Motown M 1014 (A), August 1961
b/w But I’m Afraid
A second Motown outing for Debbie Dean, aka Reba Jeanette Smith, aka “Penny” from Penny & The Ekos. Motown had hoped to turn “Debbie” – who differed from her labelmates in two ways seen as important at the time: by being in her early thirties, and by being white – into a major crossover star, but it never quite happened for her.
Debbie’s first single for the label, Don’t Let Him Shop Around, had been a lyrically-reworked cover of the Miracles’ million-selling smash hit Shop Around, with the Miracles themselves providing the backing, and her second release is similarly conservative. This time, the record has the grubby fingerprints of white radio all over it, an attempt to pick up airplay – and sales – from stations (and audiences) that were shying away from more daring records by black artists. As a result, it’s a bit, well, wet.
Ironically, the same month Itsy Bity Pity Love came out, Motown also released their first massive commercial breakthrough, the Marvelettes’ unstoppable crossover hit Please Mr Postman, which teenage audiences both black and white couldn’t get enough of.
All of which renders this sort of thing slightly pointless, as well as highlighting the fact that Debbie Dean wasn’t the Marvelettes’ Gladys Horton, and this song is no Please Mr Postman. Instead, it’s a well-judged attempt to ape the unthreatening MOR white teen pop records of the time – the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 1 draw explicit comparisons to Brenda Lee – and get the Motown label into new homes. Hitsville receptionist Janie Bradford and the eclectic Richard “Popcorn” Wylie were the unlikely writers given the task of creating a pastiche of those white radio staples, and they carried out their task with aplomb; the result is most un-Motown-like, with a very heavy Country & Western inflection (as seen on the Miracles’ lovely Broken Hearted, but here played absolutely straight). Supposedly Marvin Gaye was the drummer on the sessions that produced Itsy Bity Pity Love, and if that’s the case, he must have been right in his element, given his own cherished dream at the time was to become a crossover crooner in white supper clubs.
Debbie gives it her all, giving a strong and charming performance, her white Southern accent (she was originally from Kentucky, and it really shows here) lending appropriate colour to the song’s C&W stylings – though the title, despite what it says on the label, is sung throughout as Itty Bitty Pity Love, and I find it difficult to like any song that describes anything as “itty bitty” (or indeed “itsy bitsy”, or any other such babyish phrases, so this record was probably doomed from the start) – but she’s simply not given enough to do.
The backing, an absolutely standard-issue off-the-shelf C&W white pop track, rolls along blandly throughout the whole song without ever threatening to go anywhere. There is a really weird bit starting at 1:18 where the time signature changes – not once, but twice – to throw listeners off their guard for a moment, but it doesn’t last, and promptly sinks back into the previous comfortable easy-listening tempo pattern at 1:33, where it stays for the rest of the record. Other than a key change at the two-minute mark, celebrated by Debbie delivering a line in a semi-spoken southwestern drawl (“Hand out thrills that you make me feel“), there’s nothing else to report.
Ultimately, though Debbie Dean gives it a real go, there’s just not enough happening on this record to hold the interest; it’s clean, safe and boring.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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“But I’m Afraid”