Bobby Brown), Janet Jackson, and fellow Michiganders Anita Baker and Madonna. MCA Records itself focused its attention on its marquee acts like New Edition and The Jets.
Through it all, Myers landed at least three musical gems still in rotation: the aforementioned “I Want to Thank You,” along with “If You Play Your Cards Right” (later interpolated by Aaliyah on her debut album) and her highest charter, “You Get the Best from Me (Say, Say, Say).”
“R&B is always rooted in gospel, and every now and then, a song comes out that just reminds you of the deep spiritual connection of the undergirding of all R&B,” says noted music writer and author Craig Seymour. But he also notes that, at the time of the song’s release, “R&B in general was mad nasty; Prince’s 1999 album and Vanity 6’s ‘Nasty Girl’ were out at the same time. This was a funky song giving thanks to the Lord.”
The song, originally an album cut on Myers’ self-titled debut record in 1981, became so popular, according to Jet, that she rerecorded it for her third album, released in 1982. It was also remixed by legendary New York DJ Frankie Knuckles, and the version became a hit in gay clubs along the East Coast.
“Gay Black and brown people found community in the club because they were forced out of the church,” Seymour says. “So, with those lyrics, the song hit that nerve exactly.”
Forty years later, why does the song still endure? For all its staying power, it’s worth noting that the song only charted as high as No. 37 on Billboard’s R&B chart, did not stay there long, and never crossed to any other — not even the dance chart. In 2020, DJ Cassidy briefly brought Myers back to the spotlight with his “Pass the Mic” medley — a video compilation of old-school artists singing snippets of their most popular hits, usually played during award shows — to perform “I Want to Thank You.”
It was a rare performance for Myers, who is also a vocal breast cancer survivor who has worked to raise awareness for the disease since the 2000s.
“It’s a powerful song,” Seymour says. “It has so many meanings, and the way [Myers] sings it so earnestly is an important part of it, too. There’s an almost introspective, ‘praying alone in the middle of the night’ quality. And I think it was Oprah who said the simplest prayer we all can say is ‘Thank you.’”