b/w I’m Gonna Stay
(Written by Smokey Robinson)
Each successive single from Mary Wells, Motown’s first bona fide solo star, had been getting progressively better. It’s hardly as if she’d started right at the bottom of the scale, either; her three singles to date, Bye Bye Baby, I Don’t Want To Take A Chance, and the mesmerising Strange Love, already added up to a body of work anyone could be justly proud of.
Now, at the start of 1962, paired for the first time with writer/producer Smokey Robinson, she turned in her best so far. Not coincidentally, The One Who Really Loves You landed Mary her biggest hit to date (Top Ten pop, and just missing out on scoring Motown’s third R&B Number One).
This was Motown’s fourth year of existence, and another trend was also starting to develop which would become a label hallmark during the company’s mid-Sixties Golden Age: preferential treatment in the studio for the company’s premier acts. Mickey Stevenson had been tasked with doing a huge, lush production on Mary’s last single, Strange Love, and no expense had been spared in getting the best sound possible. When that record had bombed, Motown head honcho Berry Gordy wasted no time in assigning Mary Wells to a different writer/producer – not just any writer, but Smokey Robinson, firmly established as the label’s top creative man – and again greenlighting an expensive production to get her career back on track.
It worked, because this sounds fantastic.
Opening with a burst of three increasingly loud drumbeats – a kind of early fade-in, presaging the Supremes’ Come See About Me two and a half years later – and then picking up with a strange quasi-calypso tempo, a stop-time guitar/bass riff, bongos and drums in tandem, along with an understated, perfectly-timed crash of cymbals, the record grabs the attention straight from the off. Meanwhile, the well-judged male backing vocals add a fresh new element, picking up a sort of echo in the second verse – only wants you until the DAY-yyy – which is pretty much irresistible.
(So beguiling is the mix of ingredients that it takes a couple of lines before you notice the glaring similarity to Little Eva’s international mega-hit The Loco-Motion – but that didn’t even exist yet, not being released until June of 1962. Far be it from me to suggest Goffin and King had listened to this Mary Wells track first, or anything.)
Anyway. Those male backing vocals come courtesy of the magnificent new male “house singers”, the Love-Tones, who were in the process of systematically replacing the Rayber Voices as Motown’s go-to off-the-peg backing vocalists of choice; the male counterparts to the legendary Andantes and precursors of the Originals. Unlike those two groups, the Love-Tones never actually got a Motown single under their own name (though the Andantes one was a weird case in any event – more of which much, much later – and see Robb Klein’s comments on the Ecuadors’ Someone To Call My Own (at the bottom of the page) for more on the Love-Tones’ possible moment in the sun, of sorts), but they did rack up a bunch of label credits, getting their first one here.
The early Funk Brothers are starting to find their best form here; while Smokey throws tempo and key changes at them to keep everyone on their toes (that odd break from the start of the song actually comes back in at the end of each line in the verses, in a deceptively complex rhythm structure), the band pulls it off with an air of effortlessness, almost every time. (There’s a tiny breakdown in tempo on the drum fill just before the middle eight, but the one coming out of it sounds perfect). Everything about the record is done with precision and loving care, but special mention has to go to the fluid, melodic bass, James Jamerson further honing his craft year on year.
The song itself is one of Smokey’s best to date, pulling in everything he’d learned from a series of increasingly complicated and advanced Miracles numbers and putting it all to splendidly good use. Lyrically, too, it’s highly affecting, despite being simplistic in the extreme – another future Motown hallmark. It’s not poetry, and it’s been criticised for being almost provocatively basic; but it’s direct, and it rings true. Essentially a plea from Mary asking her much sought-after boyfriend to stop chasing after other women who have been “filling his head with jive” (a kind of lyrical opposite of Mary’s later signature tune My Guy, where it was Mary who was in demand). Instead of a hectoring “eyes front, mister” demand to her errant bloke, she instead opts for the “you’ve got it good already” angle, making it clear that she’s prepared to let it go, but it’ll be entirely his fault if things go south: Love, you’d better wake up / Yeah, before we break up, and you lose me / Look to me, the one who really loves you… Obviously coached by Smokey, her cadences very similar to his even though their voices are nothing alike, the effect is entrancing.
There is a slightly clunky bit in the middle eight where Mary runs through a list of her rivals’ character flaws, with their names seemingly chosen simply for scansion – Jenny, Minnie, Silly Lilly and so on – but even then, it scans so well, and Mary carries it off so confidently, that you barely notice; you’re agreeing with her. Or, more accurately, you’re asking the object of her affections just what the heck is wrong with him, because he’d have to be insane to be messing Mary Wells around like this.
Once again, then, Mary is the star, and she makes this her own. She has to take a lot of the credit for this record’s expansive, professional sound, as she excels herself here. Mary tones down the operatics in her voice and turns in a sassy, knowing performance, full of emotion and smoky (no pun intended) jazz-inflected character, Smokey cannily making sure not to downplay the innate sensuality in her voice without descending into a gross sexualized caricature à la Buttered Popcorn. She was still only eighteen, but she sounds both worldly and experienced; she’s come on so far since her début that playing this back-to-back with Bye Bye Baby, you’d think five years had passed between the two records.
With the success of this single, Mary was firmly established not only as Motown’s biggest solo star, but as a regular Top Ten chart act in her own right. She’d remain in the care of Smokey Robinson for the rest of her remaining two and a half years with the company, racking up a series of classic singles – of which this should be counted one of the first.
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.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in Mary Wells? Click for more.)
“Don’t Leave Me”
“I’m Gonna Stay”