b/w Someday, Someway
b/w Someday, Someway
(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
If Motown had been slow to get on the girl group bandwagon, the label certainly made up for lost time with the Marvelettes. Between November 1961, when – fresh from scoring Motown’s first-ever number one pop single with Please Mr. Postman – the group’s first LP, also entitled Please Mr Postman, made its appearance, and July 1962, when this single was released, Motown managed to release no less than three Marvelettes albums.
The first two LPs are patchy in the extreme, packed with cover versions and hastily-recorded filler (the second LP, titled either Smash Hits of 1962 or The Marveletts (sic) Sing depending on which pressing you bought, was a sloppy anthology of covers of contemporary hits recorded in two days flat), and they sold poorly. But the Marvelettes had started to revive their critical and commercial fortunes with another hit single, the enjoyable Playboy, recorded at the tail end of 1961.
It marked something of a rebirth in the young group’s fortunes; in May of 1962, as the single started to pick up pace in the charts and on the radio, Motown slated some serious studio time for the Marvelettes to cut their third album, also titled Playboy.
In half a dozen sessions throughout the month, the Marvelettes recorded with some of Motown’s A-list writing and producing talent – Mickey Stevenson, Brian Holland, Smokey Robinson, Freddie Gorman, Lamont Dozier and even label boss Berry Gordy Jr. – and came up with seven excellent brand-new songs for the new album, plus another three that were held over for the group’s fourth LP The Marvelous Marvelettes the following year.
In order to maximise the amount of recording time available to the group, in a departure from usual Motown operating procedure, the A&R department decreed that the Motown house band (the Funk Brothers) would lay down most of their instrumental tracks in separate, dedicated band sessions (usually in the early hours of the morning), ready for the Marvelettes’ vocals to be added later; this would quickly become the standard way of doing things at Hitsville, a change which led directly to the star career of Martha Reeves (of which more later).
Although the production of the finished Playboy album was credited to Stevenson and “Brian Van Holland” (a baffling affectation Holland toyed with in the early Sixties), studio records show that production duties were actually carried out individually by Holland, Stevenson, Robinson or Gordy, depending on the song. When the record was completed (the seven new songs supplemented by Playboy and two older recordings, You Should Know and (I’ve Got To) Cry Over You, tacked on at the end of the running order), Motown had its first great album.
Playboy is such a strong LP that pretty much any of the new material could have been pulled as a single. In the end, six tracks did appear on Tamla 45s – as well as the title track, the album provided three wonderful future B-sides (all of which could have worked as singles in their own right), and both sides of this, the Marvelettes’ fourth single, an unintentional double A-side and among the best Motown single releases of the year, if not of all time.
At first blush, this is a pretty strange choice for Motown’s first pick as a new single from all the great new material available. The Playboy album contains numerous lovely ballads (a couple of which, Smokey’s I Think I Can Change You and the Holland-Dozier-Gorman masterpiece Forever, ended up being used as B-sides further down the line) plus a driving midtempo R&B rocker in Mix It Up, which seems like a crushingly obvious choice, and Berry Gordy’s contribution I’m Hooked not far behind.
Compared to that little lot, Beechwood 4-5789 initially seems like the weakest song of the bunch; the tune is less ambitious than some of the other songs on the Playboy LP, the lyrics are far simpler, and the backing vocals – so often the Achilles heel of early Marvelettes tracks – are once again shrill and grating.
Yet, oddly, this is now one of my favourite Marvelettes singles. For the longest time, I could hardly even listen to it. Those bloody backing vocals kick in straight away, the girls alternating between indistinct lyrics and just making straightforward Ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya noises; the tune doesn’t appear to be going anywhere special, and the chorus is strangely forced, Gladys Horton pushed into delivering a line that doesn’t quite seem to fit the tune (And my number is: Beechwood 4-5789 / You can call me up and have a date / Any old ti-ime), using some weird, lolloping semi-scansion that makes no sense at all.
But it sticks in your head (just like Playboy), and pretty soon you find yourself whistling it while buying some milk, or waiting for a train, and then perhaps you find yourself singing it under your breath, at which point you decide to just go along with it, because once a Motown record gets its hooks into you like that, resistance is pretty much futile. And this song has well and truly got its hooks into me.
It’s such a happy, youthful song. Either the opposite of Playboy, or a companion piece to it, Beechwood 4-5789 sees lead singer Gladys Horton (who turns in yet another splendid performance), exhorting a boy to pluck up the courage to give her a call sometime. (It’s fun to see the Marvelettes moving on from the postal system to the telephone exchange, underlining the increasing importance of communication to teens in modern America.) The tune which originally seemed banal becomes charming and danceable. That odd scansion seems to be working on some far-advanced level, the weird forcing-together of syllables part of the song’s memorable charms. The band are on superb form throughout, the guitar work worthy of particular notice (there’s a great instrumental break at 1:13 where the playing is almost in a flamenco style). The whole thing just works, and it’s fun, and young, and summery, and I love it.
(Trivia! What was the first Motown single co-written by Marvin Gaye? This one, obviously. I just threw that in there for the search engines. So many people seem to find this place by typing Motown questions into Google. If you’re one of them, I hope you find the answer you were looking for.)
(Trivia, part two! The telephone number repeated in the title didn’t actually belong to any of the Marvelettes, or indeed anyone in Detroit at all, but (as Mickey Stevenson later sheepishly admitted) nobody bothered to make sure that the number didn’t actually belong to anyone elsewhere in America, supposedly resulting in a slew of calls asking to speak to the Marvelettes in towns that really had a Beechwood exchange.)
Between this song and the beautiful B-side, Someday, Someway, this is one of the Marvelettes’ best singles. The group had finally made good on the promise of their stellar début, and Motown showed the first signs of their mastery of the girl group as a medium for high-quality commercial pop music. The Marvelettes, and with them the foundations for Motown as we know it, had now truly arrived.
* * * * * * * * * *
7 / 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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“Break Down And Sing”