(Written by Don Juan Mancha)
The final throw of the dice for Barrett Strong, the man who’d scored Motown’s first real national hit back in the summer of 1959 with the classic Money (That’s What I Want), and who had spent almost two years trying in vain to score a follow-up hit. This was his fourth unsuccessful attempt, again missing the charts completely just as his last three singles had done, and it marked the end of the career of Barrett Strong, Motown recording artist.
He hadn’t failed for want of trying, having done pretty much everything at his disposal to make another hit record – moving away from Money and showing his versatility, going back to Money with a cheesy follow-up, working with the same writers, working with different writers; none of it had worked. For this last, desperate shot at returning to the hit parade, he enlisted the help of his former schoolfriend, the improbably-named Don Juan Mancha, a writer and producer with Wilson Pickett and the Falcons. The resulting single is an interesting curio, enjoyable enough but more of an “End of Side One” thing than a record destined to vault its singer back to the big time.
A brooding, shuffling quasi-blues in a minor-key arrangement and feauturing a fiercely unschooled sax solo, this doesn’t really have anything in common with any of Strong’s earlier singles – the closest analogue would be the obscure B-side You Knows What To Do, but even that’s a bit of a stretch – and it doesn’t particularly sound like a hit single.
(Actually, what it does sound like, now that I come to think of it, is a really, really early precursor to Marvin Gaye’s version of I Heard It Through The Grapevine, released seven years later – a song co-written, of course, by none other than Barrett Strong. Certainly, it sounds more like Marvin Gaye than the wet, schmaltzy records Gaye himself had actually released the previous month.)
Which isn’t to say it’s anywhere near as good as Grapevine, or indeed any of Strong’s other songs written for Gaye, the Temptations, Gladys Knight et al in the late Sixties. It’s nice enough, but not particularly engaging lyrically, and not one to really stick in the mind; like I say, it sounds to me more like a solid album cut than a hit single, and it certainly doesn’t seem a natural choice for one final gamble for a singer who desperately needed a hit.
Still, it’s probably the strongest (no pun intended) vocal performance of Strong’s Motown recording career; there are hints of real technique here, as well as a wounded soulfulness which he hadn’t really shown before in his previous outings. Maybe if he’d shown more of this sort of promise and done more of this kind of thing over the last couple of years, he’d have finally got that follow-up hit.
Instead, he left Motown after Misery had tanked, no doubt somewhat dejected / defeated, and spent the early Sixties bouncing around a number of mid-size labels (Atco, Tollie, Chess) as both an artist and a budding songwriter. He did some good things during his time away, too, the best of which was an entertaining R&B single, Make Up Your Mind, for Tollie (which does sound like a hit single), but he never got his follow-up hit as an artist.
The story wasn’t over for Strong at Motown; he’d return in the late Sixties and form an enduring songwriting partnership with maverick producer Norman Whitfield, including (as noted above) a joint writing credit on Motown’s biggest selling single to date. He’d go on to leave Motown a second time in the mid-Seventies and resume his performing career, making some decent records but still never managing to follow up his one solitary hit single.
Still, this was it for him as a Motown performer; he’d have no more records at Motown on this side of the glass. At least he managed to sign off with some dignity (artistically if not commercially), and with the grateful thanks of Berry Gordy and the Motown Record Corporation.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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“Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right”