b/w Wind It Up
A round of applause, ladies and gentlemen, for Frederick Earl “Shorty” Long, in many ways the loose cannon of the Motown canon. Often referred to as the label’s top blues signing of the mid- to late-Sixties, Shorty was really much more eclectic than that suggests, such that it hardly seems fair to pigeonhole him as a blues artist at all. After Shorty’s tragically early death in 1969, Roger Green summed up his career perfectly with a written epitaph (quoted in The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 9):
“…A man who sang what he wanted to sing – everything from the blues to romantic ballads, from wild and crazy numbers to a utopian vision of heaven on earth. Short in stature but big in talent, he entertained and amused us, and finally he inspired us.”
Because Shorty was a natural showman and a quick-witted wiseacre, as well as someone who appears to have approached his life and his music with a toothy smile and a pleasingly laid-back attitude, it’s perhaps taken a while for him to claim his rightful place among the Motown greats, and the time has still yet to arrive for his work to be seriously reappraised. He didn’t sell a lot of records, the few singles he did strike chart gold with were novelty/comedy dance numbers, and so Shorty Long has been underappreciated, regarded as a second- or third-tier talent, an amusing but inconsequential footnote.
Well, balls to that. Here, Shorty Long is the man.
THE SENSATIONAL HARVEY BRAND
Harvey Fuqua’s branch of the Motown family tree is perhaps the most confusing to get a proper handle on. A great writer, producer and performer in his own right, Harvey was a family friend to the Gordys even before he became husband to Berry Gordy’s sister Gwen (herself co-owner of Anna Records, a label initially more successful and better distribution than the fledgling Motown empire); his initial involvement with Motown waxed and waned, but by 1961 he had started up his own Tri-Phi and Harvey labels, racking up a healthy catalogue of fine records, existing alongside Motown in an ill-defined state of flux (sometimes standing completely separate, sometimes sharing musicians, writers and producers) until Gordy eventually brought Fuqua on board formally at the end of 1963 and set about asset-stripping whatever was in the Harvey/Tri-Phi pantry.
For Berry Gordy – who, as has already been much discussed on this blog, was beginning to stack up serious pop chart hits and radio play, but at the expense of accusations he was turning his back on the black audiences who’d helped keep the lights on at Motown in the shaky early years – this was a veritable godsend. Not only did Motown gain a fine writer-producer and a well-connected A&R man, but Gordy also inherited several key R&B/blues acts from the Tri-Phi/Harvey roster, rebuilding at a stroke some of the credibility some observers felt he’d started to lose. Most of Motown’s harder-edged blues acts had already been cut loose by 1964, but even while he was building a pop empire to take on America, Gordy still recognised the value of not taking his eye off the ball as far as tougher R&B sounds, black radio and good old-fashioned sales were concerned. So it came to pass that Motown launched a new subsidiary label, Soul Records, its magenta, black and white labels carrying a resonance of the old Tri-Phi colours, its initial roster stocked with former Tri-Phi and Harvey artists. Artists Like Shorty Long.
Shorty had a head start at Hitsville almost immediately, in that he was used to writing his own material; Motown always placed stock in songwriters, and so Shorty was encouraged to provide his own songs, teamed up for this initial release with old hand Mickey Stevenson. (Later, he’d be one of a tiny handful of Motown acts to write and produce his own records).
Knowing he was a smart guy, I should probably be bemused or even irritated by his standard schtick – his act consisting of a quasi-drawled, semi-spoken delivery and an audible sly grin, his lyrics often coming down to “women, eh? Sheesh!” battle-of-the-sexes stuff, invariably – as here – broken up with random interjections (“Mm-mm-mm! Miss choice! Holy mackerel!”) as if he was the wisecracking pipsqueak in a group of street-corner layabouts, toothpick dangling from his mouth as he serenades passing women. But he does it in such a way that you wouldn’t bet against those women giving him a few good-natured smiles, and the reason is because he’s charming.
Charm is really the key to Shorty’s whole career. Some people are just natural charmers, and I don’t mean that in the lothario sense – I mean Shorty was naturally funny, witty, always ready with a quip or a put-down – but always in good humour and good taste, without being threatening, and certainly never just gratuitously nasty. There are laughs to be had at your expense, and he’ll get them – but he’ll make sure everyone gets their turn, including himself.
That natural charm doesn’t just allow him to deliver a lyric like this (watch out boys, she’s a man-eater!) and get away with it; his persona comes almost fully-formed, such that after just a few bars we already know this guy inside and out: a wise-ass ladies’ man, the kind of guy where you’d not only watch him work but wish him success in his endeavours just because you admire his pluck.
(This, incidentally, is a stock character Shorty would roll out over and over again, refining the act over the years until culminating in the telephone call that begins his exceptional 1967 cover of Chantilly Lace, featuring the greatest male giggle in pop history. But that’s a long way off just now.)
Anyway. Devil With The Blue Dress – most discographies add an extra “On” to the end of the title, but I understand that was introduced later, American listeners being most familiar with this song from its later incarnation in a Top Five cover version by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels (who would themselves eventually end up as part of the Motown roster, albeit somewhat tangentially) – was the best possible launch pad for Soul Records, a statement of intent and a reminder of a whole line of Motown development that seemed to have been closed off. Hearing that boarded-up door marked “BLUES” being unexpectedly kicked open for a rousing, woozy stomp like this is a real breath of fresh air; Shorty might be a comedian on the surface but he’s serious about his craft, and the energy that’s flowing through this record’s blood is invigorating.
Much of that is to do with the exceptional guitar which runs right through the song (a particular highlight coming with a rippling, riffing solo at the two-minute mark, which is worthy of sustained applause all on its own), and a lot of it is down to Shorty himself, whose engaging semi-drawl sounds so louche and laid-back as to be almost falling off his chair; but mostly, it’s that this isn’t really a down and dirty blues as might have been cut a couple of years previously.
Which is to say: it’s still just about a blues, but it’s a new, Motown blues, meaning that all the standard bar-room and street-corner R&B tropes are melded with something else: the high crotchet piano and guitar “sting” notes on the (heavily accented) beat, the string figures and the interwoven vocal lines that most of the label’s pop acts were just starting to work. It’s still a blues record at heart, rather than a pastiche, because that’s where it’s undeniably come from; at the same time, it’s still a pop record, even if it’s a very different kind of pop record to the sort of thing Motown had been working on up until now.
And there at the head of it all, there’s Shorty, smirking his way through lines like Not too skinny and she’s not too fat / She’s a built humdinger and I like ‘em like that which would normally have me reaching for the One Out Of Ten stamp. But everyone involved is having such a good time that it’s hard to see anybody actually taking offence to this, and the sexism is done in such a jokey way – Shorty boasting to his mates with an already acknowledged subtext that he doesn’t actually have a chance, and everyone knows it – that it’s somehow just less offensive on vinyl than it reads on paper.
This isn’t the best of Shorty’s Motown singles, far from it, and taken out of context it’d be hard to make any kind of claim for it being a masterpiece or something; what it is, though, is just a great deal of fun. Inexplicably likeable, and undeniably, well, charming.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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|Martha and the Vandellas
“A Tear For The Girl”
“Wind It Up”