(Written by Berry Gordy)
Reba Jeanette Smith, who recorded under the pseudonym “Debbie Dean”, had been the first white artist signed to Motown a year earlier, but had failed to establish herself; with the exception of the sweet B-side A New Girl, her output thus far had been geared solely towards capturing white audiences with white-sounding records, a strategy Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr. was starting to abandon in favour of chasing crossover success with the label’s own brand of R&B-flavoured pop. This was Debbie’s third Motown single, and her last of the era.
Already sidelined from the rest of her labelmates by dint of her age (she was in her mid-thirties, nearly twice as old as some of the Marvelettes), Debbie also had to endure being given the weakest, wettest material the Motown songwriters could pump out, usually done without much love in a cynical attempt to get the black independent label some airplay on white radio.
This one really isn’t much of an improvement on her last two singles; more upbeat and apparently aimed more at the teens, this has something of a late-Fifties/turn of the decade girl group sound (complete with shrill backing vocals provided by the never-heard-from-again “Paulette Singers”), but it doesn’t suit Debbie’s voice at all, dragging her outside her range and not really making enough of her strangely cute Southern diction (she was from Kentucky, and peppers her lead vocal with a noticeable twang, as well as a number of high “hiccup” notes in the style of Connie Francis) which could have been a selling point if someone had played their cards right.
Instead, the record just can’t make up its mind what sort of song it’s trying to be, or what sort of story it’s trying to tell; Debbie once again falls between the “sassy” and “sweet” stock character types assigned to white female pop singers at the time, and ends up struggling, not coquettish enough to play the wide-eyed ingénue, not bold or confident enough to be the wisecracking voice of experience.
Coupled with the almost painfully drippy amateur dramatics of the B-side I Cried All Night, it doesn’t add up to an appealing package. Not a particularly good record, all in all, and not suited to either the singer or the direction in which Motown was now firmly headed.
The single flopped, and Debbie Dean was gone from Motown shortly thereafter – but that wasn’t the end of her story. She would return to Motown in the mid-Sixties under the wing of her friend, the songwriter and producer Deke Richards, finding a niche both as a writer and – for a number of prized unreleased recordings and one final, valedictory single, the stupendous Northern Soul floor-filler Why Am I Loving You, in 1968 – as a performer. For now, though, this marked the end of Motown’s first concerted attempt to chase white audiences. It wouldn’t be their last such attempt.
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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|Singin’ Sammy Ward
“Everybody Knew It But Me”
“I Cried All Night”