(Written by Mickey Stevenson and Joe Hunter)
The second and final Motown outing for the man history remembers as Mr Mary Wells, almost two years since his last effort, the pretty but underpowered True Love.
Herman Griffin’s reputation has suffered over the years as one of the principal “villains” of the Motown story in the label’s early days; he’ll forever be remembered as the man who supposedly persuaded Mary Wells (his wife at the time) to walk out on Motown just as her ship came in with the multi-million selling smash hit My Guy, thereby at a stroke both all but ending Wells’ career and allowing the company to concentrate on the Supremes, and so in turn having a direct effect on the entire history of American popular music. Quite a tag to live down, really.
(Some accounts go even further, painting Griffin as a domineering and even abusive husband, jealous of both his wife’s success and the attention she received from audiences and admirers; it should be noted, however, that none of these accounts are based on anything more than hearsay.)
It’s a shame, really, as without all that historical baggage, Griffin might have been best remembered as a reasonably talented singer and an electric, acrobatic live performer. His energetic backflips, cartwheels and somersaults on stage may have distracted audiences when he pulled these stunts while his then-wife was performing (which he supposedly did quite often), but they also earned Griffin a fearsome live reputation: someone to watch, someone who might be going places. Clearly Berry Gordy thought so; not only did Griffin cut the first ever song published by Gordy’s Jobete (I Need You in 1958, on the tiny HOB label), he was also commended to Gwen Gordy Fuqua’s Anna label for a one-off single under the name “Herman Griffin and the Mello-Dees” in 1960 – resulting in a pair of generic Fifties numbers, the ballad Hurry Up And Marry Me b/w the rocker Do You Want To See My Baby, available split across the two volumes of the The Best of Anna Records CD compilations – and, of course, Griffin was granted a second Motown single long after the first had stiffed. Someone at Motown clearly believed he had the goods to make it.
They were wrong, of course – Herman Griffin would never have a hit record – but still, it’s OK, this single. Certainly the best of Griffin’s various vocal performances for various different labels, here Herman drops the wild, semi-controlled veering between crooner and blues screamer that had dogged his earlier efforts; this one instead comes across as a capable, warm delivery, hints of Jackie Wilson (or Eddie Holland channelling Jackie Wilson) and the excellently-named Henry Lumpkin to the fore. The song itself is pretty, too, without ever becoming outstanding; there are stabbing bursts of strings, a neat choir of female backing vocals and a sweetly harmonious middle eight very reminiscent of Smokey Robinson’s Broken Hearted without the country stylings. The lyrics are either comforting or faintly creepy – May all your dreams / All your dreams be of me / Remember when you wake up, you’ll find me standing / I’ll be standing right by your side – but Griffin does carry it off pretty well.
But it’s all in vain. It’s still not a hugely memorable song, nor a particularly individual performance (no coincidence that Griffin sounds at his very best when he sounds most like other people), and the ending is a real disappointment. When the song builds to its grand finish, setting up for a coda of the repeated line …Right by your side, Griffin inexplicably pulls out of it, going silent and leaving the backing vocalists to carry it home for him; perhaps this was meant to happen, an attempt at aping the similar techniques employed by Smokey Robinson or the Marvelettes, but it absolutely doesn’t work here, and only serves to sap the record of all of its momentum and emotion, falling flat and dull. (Griffin does eventually return for a very brief bit just as the record is getting ready to fade out, but it’s too late – he only manages to get in one Right by your side before the end).
A bad error, and something that the song’s writer and producer Mickey Stevenson should probably have stepped in to correct; but somehow it nonetheless seems typical of Griffin’s work, never quite judging things right, never quite hitting the right tone, never quite pushing through from the merely enjoyable to the genuinely special.
Nonetheless, this is probably the best record Herman Griffin ever made, and proof that he definitely had some real talent; it just wasn’t perhaps enough to make him a Motown success story.
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!)
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“I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues (Part 2)”
|Herman Griffin & Band