(Written by Berry Gordy)
The career of Brenda Holloway, once Motown’s boldest new hope – this, lest we forget, was the woman whose star had shone so brightly a mere twelve months before that Motown were able to use her rising fame to pull the then-unknown Supremes up by the bootstraps – was only heading in one direction: straight down.
The American public who had lapped up the sensitive, stately beauty of her début Motown 45, Every Little Bit Hurts, taking it to the edge of the Top Ten and apparently begging for more, had ended up rejecting the equally sensitive, stately beauty of the follow-up I’ll Always Love You, prompting a lengthy spell of confusion and soul-searching while Motown struggled to work out what to do with Miss Holloway. Since this coincided with the walkout of Mary Wells, then the label’s biggest star, Brenda was pushed into a forced marriage of convenience with a job lot of Mary’s old material, Motown perhaps hoping that she could take Mary’s place as their solo female standout.
Never mind that the two women’s voices are completely different; never mind that Brenda’s Mary Wells covers form a series of records ranging from “moderately impressive” to “inescapably duff”; but Motown certainly did mind that the resulting singles sold poorly, the punters just seemingly not interested any more. Even a support slot opening for the Beatles on their record-breaking summer US tour couldn’t turn things around; the stadia full of screaming fans weren’t there to see her, and the exposure did little to spark interest in her records.
Brenda reacted to this increasing indifference on the part of both Motown and the fans by overcompensating ever more dramatically, taking every opportunity to show off her Big VoiceTM no matter how inappropriate, which only ended up turning off listeners even more.
By July of 1965, the last time we met Brenda here on Motown Junkies, her stock within the corridors of Hitsville had fallen to the point where her proposed new single, You’ve Changed Me (an underwhelming Smokey Robinson production) was shelved.
The shelving wasn’t permanent – the catalogue number was re-used here, the best part of two months later, for a replacement A-side – but even that speaks volumes, Motown shoving out their one-time protegée’s new record as an afterthought in the middle of a decidedly quiet midsummer slump when the label’s release schedules were looking a little sparse, Brenda Holloway the purported successor to Mary Wells now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Little Lisa and Tony Martin. Sure enough, the public remained unmoved, the single failing to make the Hot 100.
So when this turns out to be a return not only to the sound of her first two Motown singles, but to the quality, an astonishing tour de force of a performance, imperiously magnificent, there’s only one question: where on earth did this come from?
There’s an epic sweep about this, a grand scale that probably did little to endear Brenda to screaming Beatlemaniacs – but they’re not who this is for. More than ever before, Brenda is now being aimed squarely at the grown up market, the sort of “respectable” territory where Motown would later send forth Barbara McNair and even Diana Ross. Here – on the more grandiose, more intricately-detailed first mix (apparently carried out by Brian Holland), at any rate – the move pays off. For me, it pays off.
JUST BECAUSE YOU KNOW I LOVE YOU
I often say that I love writing this blog, because the work it involves – not just listening to these records so much (at home, on my way to work) that I sometimes end up living with them, but also listening to them always with one eye on what I’m going to end up writing about – teaches me things about myself. And in the case of You Can Cry On My Shoulder, it’s taught me a great deal, which in turn is why you’ve had to wait an age for this review.
In short, I still don’t know what I think of Brenda Holloway. Or, no, that’s not right – I know I like her a lot. What I mean is, I still don’t know exactly why, but I feel I’m getting closer to working it out.
It’s not that she’s palpably brilliant, that you’d have to be some sort of idiot not to fall into Team Brenda (she isn’t, and you wouldn’t.) She’s very much admired, of course, but admired in a particular kind of way, an indie snob’s admiration; she’s got a stronger voice than Diana Ross, she was very obviously given a rough deal at Motown compared to the Supremes, she’s far less well-known, ergo she must be better, right? Especially knowing she wrote You’ve Made Me So Very Happy; especially listening to the absolute bucketfuls of great tracks on the four volumes of A Cellarful of Motown that never made it to listeners’ living rooms.
And for a while I went along with that.
