b/w It’s You
(Written by Donald Davis)
Herman Griffin was a dynamic live performer who would wow audiences with his outrageous physical dances; his jumps, splits, somersaults and back-flips not only captivated the crowds in the predominantly white clubs he played, but also caught the attention of Berry Gordy, who wrote a song for him in 1958 (I Need You on the HOB label, noted by Motown nerds (like me) as the very first song ever to be published by Gordy’s new Jobete Music Company publishing house).
Gordy also provided an “in” for Griffin to cut another single with Berry’s big sister Gwen’s label Anna Records in 1959 (at the time, a bigger and more successful label than Tamla or Motown), and finally produced and released this single on Tamla in 1960.
Griffin remains most famous (or infamous) in Motown circles for having been Mary Wells’ first husband. Supposedly a domineering character, stories abound of him exerting an unnecessary degree of control over Wells and her career, wrangling a role accompanying her on tour with the Motortown Revue as her “conductor” or “musical director” (despite being unable to read music) and then drawing attention to himself geeing up quiet crowds by performing his customary acrobatic moves on stage while she sang. How much of this is true is open to question, but Griffin is widely believed to have been the driving force in extricating Wells from her Motown contract after she turned 21 (right in the middle of her breakthrough to superstar status with My Guy) and in her subsequent ill-fated signing to Twentieth Century Fox, which precipitated a shockingly rapid career decline.
Here, long before any of that, Griffin turns in a likeable enough slice of late-Fifties rock ‘n’ roll, with some excellent guitar work courtesy of composer Don Davis, later Johnny Taylor’s intuitive producer at Stax and Columbia; in a weird twist of fate, Columbia ended up leasing this for release on their own label (left).
It’s not really clear what Columbia thought they could do with this. It’s likeable enough alright, but not remarkable. Like Singin’ Sammy Ward’s earlier Tamla effort What Makes You Love Him, it’s possible that Griffin was holding something back, toning down his act a bit from his incendiary live performances; either that, or he was just more of a performer than a vocalist. Certainly he’s loud enough, spitting his lines and contracting words to one-syllable bursts (“tokabout LOVE”), but it’s somehow lacking, uninspiring.
The song is also poorly produced – as happened with Smokey Robinson on the first version of the Miracles’ Shop Around, his delivery is too forceful and too loud for the primitive recording technology available in Hitsville Studio A to cope, causing massive amounts of hiss and distortion. Either that, or he was just far too close to the microphone.
Griffin would go on to record one more Motown single, Sleep (Little One), in 1962, spending two more years as part of the label’s live show setup before leaving with Mary Wells in tow. He would later cut a string of flops for various small labels through the Sixties, but history wouldn’t remember him for anything he did behind a microphone.
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4 / 10
(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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