(Written by Wade Jones)
Before we begin our journey through the Hitsville catalogue – a journey which starts, officially, with Marv Johnson’s Come To Me, which is where you should start if you’ve just clicked the first entry in the list, hoping to see “the first Motown record” – well, here’s a weird little curio which may or may not be the real first Motown record.
Confusingly, this single – which has gone down in history as Berry Gordy’s “test run” before starting Motown proper, a limited-pressing local release intended to showcase the Gordys’ new “Rayber Music” as an arranging, recording and production concern rather than to crack the charts – was probably released some time after Marv Johnson’s record, even if it seems likely to have been recorded before that first-ever Tamla 45. Still, there’s been so much interest from visitors to Motown Junkies in this historical artefact that it seemed fair to give it its own little moment in the sun.
So, I’m breaking my own rules here. According to the party line, this isn’t a Motown record. This despite compelling evidence (much of it compiled here, among other places, by top researcher and erstwhile, much-missed Motown Junkies commenter Robb Klein – are you still out there, Robb?) that for all intents and purposes, there’s no reason to arbitrarily leave this out of a purported study of “every Motown single ever released”. To recap what Robb and many other researchers have established: it was probably recorded at the same studios Motown were using at the time, it was probably produced by Berry Gordy, it was definitely published by Gordy’s Jobete publishing house, it features the “Rayber Voices” (the fluid backing vocal ensemble put together by Berry Gordy and featuring, at various times, his then-wife Raynoma Liles Gordy (“Miss Ray”), future songwriting legend Brian Holland, and sundry assorted Satintones, among others), and it was pressed up at the same plant and at the same time as Tamla 102 (Eddie Holland’s Merry Go Round).
This is, in every sense of the word, a Motown record. Except that officially it isn’t.
This seems to have been marginalised from day one. At the time, Berry Gordy wasn’t just looking to start a record label; he and his wife were also looking to make money from budding singers and songwriters by recording their songs for them, doing the arrangements, backing vocals and production, and giving them an acetate to hawk around “proper” labels and publishing companies.
This one seems to have had more care and attention lavished on it than that story would suggest – it was actually pressed up on stock vinyl (albeit in small quantities), the song was copyrighted to Jobete, and the record seems to have been distributed by Robert West’s B&H operation (a lot of the relatively few surviving copies have “B&H DISTRIBUTION” stamped all over the labels, meaning those were probably what we’d now consider to be promos). As far as anyone can make out, this was the only thing ever released on “Rayber Records”, which may have been invented purely for this record as a way of publicising Berry’s “Genius For Hire” activities in the “Your Song On Record!” field.
(The story I keep reading is that this ceased to be grouped in with Motown’s other releases of the time when Berry and Raynoma divorced, Miss Ray somehow receiving the “rights” to this record as part of a settlement. I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as that; I don’t deny she may well have received an interest in the songs, although what “rights” she was granted and what value existed in them is anyone’s guess, but it just seems far more likely that this was never considered to be a Motown release to sit alongside the Tamla records of the time, and that Rayber was never seriously considered to be a quasi-independent sister label in the way that Motown Records, established a few months later that year, was intended to be.)
But I digress. The purpose of the site is to discuss what these records are actually like. This one’s a bit like Sam Cooke.
(Indeed, it actually sounds very much like an attempt to do something in the Cooke vein, specifically Wonderful World, except that that didn’t exist yet.)
It’s quite nice, an upbeat, pleasing little R&B dancer; very much of its time, a late-Fifties artefact, a less interesting but perhaps more “instant” tune than Marv Johnson’s Come To Me. Certainly it gets stuck in my head a lot faster than that record ever managed, even if it never really takes off. The band don’t get much to do, but there is some nice sax work; the best notices are reserved for the female-led backing vocals by the Rayber Voices, almost certainly featuring Miss Ray. And while Wade Jones’ voice isn’t particularly strong or engaging, he shows some promise as a songwriter (assuming, of course, that the Gordy’s “arrangement” on the record didn’t amount to a flat-out rewrite job), so it’s a little surprising to see his career doesn’t seem to have ever gone anywhere after this.
Rather nice in its way, like Come To Me its rarity and value as a historical curio far outweighs its merits as a record, but it’s enjoyable and surprisingly commercially viable, which perhaps explains why Rayber Records was set up around it. I’m guessing Jones turned up to do his song, the Gordys started to work on it, and everyone involved realised that with a little luck, they might actually be able to make something happen with it – a local hit, some radio play, who knows?
Berry Gordy didn’t get the lucky break he needed on this occasion, but it’s not inconceivable this could have shifted a few copies had the deck cut a little differently – and, of course, there wouldn’t be long to wait before the Gordys’ toast began landing buttered side up.
(If you want to hear it for yourself, it’s available on YouTube at the time of writing. Public service blogging at its finest.)
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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