The third Motown single for Edward Holland Jr., and probably the best of the crop so far. After the superb B-side Take A Chance On Me, the first time Eddie sang a song written by his younger brother Brian, this A-side marks Eddie’s first Motown songwriting credit, as well as the first release of any songwriting collaboration between the Holland brothers. The pieces were starting to fall into place.
They still weren’t quite in place, of course. Mickey Stevenson, one of the hottest Motown producers and an excellent songwriter in his own right, co-wrote and co-produced this – but he wasn’t the writing partner the Holland brothers needed. Indeed, for around a year or so, it wasn’t clear that that the Holland brothers were going to be any kind of songwriting partnership at all. After a baby-faced, frizzy-haired genius named Lamont Dozier entered the Motown story a little over a month later, Brian instantly gravitated towards him, recognising a kindred spirit with a similar talent for melodies; together with the “singing mailman” Freddie Gorman, the three of them formed a superb songwriting trio which initially shut Eddie out altogether. Even when Gorman’s postal job started interfering with his ability to work with Brian and Lamont, right into late 1963 it was still entirely possible that Hitsville receptionist Janie Bradford (another great writer in her own right) might have taken up the vacant spot. Eddie, for another year and a half, would be considered an artist first, a songwriter second.
Eddie Holland ended up having a total of eleven Motown singles as an artist, making him one of the label’s more prolific acts in the early years and putting him ahead (in numbers at least) of artists like Kim Weston, the Velvelettes, Chris Clark or the Elgins. He also had a smattering of R&B and pop chart hits, none of them hugely substantial but certainly respectable, and he had the looks and the voice to ensure himself a comfortable career as a solo star, equal parts Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. Yet, like Barrett Strong – another early Motown solo turn who became better known as a songwriter – he had an acute dislike for live performance (some sources describe it as out-and-out stage fright), and disdained his undeniable gifts as a singer in favour of his unbelievable gifts as a songwriter. He seems to have endured his solo career (which lasted well into 1964) as a sort of grim self-appointed task, his comments at the time – “I don’t like to give up on something without finishing it properly” – are most illuminating.
Indeed, when the H-D-H triumvirate and Motown went their separate ways after 1967, once the legal wrangles over the split had died down a little, Lamont Dozier (who had the voice for it) and Brian Holland (who didn’t) both took up arms again as singers for their Hot Wax/Invictus labels – but Eddie, the one-time teen heartthrob, the one who actually had a viable solo career in his past life, steadfastly refused to do likewise. The inescapable conclusion is that Eddie Holland never really wanted to be a solo singer. Not really.
It’s a shame in a lot of ways, because while his decision eventually helped give the world some of the best pop songs ever written by human beings, it closed the door on a promising recording career in its own right. This, for instance, while not quite as loveable as the oompah charms of Take A Chance On Me, is a fine little pop record.
A midtempo R&B/pop ballad, drenched in strings courtesy of arranger Riley C. Hampton, it’s reminiscent of Eddie’s previous single (and biggest solo hit) Jamie, in that it never quite reaches the anthemic chorus it seems to spend its time building up to. Still, it’s sweetly done all the same, and the beguiling, slightly-unexpected tune – full of interesting little chord changes and inventive backing patterns in those string parts – has Brian’s fingerprints all over it. Combined with Stevenson’s pop smarts, it should have come out with more of a chart-bound sound, but ends up settling for “rather pretty”. Hardly a crime.
As noted on Jamie, Eddie’s voice isn’t the greatest in the world, but it’s at once both distinctive and strongly redolent of Jackie Wilson, and he delivers the lines with his trademark precise diction and with a customary, audible smile on his face. “Winning” is the term, I think. Extremely difficult to dislike. And the song’s primary “hook”, the chorus-ending repetition of You deserve what you got / Yeah / Yeah / You deserve what you got, yeah, is pleasingly catchy, even if you’d be hard pressed to make the case for it fitting into even the top hundred hooks the Holland brothers have ever had a hand in.
The biggest problem with it, really, apart from the nondescript chorus, is that lyrically it’s rather dubious. Firstly, in a technical sense – where most H-D-H records went for killer tunes and simple lyrics with perfect scansion, letting the listener absorb both the melody and the story without either overwhelming the other, this early effort is wordy and indistinct, Eddie struggling to fit the words into the insufficient spaces allotted for them, and the tune completely dominates the lyrics, to the point that after a first listen, I found it difficult to recall a single line of the song apart from the title.
Secondly, once you do start paying attention to them, the lyrics turn out to be surprisingly bitter and twisted, the narrator’s whining – “Don’t you come to me crying telling me the way he mistreated you / Cos girl, when I gave my love to you, you mistreated me the same way too” – coming across childish and spiteful, completely in contrast to Eddie’s cheerful, chipper delivery and threatening to spoil proceedings.
It’s all part of the learning experience, I suppose. When Eddie Holland, the singer, became more famous as Edward Holland Jr., the songwriter, his forté was lyrics. It’s hard not to wonder whether he was dissatisfied with this song once it was finished (whether he wrote these words or not); certainly the “bitter” card wasn’t played too many more times in Eddie’s songwriting career.
Those gripes notwithstanding, this is still probably the best of Eddie’s three Motown singles to date, and the writing credit means it’s a Historically Significant record to boot. A commercial failure on release (in fact most sources have it being withdrawn almost immediately after release, Motown changing their minds about this single once Eddie cut a fast-tracked follow-up/replacement, (If) Cleopatra Took A Chance, and it’s unlikely any stock copies of the record made it too far outside Detroit), it shows plenty of promise and development, and it’s a good little record, but there was still significantly better to come from Edward Holland Jr. as both a singer and as a writer.
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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“Isn’t She Pretty”
“Last Night I Had A Vision”