Tamla T 54051 (A), November 1961
b/w Tie Me Tight
(Written by Sunny Skylar & E.V. Deane)
“Bob Kayli” was the pseudonym of Robert Gordy, youngest brother of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr, and the second member of the clan to record a single for the company (following the February 1961 appearance of When I Needed You by Little Iva & Her Band, i.e. Berry’s wife Raynoma Liles Gordy, usually called “Miss Ray”.)
“Kayli” had had a single release before, and a minor hit at that – Everyone Was There on Carlton in 1958, a novelty affair co-written and produced by Berry Gordy – but supposedly sales to white audiences tailed off abruptly after his first live shows, when Robert was discovered to be black. Whatever the truth, his musical career had gone somewhat quiet since then; one single for big sister Gwen’s Anna Records aside (Peppermint (You Know What To Do) in 1959), the youngest Gordy had toiled in a day job working for the post office until Berry called him back into the showbiz circle, firstly as an engineer, and then here as a recording artist once again.
It’s surprising, listening in order to all of the records Motown released in its first three years, as documented on the stupendous Complete Motown Singles: Volume 1 set, just how far things had come in such a short space of time. Well, I find it surprising, anyway. The differences between the likes of Ron & Bill’s awful It and the Miracles’ Everybody’s Gotta Pay Some Dues, written and recorded by pretty much the same set of people, are little short of astonishing.
The downside of listening in this fashion is that I find myself brought up short when a record seems like a throwback to those dismal first days, when Motown would stock its release schedule with attempts to sponge off the success of popular hits, resulting in a slew of “answer records” and outright rip-offs. This is one such record.
Actually, in this instance it’s a little worse than usual. The original hit record in question here is Jimmy Dean’s Big Bad John, a transatlantic country/spoken-word smash which hit number one pop in October 1961. Almost before that record started climbing the charts, Berry Gordy was beaten to the parody punch by white Detroit DJ Phil McLean’s Small Sad Sam, which basically took the lyrics of Big Bad John, a story of a tall, strong hero, and inverted them to create a story about a short, scrawny, lily-livered oaf, set to almost exactly the same tune.
Acting with great speed but little imagination, Berry Gordy made sure Motown wasn’t left out chasing the bandwagon. He gave his brother a first Motown 7″ single release with this, a note-for-note cover of that parody, in stores within a month of Big Bad John hitting the top. A rip-off of a rip-off, then. Marvellous.
There’s a great deal wrong with this record. For a start, it’s not funny, not even by 1961 standards; the song spends its duration listing how much of a jerk this Small Sad Sam is (and it’s thigh-slapping stuff, what with its horrifying tale of a fatal lift accident and all), but he never gets his comic comeuppance, and so it’s just a laundry-list of mean and unfunny things he gets up to (starting fights, shoving old ladies on buses and the like).
Furthermore, even it had been hilarious, it had already been done exactly the same by someone else, and it’s difficult to know what Motown hoped to achieve by trying to squash a competing comic record simply by nicking a smaller label’s idea and out-fighting them commercially (shades of Shorty Long’s Here Comes The Judge going toe-to-toe with Pigmeat Markham in 1968).
Thirdly, it’s not very good. The Supremes sing backup, though you’d never know it, as they have nothing to do but sing Small sad Sam a few times and then hum in the background (they do get to change their line to That chic-ken Sam near the end, but that’s about it). Meanwhile, Kayli adds little to the record; he recites the lyrics clearly enough, and changes things up in places to try and add a tiny bit of character, but he somehow sounds about 20 years older than he really was, as he ploughs with grim determination through his crushingly unfunny monologue.
It’s never as outright awful as some of the worst sides Motown had released to date, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to listen to it other than die-hard Supremes fans scrutinising the backing vocals.
A dated, pointless relic, it deservedly died an ignominious commercial death. Remarkably, it wasn’t the end of “Bob Kayli”, recording artist, as Berry Gordy gave him another shot the following year; maybe he felt guilty about having asked his brother to record this garbage. (Or maybe it was Robert’s idea and Berry just went along with it. We’ll never know for sure, though my money’s on the former.)
Anyway. Nul points. Next!
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!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“Your Wonderful Love”
“Tie Me Tight”