A third single for the Marvelettes, Motown’s first successful girl group (and first great group), after their magnificent #1 smash début Please Mr Postman and its rather less magnificent #34 non-smash follow-up Twistin’ Postman.
In the wake of their massive début, the Marvelettes had managed to rush out not one but two LPs, Please Mr Postman and Smash Hits of 1962 (later reissued as The Marveletts (sic) Sing), in the process becoming the first Motown act to release two albums for the company. However, this – an old recording from the previous November, but one which hadn’t featured on either LP – is the first thing they’d done since Please Mr Postman which actually sounded like a genuine follow-up.
It had only been eight months since their début, but perhaps that bottled-lightning success coming right at the start of the young group’s career was a curse as well as a blessing; not only had the Marvelettes failed to match it, they’d seemingly failed to develop at all, sitting still musically while their labelmates developed, churning out two albums’ worth of filler – the first LP full of underfunded, weedy-sounding, Ondioline-heavy covers of already-released Motown flops, the second an exercise in unimpressive standard issue girl group water-treading – while the bar was quietly raised around them.
So good was the competition at Motown, and so intense the pressure to keep up, that the Marvelettes were acutely in danger of being left behind, a commercial disappointment and an artistic irrelevance, and all only eight months after being on top of the world. This is the first sign of recovery; it’s not fantastic, but it’s the first Marvelettes song since their début single which gives any hint of the group’s potential, the first one that gives the listener a reason to keep the faith with this shrill, raucous group of suburban high-schoolers.
Whereas the mildly enjoyable but wafer-thin Twistin’ Postman had borne almost no similarity to its predecessor other than in the lyrics department, this one is a definite follow-up to Please Mr Postman; if Motown hadn’t been in such a rush to get two subpar Marvelettes long-players into the stores, this could easily have come from the same sessions as its illustrious ancestor. Put simply, it sounds like Please Mr Postman. It’s instantly recognisable as the same group, something which couldn’t have been said of Twistin’ Postman, and something which undoubtedly played well with radio listeners.
It’s actually performed slightly better than Please Mr Postman, giving Marvelettes-watchers a first tangible sign of musical development. The backing vocals are still shrill, piercing and amateurish, but less so than on previous efforts; meanwhile, Gladys Horton turns in another cracking lead vocal, again sounding considerably older than her years, cocky and charming all at once.
At this stage, Gladys was the group’s biggest asset, a genuine top-drawer talent as a vocalist; Wanda Young, who would later take over as the Marvelettes’ lead singer and cut some brilliant sides, was nowhere near ready at this point in time. As 1962 opened, the Marvelettes were essentially Gladys Horton And Her Schoolfriends; this would be the year when they developed into a bona fide group and a consistent hit-making act. (This one went Top 5 R&B and Top Ten pop, which was not too shabby.)
Gladys was also the song’s primary songwriter – the three people credited as co-writers were arguably the cream of the Motown writing talent at the time, but the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2 are absolutely unequivocal in describing this as Gladys’ song, buffed and polished by the three old(er) hands. It’s good stuff, too, strongly reminiscent of Please Mr Postman of course, but the driving beat, infectious handclaps, two-note minimal-variation vocal bridge, and the closing He – he – he’s a playboy (which actually sounds more like Wanda than Gladys to me?) are all very nicely done.
Once again on a Marvelettes record, though, the most prominent features are the use of incomplete lines on lead vocal (Gladys frequently stops or holds her note, letting the backing vocals finish her sentence for her), and switching between lead and backing vocals to carry the main line of the melody – two gimmicks that were fast becoming the Marvelettes’ USP, their recognisable “thing”.
None of which is to say it’s a masterpiece, or anything. On reflection, it’s still kind of thin, insofar as there’s not a lot of song going on under the charming tricks and twists; not a lot of melody, not a lot of hooks, not a particularly catchy chorus.
In fact, Motown’s output in the first few months of 1962 had reached such a high standard that this one barely even makes it into the top half of the year’s releases so far; among the eleven singles Motown had already released in 1962 had been such gems as Mary Wells’ The One Who Really Loves You, the Temptations’ (You’re My) Dream Come True, Henry Lumpkin’s What Is A Man (Without A Woman), Eddie Holland’s You Deserve What You Got, and the Miracles’ magnificent I’ll Try Something New, all of which are, to my way of thinking, better records than Playboy.
Nonetheless, this is a massive step in the right direction. The first appearance of the new material that would make up the third (and at the time, by a very long chalk, the best) Marvelettes album, also titled Playboy, it’s a vital missing link which presages the run of superb singles and B-sides the group would release over the following twelve months, even though it never quite looks like joining that rarified club itself.
If the stellar, never-to-be-recaptured magic of their début single had been something of a quirk, a statistical oddity if not an outright fluke, then in many ways the Marvelettes’ story really begins right here.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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“You Never Miss A Good Thing”
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