(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
As well as being Motown’s first bankable solo star in the early days, Mary Wells was on a roll both artistically and commercially. Her fourth single, The One Who Really Loves You (her first under the aegis of Smokey Robinson) had landed her a pop Top Ten hit. Now, nineteen years old and with her stock rising every day, she finally punched through to the top spot, scoring her first R&B Number One with this, another great Smokey production.
Smokey brought in his Miracles bandmate Ronnie White to help out with the songwriting duties, well aware that The One Who Really Loves You had been a high water mark for Mary’s career; to top it, “Ron and Bill” would have to turn in something very good indeed. Luckily for all concerned, they did.
Smokey Robinson spent much of 1962 working on a series of midtempo, calypso-influenced numbers, both for his own group the Miracles and for various other Motown acts, in the ongoing development of a coherent early “Motown Sound”, as distinctive in its way as the 4/4 beat-driven pop-soul of the label’s mid-Sixties Golden Age.
Here, it’s been refined, reworked and polished to a brilliant shine. We get a lush bed of instrumentation that shows just how much care was lavished on this record. The band are on super form, with plucked guitars, shimmery, subtle vibes, and drum fills played against the bassline, while the male backing vocals – again courtesy of the Love-Tones, as featured on The One Who Really Loves You – are used very sparingly to splendid effect. So, it all sounds good – but there’s also a much more complicated song structure going on here, Smokey Robinson the tunesmith getting more ambitious with each passing record.
The playful experimentation on show here is a joy to listen to – the mix of ingredients is almost perfect, opening with deep, echoing drums and a bit of off-the-cuff harmonising from the Love-Tones, giving the record a unique start and an instant hook. Meanwhile, the song makes extensive use of breaks and stops before each chorus, but the writers are clever enough to split the instrumentation almost in two, so that while the main drum and guitar lines come to a complete halt at the end of each verse, there are still quiet beats, an off-time drum fill and vibraphone riff to keep things ticking over until the rest of the band strikes up again. Mary’s lead vocal gets even less of a rest, the writers putting the instrumental break at the end of her natural line break, leading to a near-acapella rendering of the song’s title (“You beat me to the punch“, making it an irresistible hook without any real loss of momentum.
Clever, clever stuff, and done so well you don’t really notice it on the first listen – but the way the music’s been put together, it adds a real atmosphere to the song, giving Mary’s delivery an extra edge, a sort of sassiness which fits the lyrics to a tee.
It’s the lyrics that are showcased here, perhaps more than on any previous Motown single; this is a story song, and so we’re treated not just to Smokey Robinson the wordsmith, but also Smokey Robinson the storyteller. This song is another step forward in Smokey’s lyrical development, both for its evocative, self-contained story, and its use of a relatively new idea in pop song storytelling: the “twist ending”.
In the first two verses, Mary talks about getting her nerve up to speak to a boy – first to ask him for a dance, and then ask him out on another date – only for the boy to be a step ahead of her both times, and ask her first. As far as I can tell, nobody had written a song around this particular trope before, meaning there was a rich vein of fresh emotional impact for Smokey to tap into. Given free rein on how best to couch the story, the choice of boxing imagery for the central metaphor is inspired; the song’s surprise twist ending, in which Mary discovers the boy has been playing around behind her back, and gets a pre-emptive strike in by dumping his cheating ass before he can leave her, is pretty much a perfect fit.
Once again, Mary herself lifts things up a notch. Her delivery is enchanting, and she hits all the emotional marks in a difficult song that features a lyrical twist ending like this, meaning she has to strike exactly the right character; coy and vulnerable (“much too shy”) at the start, but strong and independent enough to drop the boy once he starts playing away. It’s pitched somewhere between the sweet high school romance of traditional teen love songs and a more adult relationship drama, but it’s somewhere quite specific, so a wrong move would wreck the whole song – and Mary plays it to perfection. Her already amazing, throaty, bluesy voice is now enhanced with a new technique, a sexy, almost-spoken semi-whisper (as though she could barely open her lips to get the words out) which she’d later employ to devastating effect for the coda of her 1964 mega-hit My Guy. Here, it’s used to pronounce the word “punch” in the title, wedded to Smokey’s instrumental break to form that irresistible hook I mentioned earlier; it melts you.
(Also, bonus points for the way she pronounces “ask” as “axe” in the finest Futurama tradition, an affectation Mary would continue to use throughout her career.)
The record sold very well, and Mary’s star status was consolidated yet further, indisputably Motown’s biggest act. The artist/producer relationship with Smokey seemed to be a perfect match, and the recipe seemed to be there for years of success.
But this was perhaps a bit deceptive. The “Motown Sound” that history remembered would not be midtempo calypso, but rather a kind of driving, high-octane pop/R&B crossover dance music; the R&B/calypso thing had pretty much been taken as far as it could go. Mary would have one more 1962 single in this mode, Two Lovers, but by 1963 the ideas were wearing thin; the follow-ups, Laughing Boy and (particularly) Your Old Stand By, were extremely reminiscent musically of this song, and the public were quick to grow tired of the act, requiring a change of direction that eventually led Mary to the very top of the mountain.
Ultimately, then, this is probably about as far as the calypso thing could be pushed before the feeling of “been there, done that” started to set in with listeners. Smokey knew it, too. The Miracles’ third album, I’ll Try Something New, was true to its title – but perhaps not in the way you’d think, if you hadn’t heard the LP. Sure, there are a handful of numbers in the “new” midtempo R&B/calypso mode Robinson was becoming known for, but the majority of the album is given over to other experiments – leads for other Miracles, show tunes, big band productions and the like – the sound of a great songwriter and producer expanding his horizons and searching for his next milieu.
But none of that should take away from how good this record is, because it’s very good indeed. Mary Wells scored her first number one record with her best single to date, the Motown quality threshold going up and up with each passing month; perfectly judged, enticing and mesmerising, this is one of the best records of 1962. Over in England, the Beatles certainly thought so; not for nothing would they name Mary their favourite female singer. It’s hard not to fall in love with her when she sings like this; given good enough material, she was among the greats.
Trivia: As well as being Mary Wells’ first Number One single, this is also the replica 7″ record given away with CD copies of The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2.
Trivia, part 2: Back in March 1962, Motown had issued a flop single called I Out-Duked The Duke by “Little Otis”, an answer song to Gene Chandler’s Duke of Earl. With the success of You Beat Me To The Punch, someone at Vee-Jay clearly thought the time was right for Chandler to exact a little revenge. Quite the honour!
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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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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“Old Love (Let’s Try It Again)”