B-side of Same Old Story
(Written by Smokey Robinson)
By the summer of ’62, William “Smokey” Robinson was well on his way to success as a songwriter and producer; at the same time, with his exceptional group the Miracles, he was also well on his way to fame and fortune as a performer. Unlike many Motown alumni, there doesn’t ever seem to have been any question of him ditching one path to concentrate better on the other; accordingly, as well as the excellent Miracles LP I’ll Try Something New in 1962, Smokey was also to be responsible for writing and production duties for the likes of Mary Wells, the Supremes… and Mickey McCullers.
McCullers was a good friend of Smokey’s, and not without talent as a vocalist (though the general consensus from those who knew him back then seems to be that he couldn’t quite “bring it” when the tape was rolling in the studio, however good he had been in rehearsals); Smokey brought him to Motown, and wrote and produced both sides of this, his début single.
The song is a fascinating history piece; it’s a downtempo, soulful ballad, more doo-wop than Sixties R&B, given a syrupy Fifties delivery but with a leaner, meaner sound that effectively straddles the outgoing doo-wop era and the forthcoming R&B/pop phase of American popular music.
It’s also really rather good, Smokey turning in a record in doo-wop standard-issue 6/8 time, but enlivened by some unusual key changes, soaring horns, driving, twanging guitar, and a weird second drum pattern that doesn’t match the main beat, all of which combine to keep the listener interested. The lyrics are sweet, if hardly up to Smokey’s usual standards (representative chorus: I’ll cry a million tears / For a million years / If you stay gone that long), though there is an excellent bit in the middle where McCullers informs us exactly what he’s crying for: There’s no used (sic) in my denying / Just as long as you’re gone / That’s how long I’ll be crying: / Tears for the good / Tears for the bad / Tears for everything, baby / We’ve lost that we’ve ever had… It’s not exactly I’ll Try Something New, but it certainly gets the job done.
The main weakness, really, is McCullers himself. Once again, his voice just isn’t up to scratch for a big, brash recording like this, and while he’s better than he was on the unimpressive A-side, Same Old Story, Smokey still has to step up the production techniques to compensate for McCullers’ flaws.
And there are a lot of flaws. I don’t know the technical name for the weird sort-of-malaprop thing McCullers does on this song, singing the wrong word – as well as “there’s no used”, he also sings “every since I’ve lost you” at one point – but I find it impossible to believe Smokey wrote those lines that way, meaning it’s just a case of McCullers messing up. Also, he fails to really carry home a few long or high notes throughout the song, and he even wanders perilously close to going out of key a couple of times, giving a nasty, slightly strangulated effect to what should be clear, confident phrases.
Just before the big finish, at 1:41, right after the Tears for everything, baby / We’ve lost that we’ve ever had… bit mentioned above, there’s a really jarring edit – McCullers sings And I’ll c…, the hard “c” in “cry” very audible indeed, but his vocal gets abruptly cut off in favour of a loop of backing vocals (provided, incidentally, by the Miracles themselves) and then equally-harshly cut back in (…For a million years). Barring a studio accident, one can only assume Smokey considered McCullers’ performance of that line too poor to include, and opted to cut it right out of the tape. The big finish itself is a little disappointing, too, but at least McCullers isn’t mixed out of it.
It’s a shame, because like I said, the song is actually pretty good (and indeed just “pretty”), and McCullers is obviously trying his best, but it’s hard not to think that if this had been released two years earlier with a better lead vocal, it might have been a hit; instead, this feels like something of a waste of material, and a waste of Smokey Robinson.
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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“Same Old Story”
“Do You Love Me”