(Written by Smokey Robinson)
B-side of Who You Gonna Run To
(Reissued as a B-side)
Another oddity, this. Mickey McCullers was a local singer around Detroit who happened to be a close friend of Smokey Robinson; the great writer (and Motown vice-president) apparently pulled a few strings and got McCullers a Hitsville session, resulting in this little curio.
Smokey both writes and produces here, settling into a new role with aplomb; as well as his work for his own group, the Miracles, he’d already written and cut hits in 1962 for Mary Wells (The One Who Really Loves You) and the Supremes (Your Heart Belongs To Me). But, try as he might, he couldn’t get lightning to strike a third time with this one.
It’s not a bad song per se, though hardly breathtaking stuff; far be it for me to suggest Smokey didn’t give his friend his best material, but although you’d hardly put it in the same class as corkers like I’ll Try Something New, it’s quite a sweet, simple tune. In fact it’s reminiscent, if anything, of Freddie Gorman’s The Day Will Come from the previous year – or rather, it sounds like Smokey’s take on that song.
The lyrics, and McCullers’ reading of them, have Smokey’s fingerprints all over them, too; the same clever wordplay and tailored vocal cadences that were coming to be Robinson’s trademark. (Check out the start of the second verse – It’s the same old heart being broken / With the same cruel words being spoken – and the way McCullers pronounces “bro-ken”, with a little kick up the scale at the start of the word; you can almost see Smokey coaching him through the delivery.)
Likeable enough, it’s in the same kind of bag as Smokey’s recent midtempo calypso-tinged production work as mentioned above, but the instrumentation is denser, the Andantes’ backing vocals are mixed right to the front, noticeably louder in places than McCullers’ lead, and the whole thing sounds more about the band than the singer (most remarkably at 1:17, when the vocals get very abruptly faded down to make room for a bevy of saxophone riffs in an abortive instrumental middle eight).
The reason for McCullers finding himself sidelined on his own record is pretty straightforward; rather than being a daring aesthetic choice on Smokey’s part, the simple fact is that McCullers’ performance wasn’t good enough, and had to be compensated for with backing vocals and instruments.
It sounds harsh, but it does feel as though Smokey was trying to avoid causing embarrassment to McCullers by releasing a record that highlighted his good friend’s vocal weaknesses, and so did everything he could to cover them up. Even the great Claudette Rogers (Robinson) of the Miracles, Smokey’s wife at the time, pops up in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2 to pre-emptively defend McCullers’ performance. (The gist is that McCullers was a great singer in person, but couldn’t get it together in the studio – “he never came across on record the way he actually sounded”, says Claudette.) Whatever the excuse, McCullers’ voice isn’t really up to the job on this single; he’s not without technical skill as a vocalist, but he’s alternately flat and off-pitch here, and never once sounds like a lead man. Without Smokey fighting his corner, it’s tempting to wonder whether he’d have been so willingly obliged by Motown.
The single failed, but Motown clearly believed the song had legs; perhaps trusting in the judgement of their vice-president, the label reissued a remixed version of this in 1964 as a B-side to McCullers’ belated follow-up single Who You Gonna Run To more than two years later.
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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