b/w Dingbat Diller
(Written by Nancy Noel and Adrian McClish)
The first five records issued on Mel-o-dy Records, Motown’s little-loved fourth-string subsidiary label, had been R&B outings for the likes of Lamont Dozier (Dearest One), the Temptations (Mind Over Matter, released as “the Pirates”) and Martha & the Vandellas (You’ll Never Cherish A Love So True, as “the Vells”). None of them had sold, and so at the start of 1963, Berry Gordy turned control of the label over to Al Klein of Dallas, Motown’s sales rep in Texas and the South, a record producer who had ambitions to run a label of his own. Klein immediately set about restocking the Mel-o-dy roster, turning it – with Gordy’s blessing – into a white-oriented comedy and C&W label, aiming to pick up sales from audiences (and counties) previously uninterested in what Motown had to offer.
First up out of Klein’s bag of tricks was this… thing. Now, first impressions are that this should be a comedy record – the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3 note that the “Chuck-a-Lucks” (that name alone is worth me docking two marks, I think) were a Texas group originally formed as “the Dipsy Doodlers” in the Forties.
“Wacky” comedy, especially “wacky” American comedy from the mid-20th Century, neither ages nor exports well. Faced with a record by an American group calling themselves either the Chuck-a-Lucks or the Dipsy Doodlers, my natural instinct is to run for the bloody hills, and so I freely admit that until today, I’d never actually listened past the first few bars of this. Those first few bars – cod-Latin acoustic guitars, an ersatz mariachi band – were enough to confirm my suspicions, and so I’ve never revisited it until just now.
And, um… what?
Grant me some land and a girl that I love / In a valley down in Oriente / War heroes sing, guitars echoing from the Cuban mountains to the bay / Elena, her beauty and dark eyes outshine / The lights that brighten Oriente / But guitars ceased to play, Elena’s smile went away / When the bearded ones came that day!
Well, if this is comedy, it’s comedy of the most obtuse kind – it’s a diatribe sung in the character of a Cuban refugee (thankfully, our Chuck-a-Lucks steer well clear of doing any racist comedy accents) deploring the recent rise to power of Fidel Castro, it seems to be performed completely straight-faced.
Perhaps (and I’m being pretty charitable here) it’s meant to be funny because it’s a pastiche, an approximation of how a bunch of straight-laced preppy white boys thought a Latin American folk song should sound, and the humour is meant to come either in the simplistic lyrics (the I’m-just-a-simple-peasant “bearded ones” schtick, the stuff about there being a Sugar Cane Curtain rather than an Iron Curtain – notwithstanding the fact that the term had already been coined by some actual grown-ups to refer to the land border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic running smack down the middle of the island of Hispaniola, but anyway), or just the very idea of a group of white rockabilly types pretending to be Cuban protest singers.
Either way, it’s not even remotely funny (especially in light of the very real terrors of the Cuban Missile Crisis, still extremely fresh in most listeners’ minds in the spring of 1963), and so that leads me to a third, even more horrific possibility: that it’s meant to be serious, that this is the Chuck-a-Lucks both showing their support for the people of Cuba and taking a stand against Fidel Castro in order to show him what for. Which is (a) hugely patronising, and (b) a bit like me calling out Kim Jong-Il.
Taken at face value (and I’ve no idea how else to take it), this is a horrible, cheesy whitebread pastiche of Latin music, and it has absolutely no place in the Motown canon at all. Garbage of such magnitude it almost deserves a category all of its own; for now, this one will have to do.
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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“Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right”