(Written by Smokey Robinson)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
By 1965, Brenda Holloway was stuck in a holding pattern at Motown. As with almost every female solo act who wasn’t Mary Wells, the label didn’t really know what to do with her, and so Brenda had somehow fallen prey to the first concrete idea anyone had had for her future career. This plan meant she ended up inheriting a series of Mary’s cast-offs – a strategy which was bringing ever diminishing returns, commercially at least.
For the second time in a row here on Motown Junkies, Brenda Holloway presents a “brand new” single where both sides have been heard before (this time, it’s not one but two covers of old Mary Wells songs). Unlike last time, when Brenda had gamely tried to out-Mary Mary on a new version of Miss Wells’ excellent When I’m Gone, with mixed results, this time the song she’s presented with is far from golden. Mary Wells had recorded the original version of Operator all the way back in January 1962, the song sneaking out as a B-side that fall and then being used as filler on the Two Lovers LP before receding from history altogether.
Smokey Robinson, who’d written and produced that original version, and who was gaining a reputation for revisiting old material with an eye to a do-over, must have heard something in the song which made him think it would be a good idea to dust it off and present it to Brenda as the killer 45 to revive her already-flagging career. Commercially, he was dead wrong – this barely dented the Hot 100, failing to even scrape the top 75 before disappearing – but artistically he had a point. For the first time here on Motown Junkies, even though the bar wasn’t set terribly high, Brenda Holloway turns in a Mary Wells cover that improves on the original.
Whether Mary or Brenda was “better” is a debate that’s raged among Motown fans for years, but in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5, Brenda herself is quoted with an answer that should settle that argument, or at least quieten it down a bit.
“On certain things, she was better. On other things, I was better.”
And that’s the crux of it, really.
Brenda is full of respect for Miss Wells (“I was honoured [to be given Mary's old songs], that girl was fabulous… she is one of my all-time favourites. To me, Mary Wells was the voice behind Motown”, she tells Andy Rix), and that profound respect informs all of Miss Holloway’s covers, for good and ill. Good, because while their voices are different, Brenda shows here that she can adopt Mary’s ocean-deep, soft-loud semi-spoken contralto approach to a song; ill, because she’s often reluctant to just copy what Mary did, and as a result many of her covers are strident vocal-showcase affairs that miss the subtlety and pathos in the originals.
You can’t blame her for that, of course, as I’ve said before; her chances were few and far between, and you can’t begrudge Brenda the opportunity to show off her pipes (regardless of whether it suited the song) by attacking the material with her biggest stick, in the fear she might not get too many more bites at the cherry. It’s interesting, then, that Brenda turns in her best “Mary impression” on a cover of a song where Mary’s original performance had been sorely lacking, taken at much too fast a lick and done without much control; Smokey, who re-recorded the song with a brand new band track, string arrangement and guitar parts, must have listened in the booth and smiled to himself as Brenda did the song the way it was meant to be done.
I don’t want to oversell this; Operator was an annoying, gimmicky little song in Mary’s hands, and so it remains here. But it’s slower, sexier, and just altogether more grown up than Mary’s original, Brenda really teasing out the pain and frustration in the song. The narrator in Mary’s version was a tetchy teenager, snapping at the titular operator to fix the supposed problems getting in the way of the narrator’s long-distance phone call to her boyfriend (who, it’s strongly implied, is rather less keen to talk to Mary than she is to speak to him.) Here, Brenda is no less strung-along by the man, the lyrics haven’t changed one word, and yet the whole thing feels much more… What’s the word I want? “Dramatic”, I suppose?
Though that feels too perjorative. Certainly there’s melodrama here that wasn’t in Mary’s version, but unlike Brenda’s lead-footed run through the lacework-subtle When I’m Gone, here the slightly overwrought emotional delivery really fits the song, the narrator clutching the reciever so tight as to make her hands hurt, cord absent-mindedly wrapped round her wrist, genuinely needing this call to go through, refusing steadfastly to believe her “long gone lover” might have hung up on her. Ultimately, unlike Mary’s original version, with Brenda’s reworking you can see the hand of Smokey in the dark psychology of the lyrics, a portrait of a woman on the edge.
If nobody will be confusing this for a masterpiece any time soon, nonetheless I much prefer this version to the original; finally the song makes sense. Not as a choice of single, mind you.
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 (October 1962)
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