b/w Who’s Lovin’ You
(Written by Smokey Robinson)
There can be no greater illustration of the fickle nature of showbusiness, and the way Motown now handled acts who weren’t pulling their commercial weight, than the story of what was happening to Brenda Holloway in the summer of 1965.
When Brenda was invited to join the Beatles’ upcoming American tour (following in the footsteps of Mary Wells, the Fabs being big Motown fans), an itinerary which would soon take in the unprecedented show at Shea Stadium in front of 55,000 screaming Beatlemaniacs, it must have seemed to outside observers that things were still going smoothly. Miss Holloway had been the “It” girl of the previous spring, earmarked for great things, and this would have seemed like another step in the right direction.
But in reality, the Beatles engagement was a rare positive in what was becoming a terribly disappointing time, a temporary high papering over the cracks that had started to develop. Back in the corridors of Hitsville, where she was already unpopular for her West Coast background and sometimes uncouth demeanour, and where (as the Velvelettes had already found to their cost) an extended absence could see you lose ground you’d never make up again, Brenda Holloway was in danger of becoming irrelevant.
Back in the spring of 1964, when she had first hit it big with Every Little Bit Hurts, her sun had looked like it would never set; bold, beautiful and possessed of a powerful voice, her début Motown single had sailed into the high reaches of the charts, an album following swiftly on its heels, and everyone had her down as One To Watch, tipped to be a big star. So big, in fact, that Motown were able to use her burgeoning reputation as a bargaining chip to get package tour gigs for a struggling, little-known girl group they’d had on their books for years.
Fast forward just fifteen months, and that girl group had racked up five Number One hits in a row, lavished with new material from Hitsville’s top writer-producers, while Brenda slogged her way through a torrent of ill-suited hand-me-downs and uninspired original songs. She’d never see another Top Twenty hit, never mind any more Motown albums. But hey, at least she got to open for the Beatles.
Her fortunes weren’t entirely unrelated to those of that no-hit girl group, mind you. Motown had recently vaccillated – fatally – when choosing the Supremes’ new single, resulting in a last-minute switch from one planned A-side (Mother Dear) to another (Nothing But Heartaches); now it was Brenda’s turn to undergo the same treatment. Thus, You’ve Changed Me ended up being shelved, and its catalogue number (unusually) re-used for a completely different song a month later.
But this doesn’t feel like the same sort of situation in which the Supremes had become tangled; it’s doubtful Motown were carefully considering their options, making sure they made absolutely the right choice before greenlighting the 45 they hoped would score Brenda a Number One. Charitably, the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 5 posit instead that Motown simply decided You’ve Changed Me was the wrong choice of new single to be promoted in stadiums full of Beatles fans, but I don’t think that’s it either.
Rather, this feels like Motown visibly losing interest in their one-time bright young hope, the Watts girl who’d ironically failed to become a chart-bothering superstar during Hitsville’s incredible annus mirabilis while several of her less hotly-tipped (and Detroit-based) labelmates had leapfrogged her to Number One.
In other circumstances, this might have been a big-ticket affair, but instead it feels like an afterthought, to be added to the release schedules only if there was enough room that week – and certainly not at the expense of another, more profitable act. Brenda, it seems, had been pushed so far down the pecking order that her record would never even appear.
For sure, there’s nothing here to have caused the girls and boys in Quality Control much optimism; any excitement caused by the presence of Smokey Robinson as Brenda’s writer-producer fairy godfather – and this time finally coming good on the long-awaited delivery of a new Smokey song for her to sing, rather than one of Mary Wells’ old cast-offs – would likely have sagged once the song was unveiled. It’s the oldest-sounding “new” number Smokey could possibly have turned in, bearing as it does rather more than a passing musical resemblance to Mary Wells’ version of What Love Has Joined Together, two years out of date.
Plus, Brenda is once again trying far too hard, treating the song as if it’s her last possible opportunity to show off every facet of her remarkable voice; she uses this as a show reel, and to hell with the emotional punch of the lyrics. Understandably enough, sure – Beatles or no, she was still an outsider and a minor, and Motown was becoming such a volatile environment there was every chance this really would turn out to be her last shot – but it’s to the detriment of the song, which wasn’t a masterpiece to begin with.
The middle eight in particular is a disaster area, both Miss Holloway and the band collapsing into swooping, whooping, wandering melisma just shy of the two minute mark before everyone quickly pulls themselves together again, but there are plenty of other moments where playing it smaller might have borne dividends. Yet again, I find myself coming away from a Brenda Holloway record with the impression that she was a great singer who needed to be reined in a bit more; the vocal melody gets lost in places thanks to her quite frankly showing off, and there are parts of this which might as well have been in Portuguese for the amount of feeling she brings to it.)
The lyrics, though, are really interesting, albeit in a Mary Wells circa 1963 kind of way; the narrator’s boyfriend has engaged in months, possibly years, of emotional abuse and petty blackmail, taking over her life, telling her how to dress and wear her hair and who to hang out with, all but erasing her personality, and reprogramming her into a completely new woman, a disturbing premonition of Neil LaBute’s The Shape Of Things… only to then find that he’s given his new “creation” the strength and self-awareness to dump his sorry ass. It’s the sort of thing where you could imagine Mary Wells having an absolute field day, but Brenda treats it as nothing more than a vocal showcase and, I have to say, I don’t really like it all that much.
In fact, with almost every successive Brenda Holloway 45 that comes up for review here on Motown Junkies, I’m finding myself re-evaluating my perception of her Motown career (as told through her released seven-inches). She has at least an entire double album’s worth of incredible Northern and deep soul cuts, to the point where the Cellarful of Motown series could serve as some kind of alternate-universe Greatest Hits collection (we’ve already seen her knockout version of How Can I, but how about Walking Out With My Heart or All Your Love or My World Is Crumbling or Trapped In A Love Affair? And that’s without even delving into the Motown Anthology pictured at the top of the page, which contains things like Reconsider (yes, I know that’s not its real title), which might have been Number One for a month had things shaken out differently. She was brilliant.)
And yet when it comes to her actual singles, every time I’ve found myself getting all keyed up – ooh, Brenda Holloway, I like her, this ought to be good!… it’s a disappointment. Oh, I don’t really like this one. Oh, or this one. What’s next? Oh, this isn’t one of her best ones. And so on, apparently forever at this rate.
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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“Your Cheating Ways”
“Who’s Lovin’ You”