(Written by Berry Gordy)
A not-insignificant hit for the “no-hit Supremes”, rattling the R&B Top 30 (and also scoring on the pop charts – the dizzying heights of the Top, er, Ninety, but still a start nonetheless.)
This is a little weak, though. With the Marvelettes having upped their game with their magnificent Playboy LP and the lovely Strange I Know, and the Vandellas storming out of the gates with their début platter I’ll Have To Let Him Go, the Supremes, who’d cut Motown singles long before either of those groups, were falling noticeably behind in the girl group arms race, and this wasn’t the single to turn things around.
Indeed, it originally wasn’t a single at all; this was originally slated as the B-side, with Time Changes Things scheduled as the top side, until label owner Berry Gordy stepped in.
Gordy was a great songwriter in his own right, but he was finding his time increasingly sucked up by business matters rather than creative endeavours; in 1962, Gordy had turned in a decidedly mixed bag of songwriting credits, with several fine records (the Temptations’ spectacularly brilliant (You’re My) Dream Come True, the Contours’ big-selling smash Do You Love Me, Hattie Littles’ lovely Your Love Is Wonderful) rubbing shoulders with some slightly ropey rush-jobs and derivative cash-ins (Saundra Mallett and the Vandellas’ Camel Walk, for example, or the Temptations’ Paradise).
This one, for me, is certainly closer to that latter pile than the former. It’s not bad or anything, but it’s no masterpiece either. But more of that in a moment; for now, back to the story.
Despite Smokey Robinson having written and produced the Supremes’ previous single (the pretty Your Heart Belongs To Me, and despite Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier having produced a new would-be single in Time Changes Things, written with their new writing partner Janie Bradford, Gordy – who’d produced the first two Supremes singles, I Want A Guy and Buttered Popcorn – took it upon himself to write and produce another new song for the group, originally for use as the B-side before deciding to flip the record over and release it as the girls’ fourth single.
By his own admission in his autobiography (which, incidentally, I’ve never read – I’m going here by what’s quoted in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2), Gordy obsessed over the mix for an astonishing fourteen hours, a staggering amount of time for the summer of 1962 – when entire albums could be finished in less time – and quite a lot of effort to expend on a little-known girl group. Why? Knowing what happened later between Gordy and Diana Ross, it’s easy enough to raise a knowing eyebrow at this point and ask Why indeed?, but the simplest explanation isn’t so base; simply put, Berry Gordy seems to have relished every opportunity to get some work in at the coalface of musical creativity, working on making records rather than just signing off on purchase orders of crates of them.
Twice already in 1962, we’ve seen what happened when Berry Gordy got an idea in his head for a new song that might sell: he didn’t wait around, to the extent that rather than incur a delay between writing on the page and rolling tape in the studio while the right act was found and brought into Hitsville for an emergency recording session, whoever happened to be close to hand got to cut the song. Whilst that wasn’t the case here, Gordy clearly felt he had something good within his grasp with this, this song and this group, even if he couldn’t quite pull it all together.
(Tempting to say that what he could hear, in his head, without being able to articulate it, while listening to Diana’s admirable lead vocal, the cooing harmonies of Flo and Mary, and that stomping midtempo percussion, was probably something like Where Did Our Love Go, except that didn’t exist yet and nobody had ever heard anything quite like it, and Berry Gordy couldn’t do what Holland-Dozier-Holland would go on to do, leaving things here in 1962 naggingly unresolved, hanging in the air.)
When I read that story about Berry Gordy poring over endless mixes of this record, I was pretty much astonished, because to me this still sounds embarrassingly half-finished, its ideas unrealised, its promise unfulfilled. If ever there was a Motown single that didn’t sound like it went through over a hundred different versions (Gordy’s only-half-joking estimation), this is probably it.
It sounds as though it began life with more than a touch of Bruce Channel’s recent chart-topper Hey! Baby (probably a reasonable hypothesis given Gordy’s past form with this sort of thing; the chord progressions on this are remarkably similar to Channel’s record), but it seems to have evolved from those origins to some sort of halfway-house. To that end, there are plenty of interesting new ideas that sort of bubble under the surface, half-formed, before being discarded; little bits of harmonies, unusual chord changes that last less than a second, backing vocals being mixed right to the front and then just as quickly mixed back down again, that sort of thing. Ironically, one of the song’s most prominent features, the staccato chant of Let! Me! Go! Right! Let-me! Go-right! that opens the record and sets the tempo for the verses, is a bad idea that should have been smoothed out somewhere along the songwriting process, but was instead allowed through in full bloom.
The best thing about this record is Diana Ross, still sounding very young and reedy in places, quite different from the sort of readings she’d give of Holland-Dozier-Holland material in the mid-Sixties, but mostly coping admirably with the technical demands of the lead vocal. Her technique is coming on in leaps and bounds, audibly improving all the time, the result of all three Supremes’ endless practising and observing and learning from their place at the bottom of the Motown food chain; as well as handling the difficult tune, Diana also injects some much-needed character to the proceedings.
Her performance is more interesting than the basic, sketchy lyrics, to the point that I had to listen to this ten or twelve times before I could work out what it’s actually meant to be about (as it turns out, Diana’s narrator is pledging her heart and her future to her lover, and asking him to treat her with care in return; she’s not asking her man to convince her that marrying him is the right choice, but rather saying she’ll marry him, but that she trusts he’ll keep his side of the bargain by being a good husband.) Diana’s delivery, best described as “lovestruck but with a sassy edge”, fits this difficult emotional tone very well, and it’s to her credit.
Still, when it ends, I’m not left thinking “Wow, that was great!”, more like “Whoa, is that it?” It’s another Motown record that’s apparently been much admired over the years, but it just doesn’t sound finished to me. Certainly this isn’t a logical stepping stone in the development of Motown’s quintessential group; it feels more like a “holding pattern” release, keeping the group’s name alive while Motown figured out what to do with the Supremes. Whilst it’s hardly bad, the best that can really be said about it is that it nudged the group slightly further up the charts. At this rate of commercial progress, they’d end up hitting Number One some time around 1982.
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!)
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“Time Changes Things”