b/w Take A Chance
The one and only hit record that the neglected, soon-to-be-shuttered Miracle Records label would ever register, this fine bit of comedy doo-wop scaled the dizzy heights of Number 89 on the pop charts.
I say it’s “fine”, but it’s not, not really. No. Allow me to explain. This is an excellent song, by turns sweetly amusing and genuinely touching, which sadly ends up being totally ruined here by what sound like some truly shocking performances.
At which point you may well be asking: “Sound like” some truly shocking performances? What in blazes are you talking about? I say “sound like” because this is one of those singles for which the compilers of The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 1 couldn’t locate a master tape, having to make do instead with dubbing a copy from a 7″ vinyl record, and I believe it’s the worst affected of all such singles in the box. By some considerable distance, too. Either the singers and the band were completely incapable of keeping tune, drifting woozily off-key throughout the record, or the vinyl copy sourced for the box set was unsalvageably warped. It’s been brilliantly mastered, but the source sounds terribly wonky.
The Valadiers were Motown’s first white vocal group (I think this is the last of these “Motown’s first…” milestones out of the way now, actually. Champagne all around!) On this evidence, they were also pretty ordinary singers compared to some of their Motown labelmates, even if they were above average by the not-terribly-high standards of white Sixties doo-wop groups.
It might not always have been so. The liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 1 have them changing their line-up at the behest of Berry Gordy before being signed to the label, ditching their black members. The story doesn’t make complete sense – something about the Del-Vikings having recently split up, meaning there was no market for mixed-race (or “integrated”) groups, or some such tripe – but if it’s true that the Valadiers had to replace a couple of singers at short notice, it might go some way to explaining the sub-par vocals on this record. Surely they must have sounded better than this at their audition.
I’d never heard this record before, only being familiar with the song from the Monitors’ hit cover version in 1966 (by which time the song – the story of an unwilling draftee into the army, firstly being exhorted by an anthropomorphised Uncle Sam to drop everything in his life, then bemoaning his lot and begging his girlfriend to stay faithful while he’s gone, and finally being barked at by a psychotic Full Metal Jacket-style drill sergeant – had acquired very real, very serious edge thanks to the escalating events in Vietnam). The Monitors’ version is exceptional, possibly the last good doo-wop record ever made, while the song features songwriting contributions from luminaries such as Brian Holland and Robert Bateman (as well as the mysterious Ronald Dunbar, a studio worker who would end up being credited with writing a number of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s post-Motown productions at their Hot Wax and Invictus labels). As such, I was really quite excited to hear what the original version sounded like.
And it sounds… dispiriting is the word I’m after, I think. It’s hard to look past the faulty recording, which makes the record rather difficult to listen to, but I don’t know if a pristine master tape would have remedied this. From what I can tell (and from the evidence of the B-side Take A Chance and the Valadiers’ other Motown singles, which didn’t have these lost master tape troubles), their harmonies were satisfactory rather than spellbinding, and that seems to be the case here too. Lead singer Stuart Avig gamely goes for a few high notes, but comes up flat every time, while there’s just no chemistry of any kind between him and the other Valadiers doing backup. The “drill sergeant” bit in particular, a bit which is both menacing and hilariously hammy in the Monitors’ version, is done dourly and without enthusiasm here from both ‘actors’; the effect is more Sgt Bilko than Full Metal Jacket.
Sad to report (and perhaps harsh to judge it against a later record), but it seems safe to say this isn’t a patch on the Monitors’ version, duff recording notwithstanding.
A shame, because the song really is excellent. The Valadiers would have two more singles released through Motown, but no more hits; while they wouldn’t pick up any further Motown writing credits as a group, backing singer and arranger Marty Coleman would end up as a useful producer/songwriter with the label in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
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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“Take A Chance On Me”
“Take A Chance”