(Written by Mickey Stevenson)
The early days of Motown are always interesting to me, and not just because so many good records came out of Hitsville in the late Fifties and early Sixties, a lot of them disappearing under the radar, ripe for resdiscovery. No, it’s also beacuse so many patterns were set in those opening years that would be seen in full bloom during the label’s mid-Sixties Golden Age.
One such pattern, unfortunately, was that at any given time after 1961, the company simply had too many artists on its books. I say “unfortunately” because although this led to a whole slew of great records – we’re up to almost 200 single sides now, in less than three and a half years – it meant that a number of undeniably talented acts got lost in the shuffle as Motown had to pick and choose where best to target its marketing and plugging efforts, leading to a number of classic hits but also a vast number of highly undeserved commercial flops, which in turn led to a number of artists finding themselves dropped from the label and denied the chance to cut more material.
As the company’s coffers began to swell, the label’s Quality Control department got more powerful, having the power to nix material whose commercial potential didn’t seem to meet their lofty standards. The bar was therefore set pretty high for a record to be scheduled for release at all; but that was just the first battle. Once your record had been approved and tentatively scheduled, that didn’t mean you’d actually see it in stores and hear it on the radio. Oh no. That was increasingly just the first step; the more success Motown had with its top-drawer talent, the more the company could afford to put your records on the back burner.
This would be the case throughout the Sixties and Seventies, as acts who would have been the treasured centrepiece of many a smaller label found themselves stifled and struggling for exposure, fighting for a place on the release schedule behind the latest efforts from the likes of the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Miracles, the Jackson 5, Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, Junior Walker…
…battling to get noticed in a “second division” of Motown priorities, what Gladys Knight disparagingly referred to as “the peon crowd”, which meant trying to elbow your way past records from Knight herself, as well as (at various points in time) the Marvelettes, the Contours, Edwin Starr, R. Dean Taylor, Bobby Taylor, Rare Earth, the Elgins, the Isley Brothers, Brenda Holloway, the Originals, the Spinners, the Undisputed Truth…
…or else ending up behind that little lot, in a scratch group with the likes of the Monitors, Chuck Jackson, the Fantastic Four, Barbara McNair, the Velvelettes, Chris Clark, Jimmy Ruffin, Tammi Terrell, Kim Weston, Shorty Long, Billy Eckstine, the Lewis Sisters, Ivy Jo, Yvonne Fair, Stu Gardner, Blinky, Paul Petersen or Kiki Dee…
…and then, of course, there was a whole “sub-basement” below that level, where if you were really unlucky, your record wouldn’t come out at all, no matter how good it was; you might have gotten past QC, but maybe the disc jockeys weren’t interested, or maybe something else had come up which meant your record got pushed back in the queue. Or maybe there simply wasn’t a space available on the release schedule for your stuff that week/month/year.
A few of the Miracle Records sides apparently never saw the light of day, contrary to the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 1, but the official first unlucky resident of that sub-basement was Hattie Littles, for this was the first of many, many Motown singles scheduled for release over the next twenty years that the company acknowledges never actually appeared in a store. Get used to seeing that big red UNRELEASED up there, it’ll be appearing an awful lot over the course of this blog.
Hattie Littles is a perfect example of Motown’s eyes being bigger than its belly. An aficionado of the blues, Hattie (a Southerner like Motown’s other prominent blues act Singin’ Sammy Ward) was eagerly snapped up by Motown after moving to Detroit and repeatedly winning talent contests at Lee’s Sensation Lounge, catching the eye of the newly-arrived producer/songwriter Clarence Paul and subsequently signing a long-term deal with Motown – whereupon the company promptly forgot she was there.
Hattie was perhaps the best female vocalist Motown had on its books at the time, yet the label simply didn’t have the time or resources to do her justice. Her strong, blues-inspired voice carries echoes of the likes of Mable John (Motown’s first solo female act) and Mary Wells, but Hattie wasn’t given the same consideration as the former, nor the same opportunities as the latter. She recorded a slew of material and a total of four singles for Motown (not ten as stated elsewhere on the Internet), only one of which, Your Love Is Wonderful, ever actually saw release.
Here, things are already off to a shaky start – both sides of her début Motown single were songs that had already been cut by other acts in the stable and subsequently rejected, this one having been recorded by one-shot special Sherri Taylor (another vocalist who also liked her blues) back when Mickey Stevenson was a relatively new face at the company – but Hattie is very good here, while the band seems to really appreciate the chance to do some smoky 2am jazz-tinged blues, complete with riffing guitar licks, rhythmic piano, slinky horns, brushed drums, all fronted by Littles’ raspy, soulful delivery.
The song itself is nothing particularly special, and indeed it’s hard not to wonder whether it was much of a blues number at all when it was first offered to Sherri Taylor, but Hattie carries it off – her tale of determination to recapture a lost love is sold convincingly, and the middle eight at 1:19 (Memories / Memories is all that I have / To carry me / To carry me through the day / And yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah / I need your lovin’ / I just got to have your kisses / To drive / To drive the blues away…) is a particular highlight – while the musicians (the horns in particular) lend the whole production a likeable big band atmosphere.
Why didn’t it come out? Who knows; it doesn’t really fit with anything else Motown was trying to push at the time, and maybe it was seen as too much of a niche release to do serious business, requiring too much effort to plug when the Contours’ Do You Love Me was going down brilliantly with the jocks; after all, the time when the Motown Sound meant this sort of R&B-tinged blues material had already drawn to a close.
A shame, though, because this is certainly good stuff; perhaps if Hattie had come to Motown a few years earlier… As it was, this one went back on the library shelf, undisturbed until the compilers of The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2 went digging some forty years later. Hattie could take heart in the fact she wouldn’t be the last Motown artist to suffer such a fate, and she’d be in some pretty good company.
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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“Move Mr Man”
“Is It True (What They Say About You)”