(Written by Mickey Stevenson)
(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
After the baffling false start of the Vandellas’ first record, Camel Walk, featuring Saundra Mallett on lead – and leaving aside the confusing decision by Motown to release two more previously-recorded Vandellas tracks featuring Gloria Jean Williamson on lead under the name “the Vells” the week after this single came out – this is the proper début release for one of the label’s biggest and best acts of the Sixties.
(For the story of Martha and the Vandellas leading up to this single, see the Camel Walk entry.)
Perhaps because the group didn’t have to wait long for their chart breakthrough – that would come with their second release, Come And Get These Memories, released some five months later, leading to an uninterrupted run of twenty (!) successive chart hits throughout the decade – and perhaps because of the tangled, confusing circumstances surrounding the group’s formation, this record (the only Vandellas record between 1962 and 1970 not to chart) tends to be overlooked by most historians. (I’ll Have To Let Him Go did become one of only a handful of Motown records picked up for release in Britain at the time, but this was only after Come And Get These Memories had been released in America to positive reaction, rather than as a mark of faith in this single on its own merits). The disdain extends as far as Martha Reeves herself, who describes the song as “rather forgettable” on her own website.
This is all really rather unfair, as while the record doesn’t come close to the best of the Vandellas’ records during Motown’s Golden Age (a Golden Age they themselves would kick-start in 1963), it’s still a fine song, a midtempo R&B/pop crossover number featuring a great lead vocal. Originally written for Mary Wells, Martha Reeves, who had a completely different voice to Mary’s, does things with this material that the song’s writer Mickey Stevenson (who was also Martha’s boss in her day job as Motown A&R secretary) can’t possibly have envisaged.
It doesn’t start all that promisingly, it has to be said. The song has been rearranged for a group performance; the Vandellas, without Martha, open the record almost acapella, with just a strummed guitar in the background for accompaniment: “I saw him kiss another / And watched him hold her tight / and I made up in my mind that very night”… the effect is strange, the guitar almost foreboding, the vocals shrill and slightly grating, much in the style of the label’s top female group of the time, the Marvelettes, but less endearing. It’s not looking good.
But then, the lead vocal begins, and the song blooms suddenly into life, and it’s like going from black and white into Technicolor. Oh yeah, Martha Reeves is that good.
As has been explained earlier, Martha wasn’t actually the lead singer of the Vandellas when this song was cut – that role fell to Gloria Jean Williamson, and Martha originally only got to sing this song because she’d earlier impressed Stevenson with an impromptu live studio performance, filling in for the absent Mary Wells during a Musicians’ Union inspection. (Despite earlier reports, this recording is not of that performance – the proper Vandellas recording sessions for this, and other tracks, came quite a while later). As soon as this tape was in the can, however, the writing must have been on the wall; Martha, not Gloria, was the star of the show.
It’s a fantastic lead performance; Martha begins by taking her cues from Mary Wells, aping her style for the first few lines (much as Hattie Littles had recently done on Here You Come), before finding her own groove, settling into her own style as the song progresses. The turning point comes with a big hook, Martha shifting up a gear for the middle eight at 1:24, delivering the lines “Move on, move on”, my heart cries / Find yourself another / Let him leave, oh oh-oh” with increasing verve and strength. She comes out of the middle eight swinging for the fences, and the Vandellas seem to draw from her confidence, their interplay with Martha’s impassioned lead forming some of the best female group harmonies yet heard on a Motown record. By the time we hit two minutes, Martha is already the Martha we know and love; her voice is simply massive, a hair’s breadth away from screaming her vocals yet never once in danger of letting that happen, showing remarkable control and technique, deftly dancing around the band and backing vocals, letting us know exactly how she feels… it’s spellbinding, and it’s irresistible.
The song itself isn’t really up to the standard of Martha’s performance – but that’s probably because it wasn’t written with her in mind. (Ironically, the same thing would happen next time the Vandellas came to cut a single co-written by Mickey Stevenson, almost two years later – but that’s another story). However, the entire world had been put on notice that Motown had found another great group, almost out of nowhere; next stop, the charts.
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.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in Martha Reeves & The Vandellas? Click for more.)
“Show Me Some Sign”
|Martha & The Vandellas
“My Baby Won’t Come Back”