b/w Isn’t She Pretty
(Written by Berry Gordy)
Oh, man, I love this record.
The first-ever release on the brand new Gordy Records imprint, and right out of the gate, its first chart hit (going Top 30 R&B), this was also deservedly the first of many (many!) chart hits for the Temptations.
It was also the first solo lead vocal on a Tempts record for Eddie Kendricks, who had previously done his best to ruin the group’s début single, Oh Mother Of Mine, with a series of falsetto shrieks and yelps – but who sounds strangely at ease here.
I say “strangely”, because this is an eerie, almost other-worldly record, apparently constructed by Berry Gordy out of moonlight and shadows; it’s full of strange chord changes, unusual noises, unexpected harmonising and – of course – Gordy’s wife Raynoma, “Miss Ray”, parping away on her primitive Ondioline synthesizer, as she had done on so many previous Motown releases. Yet, somehow, it all works. Actually, no, it doesn’t just work, it sounds fantastic.
I love it.
Opening with a hesitant-yet-strident burst of Ondioline, guitar and drums together, all playing the exact same notes one at a time to produce a kind of weird early-60s orchestra hit (and a reprise of sorts of one of the instrumental breaks of the Temptations’ previous single, the genuinely strange multi-part experiment Check Yourself, oddly enough), the record then settles down into a sort of dreamlike, cascading series of overlapping soundscapes. It’s mesmerising, and it’s so different from anything else available at the time that you can’t help but perk up your ears – what IS that?.
In a good way, though, not just baffling and avant-garde like Check Yourself, but genuinely beguiling. There’s a conventional romantic ballad buried somewhere in there, but it’s buried very deep, Eddie Kendricks only barely keeping within sight of the tune as he swoops around the top of his high tenor range. As I said earlier, he’d previously been seriously at fault on Oh Mother Of Mine, but his strange, otherworldly tenor warble suits this song down to the ground, resulting in one of his best lead vocals before going solo years later.
Eddie and the band spend the verses playing two almost completely different tunes, yet somehow they end up in the same place just as the record gets to the chorus. It’s the chorus that really makes this record, Eddie timing out a descending lead-in – “Yes – you’re – my” – before the rest of the Tempts, anchored by Melvin Franklin’s resonating bass, pull out a rich, layered descending harmony – “DREAM – come – truuuuuuue”, starting with a weird chord change out of nowhere and resounding with a warm and enveloping sound that makes your hair stand on end.
Indeed, all the weird stuff that goes on on this record – and there’s a lot of it, it must be said – just fits in perfectly, it’s never experimentation just for the sake of it. There’s a lengthy Ondioline solo in the middle, a long instrumental break which would ordinarily stick out like a sore thumb, but which somehow works with just the right touch. On the rest of the record, the Ondioline takes what would on later Motown records be the role of a lush string section, and it’s done very well, so drawing attention to the instrument’s artificial nature by giving it a long, parping, buzzing solo should be a mistake – but it works. The whole record works.
I’m really heartened that this was a hit, as it might well have proved too uncommercial for either radio or record shoppers – but it’s one of those things that reaffirms your faith in the American record-buying public, because this was almost in the R&B Top Twenty, and set the Temptations up for a long and successful career as one of the world’s premier R&B vocal groups. Even with all of the great records they’d go on to make, though, I still have to rank this among my favourite Temptations singles; it’s just magical.
Possibly the best song Berry Gordy ever wrote, and therefore fitting that it should appear on the first release on the label bearing his name. But huge credit is also due to both the band and to the group; it is, after all, what’s in the grooves that count(s).
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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“Baby I Need You”
“Isn’t She Pretty”