b/w So Long Baby
b/w So Long Baby
(Released in the UK under license through Fontana Records)
Motown’s one hundredth single side (by my counting system, anyway) was also their first number one pop hit, as well as one of the great enduring monuments of Sixties pop music. This, more than any other record the company had previously released, announced that Motown was a major creative and commercial force to be reckoned with, and it all started with five callow schoolgirls from Inkster, Michigan.
Motown’s first great girl group came to Hitsville after finishing fourth in a high school talent contest. The top three entries won Motown auditions, but the soon-to-be Marvelettes intrigued their school’s music teacher enough for the group to be finagled onto the trip, where they won the Motown brass over with their enthusiasm and attitude. Untutored and raw, their stage act would be developed and refined by Motown’s Artist Development handlers until they set the template for every Motown girl group of the Sixties. Their lead singer Gladys Horton was fifteen years old.
The Marvelettes’ début single was this sensational pop song, originally brought to the table by former member Georgia Dobbins (who was forced out of the group before they ever signed to Motown, because her father felt touring with a singing group was incompatible with her religious duties) and her pianist friend William Garrett, and then reworked and rewritten by two of the most respected Hitsville staff writers of the time, Brian Holland and Satintone Robert Bateman, as well as Freddie Gorman who was brought in to help with the song because he actually was a postman.
The result is easily Motown’s best single to date, a song with a killer tune, a sound like nothing else out there, and an instant and universal lyrical hook which listeners latched on to in their millions.
The hole it smashed in the charts left the path clearer for dozens of future Motown artists to follow. The label’s first pop number one (and their second R&B number one, after the Miracles’ Shop Around almost a year previously), this was a watershed; the nation’s top record, the best-selling record across America, in jukeboxes and on radios all over the nation, was by five African-American schoolgirls on a black-owned independent label. And it was brilliant.
This is one of the few singles from Motown’s formative years which is not only capable of going twelve rounds with the best of the later Golden Age records, but which can boast almost instant recognition in listeners. The only thing that really comes close is Barrett Strong’s similarly-ubiquitous Money (That’s What I Want), with which it shares some similarities: both were famously covered by the Beatles, and both are seldom remembered as Motown hits, predating as they do the birth of the “Motown Sound” by nearly three and five years respectively. But Motown hits they both were; Berry Gordy could have shut up shop right there in 1961, before the world heard of the Supremes, the Temptations, the Vandellas, the Four Tops or Marvin Gaye, and Motown’s place in music history would still have been secure.
The five writers might have turned this into a case of too many cooks, but it’s actually a wonderfully crafted record. That supreme pop craft is evident right from the beginning, with an off-beat start – a drum beat, a backing vocal shout of “Wait!” before the lead vocals kick in, oh yes, wait a minute, Mister Postman – just enough to grab your attention, when a straightforward start would have perhaps called more attention to the song’s simplicity.
Indeed, everyone has heard this so many times, it can come as a surprise to realise how straightforward a song this really is under the hood. The strange, slow syncopated drum signature aside, the whole thing is carried by the main vocal line, handled very ably by Gladys Horton, who is given almost all the really hard work on the record. The illusion of complexity is created by having the Marvelettes sing a flat verse (Please mister postman, look and see) on backing vocals while Gladys does a melismatic, powerful, hairs-standing-on-end vocal riff, and then she and the other Marvelettes swap places, Gladys singing the words of the verse to create the “chorus”, leading to an almost unbroken loop of self-reinforcing pop perfection. (Using the backing vocals to both lead off the song and play off the lead is a trick that the Marvelettes would pull time and again throughout their careers, reaching a high point with the superb 1963 B-side He Won’t Be True (Little Girl Blue), in which the backing vocals do the entire first verse and a half before the lead makes an appearance).
Other than this incredibly neat trick, the skeleton of the song is beautiful in its simplicity. The instrumentation is surprisingly sparse, its only prominent feature a piano pounded by “Popcorn” Wylie, and the other Marvelettes’ backing vocals (limited mostly to one- or two-note lines) are shrill and grating. The backing vocals would continue to be an intermittent problem on Marvelettes records for several years (not particularly surprising given their youth; the group were all aged between fourteen and sixteen, and their original, wryly self-deprecating name, The Casinyets – “because we can’t sing yet” – was accurately chosen).
OK, so the backing vocals are weak, meaning the song has to be carried by the main vocal line. Sure, whatever. But wow, what a main vocal line. Gladys is an amazing singer, incredibly gifted for her age, and – crucially – she’s totally believable. She is her character, waiting desperately for a letter from her boyfriend, pleading with the postman to check his bag again. Just as with Diana Ross on the Supremes’ much-maligned début I Want A Guy, here Gladys Horton is singing from experience, from something that she knew from her own life, about being a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl in love.
This is no maudlin teenage love letter, though, it’s desperate and it’s real, and what’s more it’s brilliantly done. One of the catchiest of all Motown records, the brave decision to let Gladys do most of the heavy lifting is paid off a million times over as she takes total control of the tune. When we get to the soaring climax and the peerless “Wait a minute, wait a minute” bit, it’s almost perfection; the inexplicable lapse into patois (“Deliver de lett-ah, the soon-ah de better”), so risible in John Lennon’s delivery a year and a half later, sounds natural and ad-libbed here.
No, it’s a great record, plain and simple. This is just about as good as any pop record that had ever been made up to that point, and while it would still be years before Motown approached anywhere near this level of quality on every release, it’s still an essential inclusion in any Motown best-of shortlist. In a word: marvellous.
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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“So Long Baby”
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