(But not, interestingly, because I’ve ever actually found her that attractive – to me, that’s such a subjective thing, but the constant repetition of the mantra that Brenda was “the most beautiful woman ever signed to Motown” feels just like similar statements about how the Beatles were the best band ever, or how Shakespeare was the best writer, or any other “best ever” statements on anything that can’t be measured by bare statistics. But I digress. Again.)
Listening to the actual records, though, a kind of category error started to crop up; ploughing through that series of second-hand single sides, ranging from the barely-competent to the pretty good, I kept thinking to myself, ooh, I like Brenda Holloway! Oh, but I don’t like this. Must be my fault – I like Brenda Holloway! Until eventually it dawned on me that no, everything she did wasn’t gold.
That was kind of a watershed moment, because it led to a kind of backlash as the pendulum swung too far the other way. I’m British, and like a great many British music snobs, I have a love-hate relationship with the resolutely American singing style of melisma-at-force in pop music. It’s a style which lends itself all too easily to abuse and which eventually ended up leading us to Whitney, to Maria, to endless identikit Noughties talent show mayflies with perfect teeth and Autotune… and yet it’s undeniably effective (or else people wouldn’t keep trying to do it), and when it’s done well, it’s breathtaking.
I say “when it’s done well”, but maybe I mean “when it’s used properly”. By definition, nearly all big-voiced melisma is “done well” (although the results for those who do accidentally skid off the track aren’t pretty), but inappropriate overuse can kill the effect; after a point, it just becomes background noise. If you’ve got a Big Voice (TM), and you’re looking to knock me flat with it, you can’t just go all out when the song doesn’t call for you to do it; that’s not emotion, that’s doing a wheelie. I’ve touched on this in other reviews, but my philosophy boils down to only breaking out the big guns – the massive, eyes-closed, fists-clenched, almost-uncontrollable guns – when your character gets to that point when nothing else will do. Otherwise, you end up not only detracting from the song and distracting the listener – making that cardboard backdrop wobble disconcertingly, snapping us out of the moment – and not only leaving yourself nowhere further to go when things really get heavy. You end up making yourself look stupid, in every sense.
People apparently love Brenda’s When I’m Gone. I don’t. Her casual opening-up of the throttle at the end of the very first verse there – four lines in and already swinging for the fences with everything she’s got – is such a waste. It’s a complete disconnect between the lyrics and the vocal, just to show off her voice, and if you’re going to do that, why bother with words at all? Why not just turn it into a quasi-aria, wail melismatically and impressively for two minutes and finish with a grand Oh oh whoa mmmm yeah whoa oh nnnn whoa yeah YEAH?
But this? This, I love. I adore this record. It restores my faith in Brenda’s judgement, her skilful, sensitive reading, her astonishing deployment of that voice. Of course, it also underlines how much of a sucker I am for big sweeping American torch songs played for melodramatic thrills; this style can get grisly if you mess it up, but when it’s as good as this, the rewards are massive, resulting in a magnificent record, an epic in the best sense. It works because Brenda is so, so good here, better than she’s ever been, maybe better than she ever will be again.
What I’m saying, I suppose, is that it’s entirely possible I like Brenda Holloway – admire her, respect her, look forward to hearing each and every song she’s ever made with heightened expectation (expectation she so frequently repays) – purely because of the goodwill she buys with this one astounding record.
YOUR LOVE IS NOT FOR ME
Brenda had started her Motown career doing this sort of thing, of course – both Every Little Bit Hurts and I’ll Always Love You, the sad and happy sides of the same coin, had been slow-burning torch ballads. The style of material had suited Brenda’s big voice off to great effect; a clever lady and a damned good singer, she was nonetheless prone to overcooking a vocal, swinging for the fences on the very first pitch and risking abandoning the tune in the process, and so hooking her up with tunes where that didn’t matter – indeed, where her scarcely-harnessed raw power and that melisma could be an advantage – had made perfect artistic sense. But the public had other ideas, and after I’ll Always Love You flopped, Motown pushed her in a different direction, Mary Wells’ cast-offs fitting her like a charity shop prom dress, fundamentally unsuited to her strengths while playing up her weaknesses.
(Ironically, to the best of my knowledge, she never got given the one Mary Wells song which would have suited her brilliantly – but then You Can Cry On My Shoulder is very much Strange Love dialled up to eleven.)
