(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
The great Bobby Rogers of the Miracles has passed away since the last time we wrote about him – but while this isn’t a Miracles track, perhaps it’s nonetheless the best way to remember him, as not only did he co-write First I Look At The Purse with his Miracles bandmate Smokey Robinson, it’s actually Bobby’s giggly voice we hear at the start here, to open what is a giggly kind of record:
“What does every man look at first?”
This, the “Mark 2″ Contours’ first single in seven months following a drastic line-up change which saw only Sylvester Potts and lead singer Billy Gordon remain from the previous version of the group, is an early example of a strategy Motown would later use as its go-to play: got a group struggling for direction? Pair them with Smokey, he’ll know what to do. And he does; he and Bobby turn in a palpably silly record that nonetheless plays to Gordon and the Contours’ unique strengths while having just enough of 1965 about it to stay relevant.
So, a new role beckons for a new Contours, in light of First I Look At The Purse and its predecessor Can You Jerk Like Me – they’re slowly, almost imperceptibly, transitioning from raucous, loutish novelty dance rockers to hard-edged mid-Sixties Motown R&B ambassadors, a Junior Walker-esque reminder that not everything coming out of Hitsville was a sweet pop-soul romp. Like Shorty Long, they’re charming enough to get away with eyebrow-raising things the clean-cut Temptations couldn’t risk yet.
This, for those who haven’t heard it, is in the same musical family as Smokey’s upcoming Going To A Go-Go, and the same lyrical family as Smokey’s prehistoric Shop Around: a sweltering blues-flavoured rock-out with a narrator giving us his, um, unconventional take on romance. For the narrator of First I Look At The Purse, his ideal woman has just one single make-or-break quality, and one alone:
“A woman can be as fine as can be
With kisses sweet as honey!
But that don’t mean a thing to me
If she ain’t got no money!”
Alert readers will be wondering why I’m not getting angry with this, when I blew a gasket over I’ll Be Doggone for spouting similarly sexist stuff. The answer, really, is because this is funny; the joke is on the narrator, not the woman, and (again like Shorty Long) the impression is of some louche reprobate boasting to his mates.
I don’t believe for one moment it’s meant to be taken remotely seriously, but even if it were, Billy Gordon delivers this with such a stupid grin that says he’s already fully accepted he might deservedly earn himself a slap in the face, plus whatever the 1965 equivalent was of a badmouthing on Facebook and Twitter (like a crudely-phrased warning written in lipstick on a diner bathroom mirror, or something). Perhaps the tone is still inexcusably sexist, but I think the misogyny is tempered by the absolute silliness of it all; this is a song about the narrator, and he’s a buffoon. An amusing buffoon, certainly, of the type we’ve all come across – annoyingly, he’s exactly as funny as he thinks he is – but I’ve no need to worry about keeping him away from my daughter, because I trust she’s got enough sense to give an amused snort and keep right on walking.
Anyway, back to the record. Whenever Billy Gordon is given the chance to cut loose and let rip – when he wants to do it, not when he’s being forced to jump through hoops like some kind of performing monkey (metaphorical hoops, that is, as Gordon was well-versed in jumping through actual hoops as part of the Contours’ famously athletic stage act) – the results are always knockouts. Whole Lotta Woman, Do You Love Me, It Must Be Love… Gordon’s sandpaper voice makes classic work of them all. If he’d left the Contours, they’d have been sunk – but he stayed, and so that thread remained alive to be continued. Smokey Robinson, perhaps the most perceptive songwriter of all time when it came to sizing up who he was writing for, knew it well, and so here he gives Billy something to get stuck into, something he’d enjoy singing. The results are excellent.
However good Billy is here (I don’t care if she’s UNDERFED!), I get the feeling Smokey and Bobby had a blast writing this nonsense, like a busman’s holiday from Temptations songs full of exquisite pain and lovelorn beauty: this is just a load of silly semi-puns, Smokey Robinson sitting down and thinking, well, if I were some street-corner would-be lothario, what would I say?
…I don’t care if she waddles like a duck
And talks with a lisp
I still think I’m in good luck
If the dollar bills are crisp
It’s actually a list song, the narrator going through everything he can think of that men might usually prioritise (some fellas like the smiles they wear / Some fellas like the legs, that’s all) before explaining that actually, for him, all of that is irrelevant window dressing (Why waste time looking at the waistline?) compared to her bank balance. It’s so shameless, so over-the-top, that it’s impossible to get offended.
When it turns out to be excellently danceable – the exact musical midpoint, in fact, of the evolution from Can You Jerk Like Me? to Going To A Go-Go – you suddenly realise how the Contours, who seemed more irrevocably date-stamped by 1962 than any of their labelmates at the time, might still have a part to play in Motown’s ever-slicker musical future. Unexpectedly, it turns out Smokey, and Motown, needed the Contours to exist: not as a link to the past, but as an outlet for silly ideas, as an expression of physical energy, as a pressure valve. And this, daft as it is, is just buckets of fun.
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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“Now That You’ve Won Me”
“Searching For A Girl”
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