(Written by Smokey Robinson)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Mary Wells was long gone from Motown, but her shadow still loomed large over every female solo artist remaining on the label. Although Brenda Holloway, the stalwart star of Motown’s Los Angeles operation, wasn’t cast as Mary’s direct replacement, it was nonetheless Brenda’s bad fortune to be saddled with a job lot of Miss Wells’ discarded material, a whole heap of offcuts to be altered and hemmed and stitched to fit their new owner in the hope of reviving her flagging pop career. This cover of a legendary unreleased Mary Wells 45 is the first of many.
Brenda had hit the heights barely twelve months earlier, scoring a Top Twenty pop hit with the lovely ballad Every Little Bit Hurts, but she’d had just one single since then, and by now, a year later, she’d lost direction; if an indication were needed as to just how rudderless Brenda’s career had become, how little idea Motown had what to do with her (a recurring theme with the company’s solo female talent here in 1965), you need only realise this is the first Motown single – 548 reviews in – where both sides were covers of material previously released by other Motown acts.
That’s not to say that Motown had given up on her, or that the label wouldn’t be promoting Brenda properly (though that would eventually be true, it wasn’t quite the case yet – check out the lavish picture sleeve!); but from a starting position of such startling promise, to see Brenda reduced to working her way through a series of remakes of other people’s hand-me-downs is a little dispiriting.
Mary Wells’ original version of When I’m Gone, intended as the follow-up to the world-conquering success of My Guy, had never seen the light of day. Instead, Mary had walked out on the company in a storm of acrimony while her big breakthrough hit was topping the charts, meaning this song – a breakup tale of a soured, broken relationship, a tale which opens with the lines What are you gonna do when I’m gone? – could no longer be used. But it was a shame to let such a good song go to waste, and when Brenda Holloway needed a hit, Motown presumably reckoned they might be able to reclaim some of the money they’d already sunk into this by respraying it as a Brenda Holloway original.
And there, for me – and for Brenda, really – lies the problem. Not for the first time here on Motown Junkies, I’m left wondering what might have happened if I’d heard a cover before I’d heard the original. It was Mary’s version I heard first – Mary’s taut, twangy, clipped kiss-off of an original, the sparse arrangement making full use of her smoky, sultry contralto and breathy diction, especially in the ending, where she seductively blurs the line between “sing” and “whisper” in perfect, inimitable fashion. Someone in the comments thread for that record namechecked Mae West, and they’re not wrong.
As a result, Mary’s version sets the standard, and – unlike fans at the time – I can’t help but listen to Brenda’s rendition as a cover. I can only hear Brenda through the prism of Mary, and the comparison isn’t flattering to Miss Holloway.
Judging by her comments in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5, Brenda was (and quite possibly still remains) under the impression that Smokey Robinson took on this project gratefully because he was short of work in the wake of Mary’s departure. Smokey quite obviously wasn’t short of work – the man had just had a huge hit with the Temptations’ My Girl, and was gearing up for his best year to date with his own group the Miracles – and while technically, yes, it’s a “new” Smokey production of a “new” Smokey song, those quote marks make it clear it’s not exactly the same as Brenda being invited into the inner circle.
Robinson didn’t commission a full re-record for this cover of When I’m Gone, instead opting to spruce up the original Mary Wells track with a lush string arrangement. Indeed, some have argued that Mary’s version of When I’m Gone was unfinished, that what we heard was a glorified demo or early mix, and that Brenda’s version represents Smokey’s real vision for the finished song. Maybe, maybe not; all I know is that, whether by accident or design, the stripped-back instrumentation really works on Mary’s version, giving her some breathing space to knock the listener between the eyes. Here, everything feels overdone, the orchestral overdubs prettying up a song that didn’t need to be prettier, adding an unnecessary flourish to what was an excellently minimal, direct record.
Does Brenda take her cues from the added bombast? She’s probably a “better” singer than Mary Wells, and when she’s doing ballad material she’s absolutely remarkable, but here she gets it wrong. Partly, that’s because (like Kim Weston) she’s just got a different voice to Mary Wells, and hearing one of the great Motown singers – and Brenda Holloway is one of the great Motown singers, let’s make that clear right now – shoehorned into a vocal part that wasn’t written for her and that’s out of her natural range is a faintly jarring experience. But part of it is the way Brenda goes about taking on the song in the first place.
It’s on a par with Marvin Gaye’s “interpretations” of MOR crooner standards, which fail in a very similar way: she’s got a good voice, but it’s as though she’s not understood what she’s singing. The note of triumph in the original, a glint of a sneer in Mary’s voice that underpins the entire song (which is, after all, about how badly her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend – you, the listener – has messed up pushing her out), is here magnified to four or five times its original size, Brenda blasting out melismatic notes at the very top of her range –
Will you tell them how you made me… So… SAAAA-A-A-ah-A-y-AD?
– giving it the full Whitney Houston just eight lines into the song, sacrificing emotional interpretation for showing off vocal power and technique. I’ve no problem with vocal power and technique, but if you have those tools at your disposal, you’ve got to use them judiciously, not just whip them out whenever you want. At times, this flirts with Liz Lands territory: forget what the song needs, let’s just show what I can do.
Of course, it’s entirely understandable that Brenda – and Motown, I guess – would want the opportunity to showcase her remarkable voice, to demonstrate what a good singer she was. The hits had dried up, and if her pop career was going to be revived, there wouldn’t be too many more bites at the cherry, so this one had to count. Picture sleeve, UK release, “new” Smokey song.
But nothing’s that simple. Hitherto an exclusively Los Angeles-based artiste, Brenda was flown to Hitsville in January 1965 to record her vocals for the repurposed track, and she must have been excited by the prospect of working with the company’s big guns. Arriving in Michigan in the middle of a midwinter blizzard, she was soon disabused of those notions. Greeted coldly (quite literally, one story ending with her being physically thrown into a bank of snow outside the studio as some kind of hazing prank), it quickly became apparent she wasn’t going to be treated as the label’s next superstar-in-waiting; the tatty old photography studio on West Grand was now a business office, dedicated to churning out new product 24/7, and Brenda’s cherished new start was just another job.
She seems to have been exactly as grateful as the label wanted her to be, but it’s a missed opportunity, the subtle emotional power of the original replaced by entirely unsubtle vocal power and needless orchestral adornment. It’s still a good song, of course, and it wasn’t a flop; inded, commercially, she was still able to benefit from the bouncy original backing track and the fact that this was a “new” song to contemporary listeners, and the record made the Top 30, not a huge hit but a respectable one. Mission accomplished, sort of, but the record’s soul has gone during the process.
Plenty of respected judges, including commenters on this very site, have said they prefer Brenda’s version to Mary’s; I can’t help but wonder how I’d feel if I’d heard the two versions the “right” way round too, because – for me – this one just isn’t a patch on that one.
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!)
Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- Mary Wells (July 1964)
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