(Written by Smokey Robinson)
(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
The third of Mary Wells’ trio of big hits written and produced by Smokey Robinson in 1962 (following on from The One Who Really Loves You and You Beat Me To The Punch), this is also for my money the weakest of the bunch.
The partnership between Mary and Smokey was Motown’s first really successful pairing up of a great performer with a great writer/producer; both parties flourished under the arrangement, and the results weren’t just measured in hit records for Mary. Throughout 1962, Robinson used his work with Wells to define and refine a clearly-identifiable “Motown Sound”, a midtempo, calypso-influenced style which most of the label’s roster ended up flirting with, resulting in hits of varying magnitude for both Smokey’s own group the Miracles (the sumptuous I’ll Try Something New) and lesser lights at the time like the Supremes (Your Heart Belongs To Me).
The best examples, though, were the aforementioned first two hit singles Smokey wrote for Mary Wells in 1962; two excellent records, so excellent that they perhaps masked the fact that all this midtempo, calypso-tinged stuff was leading Motown down a musical dead end. The public didn’t yet care – like its predecessor, Two Lovers landed in the pop Top Ten and topped the R&B charts – but things were already moving on at Motown, and this is pretty much the last good record that could be squeezed out from what was becoming a stale formula.
I’m being unduly harsh (just for a change, I know). This is a good record – I thought I’d best make that clear right now for anyone who’s not already skipped ahead to see the mark I’ve given it. It’s just that there are two things wrong with it for me; there’s an all-pervading atmosphere of treading water, and there are two almost-identical, consideraby better Mary Wells records already available to compare it to. Once you’ve made The One Who Really Loves You and You Beat Me To The Punch, where else is there to go? Without changing direction, the only way is down. Those two are magnificent pop records; this is an entertaining, beautifully-sung sketch that sounds as though it was assembled out of various offcuts from those two records.
So, musically, this one doesn’t really do much that those two hadn’t already done; of the smattering of new elements, the brassy horns are a plus, but the weird “popcorn” percussion (a noise that sounds like two coconut halves being knocked together) is a minus, so they cancel each other out. Really, the whole thing is little more than a retread of Mary’s first two big hits of the year, and so whilst it sounds good and all, musically it’s not doing anything new, nothing that we haven’t already heard.
But it’s a Mary Wells single, which means there’s still plenty to like. Mary gives another excellent performance, her smoky, smouldering voice sounding better than ever, growing more confident with each successive single. She’s getting very good as an actress, too; it’s testament to her charisma and charm (both of which radiate off this record with an almost visible brightness) that even though she’s being made to sing some of Smokey Robinson’s clunkiest lyrics, she manages to keep things convincing.
Ah yes, the lyrics. Right. Other than Mary’s vocal, the record’s big selling point is its twist ending; I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so anyone who (for whatever baffling reason) is reading this without having listened to the song first should go and do that immediately.
Okay, are they all gone? Excellent. The conceit of the song is that Mary explains how she has Two lovers, and I ain’t ashamed / Two lovers, and I love them both the same, a scandalous admission which must have caused a few white radio jocks to suck in their breath in the prudish climate of 1962. She describes the character traits of her two lovers in turn: one is gentle and kind, while the other treats me bad / Makes me sad / Makes me cry, but still she loves them both equally. At the end, though, we find out that they’re actually the same person. Zing!
The way this is phrased in the song:
Don’t you know that I can tell
Whenever I look at you
That you think that I’m untrue
‘Cos I say that I love two
But I really, really do
‘Cos you’re a split personality
And, in reality…
Both of them are you”
– has led a number of reviewers to take the phrase “split personality” quite literally, suggesting Mary’s boyfriend really does have a mental health problem that causes him to think he’s two different people, or something like that. I’ve never subscribed to this view – I think the song is meant to be Mary pointing out, gently, to her man that he sometimes acts like such a complete arse that it’s almost as if he’s a different person. (In fact, I think if the song really were meant to be taken literally, it would lose a lot of its charm – it would be a slightly tacky comedy number, and you never want to reduce Mary Wells to that.)
No, it’s a nice enough idea in principle – my problem with it is that it’s so clunky, uncharacteristically so for a wordsmith as skilful Smokey Robinson. It’s not clear until the “big reveal” just who Mary is addressing this information to, or why; and even when we do find out, it’s still poorly written. Like another bafflingly highly-regarded Smokey Robinson clunker, What’s So Good About Goodbye?, the initial “Oh, that’s clever!” of the thin central conceit seems to have blinded people to some very ordinary writing. Look at those lines up there; beautifully sung they may be, but as dialogue, they’re just terrible. Smokey’s trying to catch a fairly complicated sentiment in a few very short lines, but it’s not easy to paraphrase something like “I can tell from your face that this whole “two lovers” business has shocked you, but don’t worry; I’m just employing a narrative device because I want to make it clear how your love for me seems to blow hot and cold” in a way that can be parsed quickly by pop listeners over the course of ten seconds. Still, if you had to put your money on anyone to carry it off, it would probably be Smokey Robinson – but he doesn’t manage it, and instead he ends up saddling Mary with a lumbering amateur theatrical monologue that doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny.
That’s the rub, I suppose – there just isn’t enough here to reward repeat listens, especially after the “shock” of the twist ending has been revealed. It’s a nice enough tune, but it’s so heavily reminiscent of the two better ones Mary Wells had already cut in 1962 that it seems almost perverse to come to this one rather than one of those.
But Mary, though. Mary, Mary, Mary. I could listen to her all day; she’s so seductive and charming that she almost makes Smokey’s dialogue work, and frankly I’d never turn down the chance of more Mary Wells. But I’m really finding it tough to even try and review this record in isolation – I mean, what would I think of this if I’d never heard The One Who Really Loves You or You Beat Me To The Punch? I’d probably end up rating it a lot higher, I guess, because it shares a lot of what was good about those records, without really adding anything to the mix – but then it’s difficult to say for sure, because I can’t forget those songs, and furthermore those are both eternal, written around universal themes, whereas this one’s based on surprising the listener with a conceit that only works the first time around, and that’s a flaw I can’t write off completely for the sake of isolation.
It’s good, but at the same time it’s not as good as some almost identical Mary Wells records I’ve already reviewed. That’s it.
Aargh. Tell you what. Ignore me, and go and listen to this record, which is a perfectly good Mary Wells single, perhaps even a “typical” Mary Wells single, and see what you think. Me, I think it’s extremely disappointing without ever being noticeably bad, and so this seems like a fair enough mark to me. Your mileage may vary.
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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“Slow Down Heart”