Tamla T 54060 (B), April 1962
B-side of Playboy
The Marvelettes had released two albums by the time this single was issued, but for this B-side Motown went back to their first Tamla LP, 1961’s Please Mr Postman, digging out this unremarkable cover of one of Marv Johnson’s post-Motown United Artists singles. Johnson’s version had appeared on UA in 1960 and struggled to the giddy heights of number 63 pop.
As has already been mentioned countless times on this blog (not least when discussing the Marvelettes’ last B-side, I Want A Guy, another cover lifted from Please Mr Postman), the main curse of the first Marvelettes album is that it seems to have been recorded very cheaply and very quickly, either in a rush to get it to market in the wake of the Please Mr Postman single, or as a throwaway first effort recorded in advance of that hit.
Either way, it’s not a great album. Choices of material are poor (the LP consists almost entirely of covers of low-profile Jobete songs already released by other acts, often apparently selected with little regard as to how well they suited the group); vocal performances are of wildly varying quality (the Marvelettes were one of Motown’s youngest groups and were distinctly unschooled, which sometimes came over as charmingly natural and sometimes as brashly cacophonous); and arrangements are sketchy and cheap (most noticeably, the majority of the original songs’ woodwind and string parts, as well as some backing vocal lines, are replaced by just one instrument – an Ondioline, an early French electric synthesizer, usually played by Raynoma Liles Gordy, “Miss Ray”, erstwhile wife of company president Berry Gordy Jr.)
The best material from Please Mr Postman had already been siphoned off for use on Marvelettes singles, and so quite why Motown felt it was a good move to go back to the album to pull a fourth track to appear on a 45 is anyone’s guess. It’s a mystery, not least because there was already another Marvelettes LP in the stores, Smash Hits of 1962 (later clumsily repackaged and retitled The Marveletts (sic) Sing in an attempt to boost flagging sales; it didn’t work).
Certainly it wasn’t because this was some sort of hidden gem, a buried treasure on the LP just waiting for some DJs to dig it out and break it. It’s not awful, but it’s highly nondescript. Not a brilliant song to begin with, it’s transposed well enough to the Marvelettes to become jaunty and uptempo girl group fodder, but its chorus is derivative and its verses sound so uninteresting that it practically has “Average B-Side” stamped all over it, while lyrically… well, if you’ve read the title, you’ve already heard everything the song has to say.
It’s actually one of the better vocal performances from the album, Gladys Horton sounding raw-throated and mature (perhaps she’d recorded a lot of other songs already that day during a rushed session or something), and the backing vocals (always a gamble on early Marvelettes sides) admirably restrained – but any goodwill is quickly counterbalanced by that bloody Ondioline (here taking the place of the flute part from Marv Johnson’s original record). It grates immediately, likely to get on the nerves of even the most dedicated Marvelettes fan long before its genuinely horrible, amateurish, ear-piercing solo, an interminable and inxeplicable instrumental break which runs from 1:07 to 1:32 before someone sees sense and fades it into the background – it keeps on trilling away in the back of the mix until the end of the record, but it’s such a blessed relief when it’s faded that you almost don’t notice it.
Hardly a high point for anyone involved, this also has the distinction of being one of the last times the great Robert Bateman’s name appeared on a Motown record; along with Brian Holland, he’d co-produced all the Marvelettes’ sides to date, but Bateman had left the company at the end of 1961 after his group, the Satintones, split. Now, the stockpile of previously-recorded Bateman-produced material was drying up; only one more track, the Valadiers’ 1963 B-side You’ll Be Sorry Someday, recorded in mid-1961, would see the light of day. While Brian Holland was left to find a new production partner, Bateman paired up with bandmate Sonny Sanders to run their own “Sonbert” imprint under the Correc-Tone umbrella; Sonbert would later release the Pyramids’ I Am The Playboy, an answer record (and almost note-for-note soundalike) to the A-side of this Marvelettes single. The Pyramids also featured Vernon Williams, another former member of the Satintones, on lead vocals. The Motown family tree is a complex and twisted web indeed.
Helpfully, though, this record marks a sort of staging post for the Marvelettes: the end of a digressionary, dead-end period. The A-side of this single, Playboy, a cut from late ’61 that hadn’t appeared on either of the Marvelettes’ LPs but worked perfectly as a belated follow-up to Please Mr Postman, showed the true path ahead; the previous single, those two albums, and yes, this B-side too, were all just red herrings, and this single works best as a full stop to be placed straight after all those shoddy records. The Marvelettes would go on to have a brilliant 1962, having finally put the past behind them and found their direction; this is in many ways the start of that. Stay tuned.
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3 / 10
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