(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
The mid-Sixties was Motown’s Golden Age, the label leading the radio fightback against the British Invasion and racking up hit after hit after hit as the money rolled in – but the Marvelettes, Motown’s first great group, didn’t share in that success, didn’t reap any of the benefit. While other Motown artists flooded the charts, the Marvelettes saw themselves falling down the pecking order. By the time of I’ll Keep Holding On, their first release since October 1964, they were having to face up to the fact that they’d long since been supplanted as one of Motown’s big-ticket acts.
In many ways, it was their bad fortune to have hit the top first time out with Please Mister Postman, right at the start of their careers. It meant they belonged to an earlier era of Motown, an era before the Temptations, Four Tops or Supremes were known to audiences, a black and white sort of time in every sense; even though they’d been very young when they broke through, fresh out of school with their entire musical lives ahead of them and younger than so many of their labelmates, by 1965 the Marvelettes were a name from the past.
Ironic, then, that here, with their first single in seven months, they should prove themselves to be right on the cutting edge of the Motown sound, taking their cues from both Martha & the Vandellas and (especially) the Velvelettes, turning in a sleek, storming, unsmiling stomper of a dance record. It’s a single that makes a mockery of the Motown pecking order; if Motown’s decision to throw the whole label’s weight behind the Supremes, to the neglect of its other female groups, is completely understandable from a commercial point of view, it’s still surely the case that records like I’ll Keep Holding On deserved more promotion, more love. Showbiz, as ever, is a harsh place to grow up.
This is the most “grown-up” Marvelettes record we’ve yet encountered here on Motown Junkies, and that’s largely because the girls have physically grown up so much since we last met them. Wanda Young, now firmly established as lead singer having unseated original lead Gladys Horton, was twenty-one, and her voice is a million miles away from the shrill schoolgirl we heard on tracks like So Long Baby, her sexy mezzo-soprano still developing but showing enough here to prove Smokey Robinson knew what he was doing when he singled her out as a future star. They still weren’t the finished article quite yet, but this is a great snapshot of a group in transition, and unlike the last two Marvelettes singles – You’re My Remedy and Too Many Fish In The Sea, both similarly transitional – this one is closer to where we’re going than where we’ve been.
Few Motown groups – few pop groups at all, really – have gone through such a complete and remarkable change. Because the Marvelettes lacked both direction from a “mentor” writer/producer, and support from the label, these years are a strange experience, and the only way to track them is via their singles. Following 1963′s The Marvelous Marvelettes, Motown for a period gave up pushing LPs of the group’s material; other than compilations and live sets, there was no Marvelettes album in 1964, no Marvelettes album in 1965, no Marvelettes album in 1966. When the group finally emerged again with a new studio LP – 1967′s The Marvelettes, universally known as “the pink album” and generally considered one of the strongest LPs in Motown’s catalogue – they were like a whole new signing, to the point some fans consider the two phases of the group’s activity (neatly divided, thanks to the huge gap between albums, into two superb CD box sets, Forever and Forever More, faithfully cataloguing both phases of the girls’ careers) to be the work of two different groups.
(Which isn’t necessarily too far off the mark; by 1967, not only had the one-time five-piece Marvelettes collapsed to a trio, with a different lead singer, their harmonies were also quite often augmented – or replaced altogether – on their own records by Motown’s house backing singers the Andantes. Of course, they were by no means the only Motown group where this substitution took place.)
That transitional period probably cost the Marvelettes the chance to compete, commercially, with their labelmates, or to have a late-Sixties chart revival to go with their exceptional late-period records, but they certainly didn’t spend it hibernating. Rather, they became one of Motown’s most consistently excellent groups, turning in a string of excellent singles. Singles like this one.
I’ll Keep Holding On is a great example of Motown’s internal politics, the rush to be first with a new idea, the fights in Quality Control, the constant one-upmanship. Originally recorded in a totally different demo version, the song was completely re-done in the more direct, physical but intricately-constructed style of Nowhere To Run and Lonely Lonely Girl Am I once its writer-producers Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter heard what their rivals were doing via the acetates floating around the corridors of Hitsville, and spotted their opportunity to join the musical arms race. Stevenson went so far as to travel to New York, where the Marvelettes were on tour, and get the group to lay down a new vocal track in an emergency recording session so as to have the record ready for that week’s QC meeting.
When you put it on, you immediately understand why Mickey was so animated. This sounds nothing like anything the Marvelettes have done so far, but at the same time it suits them surprisingly well, Wanda – who’s never been asked to do anything like this before – negotiating the tune’s tricky twists and turns with panache, a good mix of full-throat power and semi-spoken cool. (I wonder, I wonder… what would Mary Wells have made of this?) Plus, the lyrics fall into the fine Marvelettes tradition of being psychologically fascinating, Wanda playing a character as complex as any she’d yet faced, a kind of proactive update on her self-effacing narrator from Forever.
If the Marvelettes come out second best in this instance to the Vandellas and Velvelettes, better records which have somewhat stolen the thunder of I’ll Keep Holding On, there’s still plenty of magic here; the cooing backing vocal stings which help carry the tune, for instance, or the terrifyingly catchy hook of the Waiting, watching, looking-for-a-CHANCE breakdown. It’s a cracker and no mistake, a surprising new record from a suddenly-rejuvenated and suddenly-contemporary group who’d been in danger of getting lost in the shuffle.
Oh, sure, there’s a nagging feeling throughout all of this that they’re still not quite ready, a reminder that despite all the growing-up they’ve done, these are still those same Inkster schoolgirls who, with self-deprecating humour, had first named themselves the Casinyets (“because we can’t sing yet”): the vocals are often the weak link on Marvelettes records, and that’s still the case here, albeit to a far lesser extent than in the past.
But it’s still a great new direction, a statement of intent which may not have returned them to the top of the charts but should hopefully have served notice to everyone at Motown that they weren’t to be forgotten. What I like best about it, besides its being so catchy and punchy and fun, is that it feels effortless, like so many of the very best Motown records do; the Marvelettes were growing up alongside Motown itself, and it’s reassuring to find they were still able to mix it right at the forefront, to match whatever their peers were doing.
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!)
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