April 1961, and not for the first time in Motown’s history, the hits had dried up. The only Top 50 pop hit the company had had in six months was the Miracles’ Ain’t It Baby, which had scaled the not especially dizzy heights of number 49. The follow-up singles from Mary Wells and the Miracles weren’t ready, Barrett Strong couldn’t find the charts with a divining rod, and from having been the hot new thing just a few short months previously, the company now found itself treading water, mired in the middle of a worrying run of really disappointing, uninspiring singles that failed to find favour with either DJs or the record-buying public, a run which ended up lasting throughout the spring of 1961.
In that context, it’s perhaps understandable that Berry Gordy greenlit this bizarre exercise in raiding the cupboards, going back almost a year and a half to revisit his company’s first glorious hit record, Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), one of only a couple of bankable songwriting properties in the Jobete catalogue at the time.
Gordy’s unusual choice of artiste to squeeze fresh new sales from his precious stone was blues pianist Richard “Popcorn” Wylie, who’d already had one Motown single release – the bizarre comedy vignette Custer’s Last Man – the previous August. That record had bombed, and so Popcorn was perhaps an unlikely prospect to revive the company’s chart fortunes. That said, Gordy had played unexpected hunches before with excellent results; maybe he felt Wylie’s curveball approach would bear fruit.
It didn’t. Whether a brave gambit or a cynical ploy, this single failed to halt Motown’s commercial slide; indeed, like Wylie’s previous record, it missed the charts altogether.
Still, what could have been an exercise in pointlessness is instead an intriguing historical curio. It’s certainly no soundalike cover – in fact, it bears almost no resemblance to the original at all, sounding more akin to a sped-up version of Barrett Strong’s own deeply unsuccessful sequel record Money And Me – and, under strict instructions from Gordy to “cut it the way you want to cut it”, Popcorn really gives it his best shot.
Launched by Wylie’s pounding, frenzied piano attack, pitched somewhere between boogie-woogie and silent movie thriller music, it goes barrelling along for almost half a minute, sounding like a totally different song, until the music eventually lurches to a stop and Wylie spits the instantly-recognisable first line, “The best things in life are free”, which comes as something of a surprise, being the first indication of what song it is we’re actually listening to.
Sadly, it doesn’t really go anywhere else after that. The whole thing is effectively an awkward marriage between Wylie’s engaging piano-led boogie jam (which isn’t a million miles away from soon-to-be mega-hit Nut Rocker, so they might have been on to something commercially) on the one hand, and the lyrics and verse structure from a totally different, classic – ubiquitous – pop song on the other. The words sound like interlopers here, as though they’ve been awkwardly pushed and squeezed and forced into somewhere they just don’t fit.
It’s a shame, because the raucous, frenetic music on offer here is likeable, Wylie and the band sound like they’re having a lot of fun, but as a cover of a classic record, it stacks up pretty poorly. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this would be a far better record if you just got rid of the vocals and kept it as an instrumental; you’d certainly never guess what song it was meant to be.
Pretty disappointing, all told, but at least it’s different enough from the original to warrant its own existence, something which couldn’t be said of many Motown in-house covers twenty years later.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- Barrett Strong (August 1959)
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