As 1962 rattled on – this was only Motown’s fifth single release of the year, and it was already March – the eclectic mix of black musical talent that had been corraled together by Berry Gordy Jr. in the late Fifties was starting to find itself whittled down as the label started to find its greatest success catering to a pop/R&B crossover market.
Gordy never gave up on the notion of finding favour with other audiences – he was preparing to launch specialist jazz and gospel subsidiaries later in the year – but the mid-Sixties Golden Age roster of artists was starting to come together, and a few early stalwarts found they were no longer priorities in this brave new world. Bluesier, less mainstream acts began to be pruned from Motown release schedules, gradually at first; Mable John, the first woman signed to Motown, didn’t have a single release in 1962, nor did Andre Williams, ditto Richard “Popcorn” Wylie, while Gino Parks, Herman Griffin and the excellently-named Henry Lumpkin would find themselves sidelined by the time the year was out. The charts were starting to dictate the development of the Motown Sound, and it had little to do with blues, jazz, doo-wop or Southern gospel; things were changing, and Gordy, a coldly ruthless businessman as well as a loyal friend and great songwriter, couldn’t keep acts on the payroll who didn’t look like having any hits. Understandable; if the course of American popular music in the early 1960s had gone in a different direction, he’d likely have been just as quick to drop the Supremes or the Temptations. But this is the way the wind was blowing, and Gordy was getting ever more adept at spotting trends.
Motown’s resident Southern blues man, Singin’ Sammy Ward (his nickname now restored after it was temporarily removed for his last single, the re-recorded What Makes You Love Him) was a rare survivor from that first pioneering group, possibly because he’d earned a Top 30 R&B hit back in 1960 with Who’s The Fool when the company was struggling for chart exposure. Whether Berry Gordy was simply showing loyalty to a man who’d earned the label a much-needed hit when times were bad, or whether it was simply a business decision – if anyone was ever going to get Motown another blues crossover hit, it would probably be the man who’d got them the first one – he stuck with Sammy Ward, releasing another four singles on him between now and the summer of 1964.
This was no favour, though. Brian Holland and Mickey Stevenson, two of the company’s top songwriters, were drafted in to write Ward’s new single. The aforementioned Andre Williams was behind the glass producing. The result, while unmistakeably a Singin’ Sammy Ward record, is an R&B workout with a heavy blues influence, but one definitely conceived with the charts in mind.
A deceptive intro – Singin’ Sammy doing his full-on melismatic blues delivery almost acapella over a curtain of cymbals and some guitar stings – leads its way into a slinky, raucous, horn-heavy midtempo R&B groove, complete with sassy female backing vocals, while Ward regales the audience with the story of a hot nightclub that the bouncer – the eponymous Big Joe Moe – won’t let him into. The band have a good time with it, turning in a romp which foreshadows Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally a couple of years later.
It’s good fun, but Ward can’t keep his bluesy fire-and-brimstone screech in check, and ends up putting a bit too much raw energy into his performance than suits the song; he goes beyond Pickett’s range and ends up channeling the more raucuous likes of Little Richard and James Brown. Nothing wrong with that (Pickett, Brown and Little Richard between them racked up a pile of massive hits, after all), but it doesn’t seem to have quite been the plan. The song is closer to the sort of semi-comedy soul of later Motown signing Shorty Long, and the wry storytelling rock ‘n’ roll of Chuck Berry, than to the loose, raucous energy Ward’s delivery calls to mind, and so it ends up a fun but oddly unsatisfying experience, somehow less than it should be.
Still, best not concentrate on what this record isn’t, and just enjoy it for what it is. And what it is, really, is a lot of fun. It’s just not quite “there” in terms of everything clicking into place. The liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2 have it exactly right when they say Motown never quite found a way to make Singin’ Sammy the star he perhaps deserved to be: “the blues were too deeply ingrained in his soul”.
The single missed the charts, as perhaps might have been expected. Sammy would never have another hit with Motown, but the label never lost patience; he’d be back in the studio recording a follow-up less than three months later.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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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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“Request Of A Fool”
|Singin’ Sammy Ward
“Everybody Knew It But Me”