b/w Part Time Love
(Written by Berry Gordy and James Woodley)
With each successive chart hit Motown racked up in 1962, the writing must have been on the wall for Berry Gordy’s roster of blues and raw-edged R&B artistes, who could only watch as Motown discs started landing in the upper echelons of the pop chart with increasing regularity. By late summer, Gino Parks, Herman Griffin, Popcorn Wylie and the excellently-named Henry Lumpkin were all already finished with the company, Hattie Littles had arrived too late and was seeing herself frozen out before she’d got started, Mable John kept in a holding pattern that saw her go 18 months between single releases. Yet Sammy Ward, the rawest and bluesiest of the lot, remained.
Some of that apparent indulgence can be explained by the fact that Ward, unlike all the other aforementioned artists, had once landed Motown a hit record – Who’s The Fool reaching the R&B Top 25 two years previously, only the fourth hit single for Motown on any chart – and so perhaps Gordy, simultaneously fiercely loyal and brutally hard-nosed, felt Singin’ Sammy had earned some patience.
My own theory, though, is that as a creator of fine blues records with limited pop appeal, Ward fit the bill perfectly when Berry Gordy felt Motown was in need of grounding, lest what was by now one of America’s most significant black-owned music businesses somehow find itself accused of losing its “black identity”, and risk losing the black audiences who’d got the company off the ground. It’s a line of argument that rears its head periodically throughout the Motown story, the label’s pop success invariably leading to criticism from the black community that Motown was seemingly more concerned with chasing the dollars of white audiences than being a force for social change. Now, my own personal belief is that yes, that criticism was pretty accurate (it’s often been stated the only colour Berry Gordy cared about was green, hence him stocking the Motown front office with sales and admin talent without heed to race), but that Gordy was too shrewd an operator not to realise the value of his status, and his company’s status – however illusory – as an icon of black US culture that African-Americans could feel proud of, and the ensuing impact that could have on the bottom line.
As a result, whenever the balance of public opinion seemed to be advancing the criticism that Motown was somehow “not black enough”, whatever the hell that was supposed to mean, Gordy would find a way to address that criticism and reaffirm his credentials to an audience who weren’t buying a lot of copies of Diana Ross & The Supremes Sing and Perform Funny Girl. This isn’t to suggest that Ward, or anyone else, was signed or kept on the books just to save face – that would be an insult to a number of great artists. Rather, it simply confirms that Berry Gordy wasn’t stupid, recognising that releasing strong product, quality stuff that nonetheless didn’t fly off the shelves and didn’t target the pop charts, had a value beyond nickels and dimes. (Plus, of course, you never knew when something might unpredictably hit out of nowhere; Jr Walker & the All Stars landed more hits than most of Motown’s ostensibly more commercial acts). Even when Gordy was hectoring his staff with memos stating Motown would henceforth only be releasing “Top Ten product on any artist”, the Soul Records subsidiary carried on pushing the likes of Shorty Long and Earl Van Dyke. Reputation mattered.
This was Singin’ Sammy Ward’s sixth Motown single, and however out of step Ward might have been with whatever else was going on at Hitsville at the time, it’s still a cracking record, a rollicking, hot-tempered midtempo number, virtually a cover of Bobby Bland’s Further On Up The Road polished up by Berry Gordy himself, resulting in a fine new concoction – sat astride the imaginary line that divides “R&B-flavoured blues” and “bluesy R&B” – that demands to be turned up loud.
Recorded less than a month before its release, this is the best Tamla 45 Singin’ Sammy Ward ever cut, and that quick turnaround suggests everyone at Motown knew it. It wasn’t a hit, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t have been.
There’s pretty much nothing I don’t like about this, truth be told. From the atmospheric opening – Sammy doing his best melismatic acapella gospel while a small crowd whoops and hoots in recognition – to the bouncy, slinky rhythm bed that strikes up straight afterwards, with boogie-woogie piano, superb twangy blues guitar and driving horns, it’s a winning package. When Stevie Wonder shows up out of nowhere at 1:40 to give a coruscating harmonica solo (“Yeah! Blow it, Steve!”), it’s the icing on the cake.
Sammy himself, meanwhile, is on electrifying form, dealing out his angry post-breakup monologue in raw, snarling fashion, spitting out an “offer” of reconciliation that’s more like an ultimatum, or even a guarantee – he knows his former girlfriend will come crawling back, and he’s convinced this is no idle boast, but rather such a self-evident statement of fact that she’s crazy to even question it. It’s hypnotic, and he sounds as though his face is scrunched up so tightly with feeling that he probably didn’t open his eyes once during the recording. (“Why you laughing at me, baby? / I told you you shoulda been crying!”)
Really quite excellent. It didn’t chart, but it wasn’t for a want of quality; I like to think Berry Gordy appreciated that. At Motown in 1962, even as other acts clocked up the hits, there was still room for Singin’ Sammy.
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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“It’s Not Too Late”
|Singin’ Sammy Ward
“Part Time Love”