b/w What About Me
Edward Holland Jr.’s fourth Motown single release came barely a month after his third. As soon as the snarky-but-passingly-brilliant You Deserve What You Got was supposedly hitting the stores, Eddie was back in the studio recording this pseudo-novelty, a rare Eddie A-side not featuring a writing credit for either himself or his brother Brian.
For its own reasons, Motown latched on to this new recording and decided it had to be released right away, notwithstanding the small matter of there already being a brand-new Eddie Holland single on general release. So, the promotion of You Deserve What You Got was quietly dropped, and in its place came this, complete with swanky picture sleeve; from studio to store in less than three weeks flat.
The reasoning, as always, appears to have come down to opportunistic greed. The much-delayed Liz Taylor/Richard Burton Cleopatra film was finally about to be released to cinemas the following month, and it seems Berry Gordy realised there might be some airplay to be had once the film hit the screens if he put out a Cleopatra record right now. It’s perhaps symptomatic of the chaotic nature of the early Motown setup that things played out this way; I don’t know whether the Cleopatra edict came down from on high and Eddie was the only singer available for the job of recording the song at such short notice, or whether it was already recorded as a topical novelty and caught Berry Gordy’s ear. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle; the unusual writing credits for an Eddie Holland A-side (no Hollands and the first appearance of Berry’s brother George Gordy) suggest a rush spec job done before an artist was selected, but it’s hard to draw any further inferences.
The liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2 describe it as a simple case of this being “a much stronger song” than You Deserve What You Got. It isn’t “much stronger”, though. In fact, despite some great moments, it’s actually the first of Eddie Holland’s Motown singles which is – on balance – weaker than its immediate predecessor.
Indeed, the whole first minute of this record is just terrible; opening with a cheesy burst of cod-Egyptian piano followed by a bland, buttery-sounding orchestra flourish straight off one of Bing Crosby’s Forties records. Then, we launch into a horrible middle-class approximation of the calypso-influenced sound Motown had been experimenting with on Mary Wells’ The One Who Really Loves You and the Miracles’ I’ll Try Something New, but it’s a safe, soulless pastiche of that sound, as though the band were under strict orders not to let things get too exciting. They don’t even carry off that undemanding brief properly, lurching amateurishly between bars, while there’s a nasty noise that crops up every now and again sounding like a half-hearted güiro part that got forgotten in the mix.
And then there’s Eddie himself, back firmly in Jackie Wilson territory, enunciating the lyrics in an irritating sing-song half-spoken fashion. (The lyrical conceit here, by the way, would have been better titled Cleopatra took a chance – why can’t you? – the parentheses in the title don’t actually appear on the label, but were added later to avoid confusion.) The lyrics don’t even scan properly – there’s an unbelievably uncomfortable, juddering bit after the opening couplets where Eddie, the band and the whole song just completely lose direction – In the history books, you’ll find / Kingdoms have been took / Lives… have been lo-o-st / Wars have been fough-t / Joy has been bought… – and the whole thing sounds as though it’s going to break down, to the extent I half expected to hear the producer’s voice asking everyone to stop and announcing they would do another take. Maybe there just wasn’t time.
It’s awful, and by this point you’re probably reaching for the stop button, perhaps angry and baffled as to why this would ever be considered worthy of release as a throwaway B-side or “end of side one” album track, never mind a big-ticket single from a supposed chart act.
Things improve slightly when Eddie lets his strong tenor soar at the end of the verse – “If queens can fall in love, then why can’t you?”, a great delivery reminding us all he wasn’t just a low-rent Jackie Wilson impersonator, but it’s still hardly compelling stuff.
But then, with very little warning, at 1:03, the song changes tack dramatically. The band drop the schmaltzy calypso-jazz schtick in favour of a much tighter performance; Eddie swaps his precise, semi-spoken diction for unashamed passionate abandon; and the tune becomes roughly 800% more interesting, swooping in for just over forty seconds of an arresting R&B march-waltz-torch ballad that’s among the best work done so far by Eddie.
(In fact, not just by Eddie, but by any Motown act. Yes, it’s that good. It’s just a shame it doesn’t last – the sluggish intro section comes back in at 1:40, meaning the really great middle bit is bookended by two sections of sugary, irritating crap, dragging the whole down to less than the sum of its parts).
It is brilliant, though. The Andantes, the uncredited unsung singing heroines of hundreds of Motown recordings, provide perfect backing here (the liner notes to Volume 2 give a great backhanded compliment, saying they “fill out the sound quite adequately”, but I find their performance charming) and Eddie nails a superb, touching vocal (“River of tears / Mountains of trouble / Is my proof that this is so”), before launching into a spectacular staccato “list” section (“The rich / The poor / The bad / The good / The best / And the better… down this road, they’ll have to go”) which immediately calls to mind the best moments of Scott Walker.
It can’t last, and at 1:40 Eddie gives us a brief warning (“And I’m here to tell you…”) before the rubbish intro section comes back. It’s not as awful the second time round, but it’s still not good, throwing away a potentially great record. A pity.
This wasn’t a hit – maybe the time frame was just too short and condensed to get promotion properly behind the rushed release, or maybe DJs simply never bothered to listen past the ghastly first minute of the record, but either way it flopped. It’s definitely worth listening to for that excellent middle section, but the massive drag factor of the terrible two minutes either side of the really good bit mean the quality of the whole thing is brought crashing downwards.
* Andre Williams later transferred his writing credit on this song to his ex-girlfriend Fay Hale, but I’ve never understood the predominantly American practice of a song’s creative attribution somehow being able to transfer from person to person; surely either a song was written by someone, or it wasn’t, regardless of what the law says. If I spend six hundred million pounds bribing Brian Wilson until he puts my name on the song instead, I still won’t have written Good Vibrations. So I’m sticking with listing Williams as one of this song’s writers, while noting that technically it was “co-written” by Fay Hale here in this footnote. Up yours, The Law.**
**(NB: I am in fact a lawyer).
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.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in Eddie Holland? Click for more.)
|Lee & The Leopards
“Trying To Make It”
“What About Me”