Now, after we’ve reached a point in Brenda’s recording career where she seemingly has little more to lose, something interesting happens. Motown had scrapped You’ve Changed Me, a tentative tiptoe back towards torch song territory, in favour of this full-blown leap, penned and produced by label head honcho Berry Gordy himself, drenched in strings and crashing cymbals. It’s surely not a case of trying to make the boss happy – Gordy was as competitive as anyone in his stable of young songwriters, but he was also smart enough to take a back seat when hired hands were turning in better work.
Rather, the choice of replacement song indicates Berry Gordy doubling down, confident in both his songwriting and his judgment: Brenda’s first sallies as The New Mary Wells had been underwhelming, so let’s go back to Plan A, Brenda the big-voiced MOR/jazz siren for the discerning record buyer, the new face of sophisticated soul. And not just go back, but go back in full effect, throwing all his chips on the table. He had the perfect song for the job, a song that ranks among his and Brenda’s very best.
By the middle of 1965, Motown had tackled lots of dark and adult themes in their lyrics, and neither Every Little Bit Hurts nor You’ve Changed Me are exactly a barrel of laughs. But You Can Cry On My Shoulder is in a different league altogether: it’s not so much a frank examination of the obsession, pain and self-debasement of unrequited love, it’s more like a dissection, carried out by candlelight with rusted scalpel in hand.
It’s a love triangle: Brenda’s narrator is in love with some guy, who in turn is in love with some other girl we never get to meet. The song sees Brenda reducing herself to the role of, well, a shoulder to cry on, a good-natured doormat who’s convinced herself she loves this guy so much she’d rather be sat with him while he pines for someone else, rather than not being near him at all – even to the point of trying to help him repair the relationship (“…Maybe I can show you how you can win her back again”, she sings, far too eagerly.)
Brenda never once stoops to dissing the other girl, never openly tries to pluck the guy’s heartstrings by underlining how badly she’s hurting (unless you read the entire song as a passive-aggressive “No, no, don’t you worry about me” blurt of her feeling sorry for herself, and I don’t think that’s the case – indeed, it’s not at all clear if the guy is ever even meant to hear any of this, or whether she’s just singing to his picture.) The two things we take away from You Can Cry On My Shoulder: she’s got it really bad, and he’s some kind of absolute idiot.
It’s a song, and a performance, of complete desperation, self-effacement to the point where all pride is destroyed; it’s the truest, harshest exploration od the nature of love we’ve heard in months, maybe years, and it is a masterpiece.
The best Motown records match form and function in an effortless marriage, the whole becoming greater than the sum of the individual parts, and so it is here, Brenda’s vocal wandering like her mind and breaking like her heart (“YES you can!”) The music, just as in the Four Tops’ similarly all-or-nothing Baby I Need Your Loving underlines the high stakes we’re now playing for: this is no tiff between middle-school sweethearts (which is, of course, not to say that schoolyard pain is any less real than for women and men of Brenda’s age), this is someone so in love it makes violins cry in anguish.
The song seems to be petering out towards the end, Brenda’s narrator resigning herself to another quiet night in alone, contemplating what might have been if only she’d done or said something in time, perhaps mentally visualising a confrontation that will never actually happen (She’d better stop treating you so bad…) – but then instead, unexpectedly, the intensity gets dialled right the way back up again with a huge, lunging temporary key change that might have been disastrous had either the band or Brenda (by now almost completely untethered from the tune, on the verge of making a massive scene in some restaurant) missed their mark even by an inch. Imagine the horrific mess that might have ensued, the prospect of an unattractive self-pity party drenched in inappropriate strings. But instead, it goes off perfectly, a missile to the heart that can’t help but leave you gasping.
Quite astonishing on every level –
(- though the second mix included on TCMS 5, with all the pretty counterpoints and musical call-and-response touches buried almost inaudibly in the mix as though Gordy felt embarrassed having opened such a raw wound, only serves to second-guess itself, lowering the stakes, wiping off some of the grandeur and taking a couple of points off with it. But this is mere carping – )
- quite astonishing on every level, this is the standard by which every other all-or-nothing romantic epic should henceforth be judged. Magnificent.
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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“Puppet On A String”
“How Many Times Did You Mean It”