b/w Faded Letter
(Written by James Hanley)
The end of the line for Motown’s first vocal group. The Satintones had released seven records, some of them genuinely excellent, without ever coming close to troubling the charts; this uninspired doo-wop/R&B cover of a Thirties standard wasn’t ever likely to turn things around commercially, and it turned out to be their last single, for Motown or anyone else. The group melted away shortly after its release.
It opens in utterly baffling fashion; the first verse is taken solely by the backing singers, perhaps in an oblique conceptual joke – the first lines of the song, “never could carry a tune / never knew where to start”, are indeed sung quite terribly. In fact, it’s quite appalling until bass Robert Bateman makes his first solo appearance at 0:26, singing the title in his inimitable super-deep voice, in what seems to be a direct link to the Marcels’ version of Blue Moon.
(Indeed, the influence of the Marcels’ record is writ large all over this one; the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 1 note that this wasn’t the first R&B reworking of Zing…, referencing the Coasters’ 1958 cover from the B-side of Yakety Yak (and Youtube also brings up this horrible version by The Demensions, the blandest and whitest of bland white doo-wop), but this Satintones arrangement seems to be new – doing exactly to Zing… what the Marcels had done to Blue Moon, copying the Marcels’ idea by simply changing the base material, swapping out one old chestnut and substituting another – an “unoriginal original idea”, if you will.)
Anyway, things pick up a little from there on in; there’s a proper lead vocal, taken very well by Vernon Williams (or at least it sounds more like Vernon than Jim Ellis to me, nobody seems to have actually confirmed this either way), and things progress in a competent, respectable but wholly un-riveting fashion.
Some nice vocal touches aside – the record features both the best and the worst of the Satintones as singers, from the awful intro to the lovely interplay between Williams and Bateman in the choruses – there are also some mis-steps that drag things down. There’s a range of tweeting, chirruping Ondioline riffs towards the end which don’t really work in the context, and a muffed fade-out which disorientingly fades back in for a split second on its way down – but on the whole it’s the very idea that’s at fault. This is probably the best R&B/doo-wop cover of Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart that could have been made, but on the minus side, it’s still an R&B/doo-wop cover of Zing Went The Strings Of My Heart, something there has never been any particular need or demand for.
Certainly it’s not a fitting send-off for a group who never really got the recognition they deserved, either for their place in Motown history or for the handful of exceptional records they released. Within a couple of months, the Satintones had broken up; there were few mourners.
The two lead singers, Jim Ellis and Vernon Williams, should have gone on to greater things; instead, Williams ended up briefly leading the Pyramids, while the music business seems to have lost track of Ellis altogether. Bass singer Robert Bateman, a key early Motown songwriter and regular writing partner of Brian Holland in the label’s formative days, as well as a studio engineer in an era when few people knew how to physically work the Hitsville recording equipment, stayed together with bandmate, tenor and sometime arranger Sonny Sanders to form the new Sonbert and Correc-Tone labels.
The Satintones’ place in Motown history was long forgotten, though versions of the group did reunite both in Europe in the late Sixties and for Ian Levine’s Motorcity project in the Eighties; only now, with their Motown material finally widely available at the tail-end of the CD era (and their first comprehensive compilation album, The Satintones Sing!, due for release in just over a month at the time of writing) is their legacy being properly appreciated. Certainly, they had released plenty of singles that were better than this half-hearted, half-arsed swansong.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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