b/w It Hurt Me Too
b/w It Hurt Me Too
(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
Man, I’d totally forgotten how much fun this record is. One of the real joys of the Complete Motown Singles series is that you don’t just get to hear the obscure novelties and hidden gems; by putting the familiar, heard-it-a-million-times numbers in their proper context, they shine even brighter than before. And that’s the case here.
This was Marvin Gaye’s first hit record, and not coincidentally it’s also his first proper R&B outing, following four singles of decidedly drippy fare (and of varying but generally unimpressive quality).
Up until this point, Marvin Gaye’s ambition in life was pretty much to be the new Nat King Cole. His first two records ((I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over and Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide) were fairly turgid, both born of a battle for Gaye’s musical soul, the result of Marvin himself being at odds with his label, who wanted him to ditch the standards, get up and dance to a backbeat; nobody had been satisfied with the finished product. Things had then reached a nadir with a genuinely horrible whitebread rendition of Mr Sandman at the start of the year. His last record, the endearing Shirelles pastiche Soldier’s Plea, while hardly pulling up any trees, was nonetheless a step in the right direction, a step away from the musical wilderness back towards the pop world.
This one, though, blows all of those previous mis-steps away. It brings with it the arrival of the Marvin Gaye we all know today – and he’s such a new character that it’s virtually a début single. It’s a real breath of fresh air; not in terms of quality, since Motown were already releasing some damned fine sides in the summer of 1962, but more in terms of bringing something new to the mix: a charismatic male solo star. Someone with enough pop appeal to distinguish him from the rougher, bluesier male vocalists on Motown’s books like Henry Lumpkin or Singin’ Sammy Ward, but with enough R&B edge to make him quite different from the dapper, clean-cut image put forward by Eddie Holland or Mickey McCullers.
This record represented a victory for Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr., who’d insisted all along that Marvin was a star in the making, that he’d rack up big sales and crazed fans if he just did what he was obviously born to do. Acquiescing to Gordy’s wishes can’t have been easy for Marvin Gaye, who by most accounts felt as though he was “selling out” by doing this record (lots of them also mention pressure from fiancée Anna Gordy, Berry’s big sister, who wasn’t keen to see her husband-to-be struggling to pay the bills, let alone buy her fancy stuff). There had even been dark mutterings in the corridors of Hitsville about preferential treatment for the boss’ brother-in-law; were it not for Gaye’s relationship with Anna, it’s tempting to ask whether the moody, difficult, jobbing session drummer from Washington DC would have been quite so readily accommodated at Motown.
But the real pressure came from within. Four flops in a row, and an album that gathered no plaudits and sat languishing on the shelves, hadn’t done wonders for Marvin’s self-esteem; he must have been entertaining doubts about whether he would really make it in the industry. Back in 1962, the supper-club circuit didn’t take kindly to performers – and particularly black performers – cutting loose and making young, noisy records. Marvin must have known that doing a raucous R&B platter like this would put paid to his ambitions of MOR jazz-lite crooner stardom, and he still chose to do it, without the benefit of hindsight to reassure him that his decision would lead directly to I Heard It Through The Grapevine and What’s Going On, as well as a parallel career as one half of Motown’s greatest ever duo, performing to packed, adoring houses every night. He wasn’t to know any of that, and he still did it anyway – because deep down he must have known Gordy was right, that if he deigned to do R&B, he’d be bloody good at it. When he took the plunge, he did it wholeheartedly, co-writing this song (the first time he’d performed his own material on a Motown 45) and giving it his all.
The results sing for themselves. This is a great pop record, still full of joy and youthful energy almost fifty years later. The tune is a winner, a really catchy bit of work full of very tiny changes to keep the listener’s interest, all bolstered by some killer hooks. The band are on fine form, opening the record with a drum fill before settling into a steady backbeat that drives the song like a train; there’s even a busting Beans Bowles jazz flute solo amongst the fine horn work in the middle eight, aping the very first Motown single, Marv Johnson’s Come To Me a million years before.
The best thing here, though, are the vocals. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, who filled in for the Andantes on backing vocals at Motown during the summer of 1962, and who seem to have recorded their accompaniment live with Gaye in the studio, are a natural fit with Gaye’s newfound persona, both in voice and attitude; according to Reeves in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2, one-time lead Vandella Gloria Jean Williamson ad-libbed the sensational “Doo-doo-doo-OW!” opening hook. There’s a real excitement running through the record, a frisson of energy caused by the interplay between Gaye and his newfound backing group; such was the effect that even after finishing their duties as backup singers and embarking on their own hitmaking career, the Vandellas were still co-opted into appearing on numerous Gaye singles in the future, in an attempt to get lightning to strike again. It never quite worked the same, though not for want of trying.
But if the Vandellas are the best thing on it, then by far the most interesting thing about this record is Marvin Gaye himself. The lyrics, all about Marvin not giving up the chase for a girl despite her hostility, are supposedly semi-autobiographical – Gaye was already becoming known even at this early stage as a dogmatic, moody prima donna, and this was a way to both emphasise his phlegmatic qualities and poke fun at his image – and the raw, half-screamed feel he brings to his delivery is a really weird one to quantify, with hints of both desperation and resentment mixed up with the overridingly positive lyrical message of refusing to quit.
The nature of his vocal has prompted much debate. Was Marvin singing himself raw, wearing his heart on his sleeve, desperate for a hit? Was he turning in a sloppy, undisciplined, even jokey take as a way of sticking two fingers up to the label, angry with himself for betraying his principles? Was he simply breaking through, revelling in finding his element at last? All three theories have been widely advanced since this record was released, and we’ll never know for sure whether any of them is close. For me, it’s more the third – he sounds excited despite himself, feeding off the energy from the Vandellas and the band, knowing he was making something good.
This is one of the most important of all Motown records, not just because it’s so much fun, or because audiences have had so much fun with it (the record shot up the charts, landing Marvin in the R&B Top Ten and the Pop Top 50, a very useful calling card – and of course, there’s the oft-repeated (though probably apocryphal) story that hearing this blasting from his car radio caused Phil Spector to veer off the road) – but because it marks the start of Marvin Gaye’s career proper. If he was going to make a living and carve out a life from music, it would be this sort of music. Stubborn he may have been, but he was also pragmatic, and now he’d discovered something he was really good at; for twenty more years, listeners worldwide would be the beneficiaries.
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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|Saundra Mallett & The Vandellas
“It’s Gonna Be Hard Times”
“It Hurt Me Too”