b/w It’s Too Bad
(Written by Mike Valvano and Clarence Paul)
b/w It’s Too Bad
(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
Michael Valvano – the Mike of “Mike and the Modifiers” – is a key, if little-known, figure in the Motown Story. Arriving at Motown as a precocious teenager in 1960, Valvano was a producer, a (largely uncredited) songwriter, and a valued presence on audition panels, as well as being an acetate-cutter, chauffeur, tambourine-basher, foot-stomper, hand-clapper, and general jack of all trades.
Somewhere in amongst all that, he also found the time to remind people he’d actually first signed with Motown as an artist, cutting reams of material that never saw the light of day. Undaunted, he kept plugging away, first with his group, the Modifiers, and later as a solo turn (where, credited as “Mike Varo”, he recorded enough material for two unreleased solo LPs; one Varo track, the fun “Bend Me, Shape Me”-like Watch Your Step, appeared on the excellent A Cellarful of Motown! Volume 3 compilation a few years back).
Away from Motown, Valvano struck up a good working relationship with Cholly Bassoline and the Valadiers’ Marty Coleman; together the three formed “In-The-Pocket Productions”, in which capacity Valvano ended up co-writing and produced the corking Northern Soul track My World Is On Fire by Jimmy Mack, as well as the Precisions’ eternal If This Is Love (I’d Rather Be Lonely) to name just two.
Sadly, despite featuring on or contributing to dozens of Motown hits in one way or another, this record represents the only time (apart from a one-off novelty single in the mid-Sixties credited to “The Hornets”) that Mike Valvano ever saw one of his recordings as a headline artist released by Motown.
It’s a surprise, too, a catchy, R&B-influenced pop-rock song, exactly the sort of thing that was just catching on over in the UK in 1962 and which, two years later, would storm the USA under the catch-all heading of “the British Invasion”. Specifically, it calls to mind the likes of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Gerry and the Pacemakers, a bit of Freddie and the Dreamers, that sort of thing – tuneful, soft-edged, drawing heavily from both R&B and rock ‘n’ roll but still unmistakeably new.
Except, and here’s the weird thing, none of those British groups with the really similar names had had any really significant hits, not even in Britain, at the time Mike and the Modifiers hit the shops. It leaves Valvano’s record in an unusual position. On the one hand, it’s easy enough to accuse this of being a watered-down, sanded-off echo of the vibrant essence of R&B and the best black pop records at the time – it’s Smokey Robinson’s Shop Around made sweeter, diluted for middle-class white audiences, ending up slightly twee. On the other hand, it’s well ahead of its time, especially for an American record; a careful mix of black harmonies and strong musicianship (though it’s unclear whether the music on this record was played by the Funk Brothers, the Motown house band, or by the Modifiers themselves) and typically “white” MOR chord changes, a recipe that would end up selling millions of records across America for white pop groups.
Perhaps it was just too early; even in Britain, where this was picked up for a surprise release in an era when only a select few Motown releases made the trip across the Atlantic, the record went nowhere.
It’s not hard to see why, as it’s certainly very different from the rest of Motown’s catalogue at the time, and while it’s catchy enough and has a pleasant tune, it’s not terribly well-sung (Valvano’s voice isn’t awful by any means, but he’s not really a lead vocalist, and the Modifiers’ harmonies – taking their cues from doo-wop records sung by vastly more able singers – are distinctly ropey in places.)
Maybe it would have done better had it been released later, say in mid-1964, when it would have blended in very neatly on the radio amidst the hubbub of the British Invasion. Of course, by then Motown had its own ever-growing stack of mega-selling hits with a whole different sound.
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5 / 10
(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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“It’s Too Bad”