(Written by Sonny Sanders, Charles Leverett and Robert Bateman)
The Satintones had had a line-up change early in 1961, with chief songwriter and guiding light Chico Leverett leaving the group, while new members Vernon Williams and Sammy Mack took their places. Unfortunately, the first outing for the Leverett-less “new” Satintones turned into one of the more notorious fiascos in the Motown story, as their single Tomorrow and Always turned out to be an extremely thinly-veiled rip-off of the Shirelles’ Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? which was met with a fusillade of writs that forced its withdrawal.
Rather than let the release slot for Motown M 1006 expensively go to waste, Berry Gordy simply reissued the single less than a week later, now featuring a new replacement A-side. Well, not “new” exactly. There were no more tunes from the New-and-Not-Improved Satintones to fill the gap at such short notice, so Gordy reached back into the vault to pull out a recording by the old line-up, inadvertently snapping a lengthy streak of dismal Motown releases that had hitherto marked the spring of 1961, and resulting in a superb single that many consider to be the best thing the Satintones ever released.
(Me, I think I just about prefer My Beloved, but this one comes in a very close second.)
The dying days of doo-wop produced few classics. Inescapably intertwined with Fifties rock and nascent R&B, countless doo-woppers found themselves being increasingly left behind as the pop and R&B scene moved on. This gorgeous 6/8 waltz-cum-barcarolle ballad, never even meant for release, is perhaps the final, glorious burn-out of the doo-wop scene, a magnificent, valedictory summing up of a hundred great doo-wop hits of the Fifties all rolled into one.
Lead Satintone Jim Ellis, on his day one of the great early Motown singers, is on the best form of his life here. The song starts out with Ellis delivering an unnerving, breathy acapella “Darling…”, before the band and the group both kick in on the second word. The worker Satintones’ vocal harmonising is often a hit-and-miss affair, but on the first verse here it’s absolutely dead-on, Robert Bateman providing a low, guttural bass under a series of laser-accurate melismatic high-note flourishes, never getting too loud or too far up in the mix, perfect. The band roll their sleeves up too, providing the most flawless rendition of the standard-issue, heard-it-a-million-times piano-bass-drums doo-wop backing track ever recorded. Backed with all this understated splendour, Ellis gives his best ever performance, as he pleads with the woman he’s deeply, hopelessly in love with to give him a chance, rather than the thoughtless berk she’s been wasting her time with, and – like the Supremes’ remarkable Never Again, which is not dissimilar to this record in sound or subject – it’s the vocal delivery which sells it, which makes it believeable, makes you *care*. Ellis is so sincere, and his singing is magnificent, almost imperceptibly ramping up the volume and force from a softly-spoken whisper to a strong, pleading tenor:
Darling, though he doesn’t love you / to me, you are divine / and I realise, dear / to you, I don’t mean a thing…
And you hold your breath to see what the chorus brings, and the music swells and the backing singers take their cues, and Ellis simply smashes the thing out of the park. It’s both astonishing and completely expected all at the same time. The most obvious, most natural chorus to fit the doo-wop template, the ultimate culmination of where doo-wop was always headed, the place that every single doo-wop single ever recorded wanted to go but just couldn’t quite find its way… That’s what this song is.
…But to me / You’re an angel / You’re an angel / An angel to me
The same, near-flawless pattern repeats for another verse and another chorus, and then there’s a perfect sax solo as Robert Bateman shows off his excellent bass harmonies. Then, at 1:49, where previous Satintones records – hell, where most previous Motown records – would have rested on their laurels and simply repeated the chorus to fade, instead the band trims back, the backing singers pick up the main vocal line, and Ellis embarks on a short spoken-word section, quite unlike anything Motown had attempted before.
Darling, yes, I’ll always love you, a feeling I cannot hide…
Then back into that chorus again, without stopping for breath. The tune picks up again, and for the second time the song tricks you into thinking it’ll ride this wave to the end; you’d not begrudge it repeating to fade, it’s worked so hard to get here and that chorus is so perfect. But no. Instead, this has a Proper Ending, with the music stopping altogether, leaving Ellis to give his final, most impassioned reading of the chorus totally acapella (a nice reminder of the similarly unadorned start) before a densely-layered five-part open chord harmony and a tiny strum of blues guitar.
It is an excellent record.
Nobody involved would ever do anything even remotely this good ever again, and on release the record sank without trace, failing to crack the charts; but those are historical footnotes. This is the last great doo-wop record, a fitting monument to a dying art as well as a superb single in its own right, and the fact that it was only released because Motown were sued into withdrawing a third-rate Shirelles knock-off is one of the luckiest of all the label’s lucky scrapes with history.
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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“Don’t Say Bye Bye”
“(I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over”