B-side of Back In My Arms Again
(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
B-side of Back In My Arms Again
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Before we begin, I’d like to wish a Happy New Year to all regular readers of Motown Junkies, as well as everyone else who’s stumbled across this place by mistake – I wish you all a happy and healthy 2013.
When I set out to review every Motown single, back in 2009, I never thought it would get this big – really, it was just a way of getting more out of the records, of forcing myself to give every track due consideration. What I did hope, and what has indeed happened, was that doing this would make me reconsider some of the opinions (received or otherwise) that I’d previously held, and that’s definitely the case.
It’s taken me three and a half years to get this far, and in that time some interesting things have come up that I wasn’t expecting. For a start, I thought I’d disagree with myself more, if that makes any kind of sense. After three and a half years, going through some of the old reviews over Christmas, although there’s plenty of stuff I’d rewrite given the chance, there are very few where I’ve wanted to change the marks beyond a nudge up or down here and there (and none at all where I’ve outright changed my mind). I made it a rule to never go back and change a mark – but it’s pleasantly surprising how little I want to. Maybe the process itself, plodding step by step through the entire catalogue in such detail, has helped fix my thoughts in stone as well as electrons.
Nonetheless, there are still plenty of surprises while I’m writing these things, opportunities to challenge narratives and story arcs that had been similarly chiselled into the history books. Whisper You Love Me Boy is a case in point. It turns out I like the Supremes more than I thought I did. (Which may sound odd given that I’ve had a good but not glowing review of a Supremes single sat up here for three weeks while I was away). I’d had it in my head for a long time (perhaps because of the two acts’ relative success or lack thereof) that Brenda Holloway was a beneficiary of Mary Wells’ shock departure from Motown, Brenda having been gifted most of her old songs in an attempt to make hits out of them, and that the Supremes were only given old Wells material as filler, cheap covers knocked off with little love; that Brenda never managed to score a significant hit with a Wells hand-me-down, and that the Supremes racked up tonnes of sales of second-hand material, I considered to be an injustice. Factor in the fact that Brenda is a better singer than Diana Ross (of that there can surely be little doubt, even from the most die-hard Diana devotees), and I’d just automatically assumed Brenda’s Mary covers were better than the Supremes’ Mary covers.
But they aren’t. Brenda Holloway – underappreciated, put-upon, screwed-over Brenda Holloway – was poorly served by Mary’s shock exit, saddled with a bunch of songs that didn’t suit her voice or her unique strength (power, range and melisma, not breathy seduction and girlish giggles), as a way of giving her “new” material on the cheap, and she was expected to like it or lump it. Thus far, and in the near future, Brenda’s vocal reinterpretations haven’t really been what I was expecting at all.
By contrast, because this is album filler, because Diana’s voice is technically weak compared to Brenda’s, and because the Supremes were often guilty (even – especially – at their mid-Sixties peak) of singing any old shit they were given to bulk out albums, both from the Jobete catalogue and (far) beyond, I’d expected very little from this. More fool me.
For some reason I hadn’t expected the group – who’d shot to fame singing the songs of Holland-Dozier-Holland, produced by Holland and Dozier – to turn in an exceptional version of a Holland-Dozier-Holland song produced by Holland and Dozier. That the result should be excellent, and this is excellent, should maybe not come as a surprise, not if you’ve been paying closer attention than I have. As it turns out, this is the best “cover” of a Mary Wells song I think I’ve ever heard.
So much of the Supremes’ excellent fourth album, More Hits by the Supremes, could be described as “magnificent filler”, by which I mean no disrespect, quite the opposite. I think there’s potentially an argument to call More Hits one of the first great albums which feels like it was conceived as an album, rather than a collection of singles and B-sides bulked out with cheap extras, a glorified EP. (I mean, I know it probably wasn’t conceived that way, but in an age where the idea of the album as an artistic statement is queen, it stands up astonishingly well.) That Motown made a mess of choosing which songs from it to use as singles, we’ll get into at a later date; for now, I’ll just say that to me, with a couple of obvious exceptions, it’s not an album that lends itself particularly readily to being parcelled out into 45rpm chunks. (Part of my dissatisfaction, if you can call it that, with Back In My Arms Again is that it’s always felt more like a supreme (ha!) album cut than a killer single.) But this, which opens side two, is really quite beautifully done, and works particularly well taken in isolation.
This is a cover of an old Mary Wells track from Mary Wells Sings My Guy, scheduled as a single but never released. There’s not a huge amount to say about this when compared to Mary’s version – the band track is the same, the arrangement is the same – it’s literally a note-for-note cover version, but with Diana and the Supremes dubbed over where Mary used to be. So, in a sense, to get a feeling for this song you’d be better off reading the old review, as pretty much everything I said there still stands. I rarely respond well to perfunctory and pointless cover versions, but this one’s different.
Perhaps more than any other Mary Wells track, this one was crafted especially for her, for the contours of her voice, the sinuous flexing of her mind. Holland-Dozier-Holland responded to Smokey Robinson’s heroics on My Guy by turning in a response that doesn’t just sound like Smokey’s track, which it does, but was also built like Smokey’s track, a song expertly custom-made for the voice of just one owner. So much of the weight in Mary’s original version of Whisper You Love Me, Boy is carried by Mary, there’s no way this should ever work with anyone else at the mic.
But this is Diana Ross we’re talking about, and by this relatively late stage, Holland-Dozier-Holland had a pretty good idea of what she could do and what she couldn’t do. She’d never be mistaken for Mary Wells, but by some strange magic, she could do this. It sounds like a Supremes song, rather than a cover. Whether it was a calculated ploy, an inspired guess, or a more mundane occurence (the result of Holland-Dozier-Holland having slipped into a particular type of songwriting “groove” because most of their days were taken up writing for the Supremes and Four Tops), H-D-H had a song which is close enough to the “signature sound” of both Mary and the Supremes, while just far enough away from both to sound natural. Diana was brought in to sing lead, and – where others had failed – she turned out to be perfect.
With respect to Flo and Mary, this record stands and falls with Diana, just as the original had stood and fallen with Mary. Miss Ross does everyone proud. Her high, sweet, almost sugary, almost innocent voice turns out to be the ideal vector for the song’s multiple layers of romantic fever. Mary had proved adept at playing three different roles, teasing out the song’s hidden depths, bringing out the wholly innocent let’s-hold-hands-and-exchange-class-rings frosting on the surface, the deeper infatuation and joyful abandon running through the song, the completely unspoken but utterly unmissable sexy thoughts flowing beneath.
Despite Diana Ross taking a completely different approach, vocally, to her predecessor, her nasal giggles replacing Mary’s smouldering contralto, sounding at least ten years younger than Miss Wells even though in reality less than a year separated the two women, she still manages to pluck the exact same heartstrings, hit the exact same emotional bullseye. In the process, she manages to do something that neither Brenda Holloway nor Kim Weston, for all their technical superiority, had done: understanding Mary Wells. Here, Diana Ross sounds nothing like Mary Wells, and yet somehow she makes it work, exactly like Mary Wells. The result is a record that’s fresh enough to be distinct from the original, and yet every bit as good.
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 (September 1964)
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“Back In My Arms Again”
“A Thrill A Moment”