(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
Going into 1963, the Marvelettes were still just about Motown’s top group – challenged for that crown by their Tamla labelmates the Miracles – but the relative commercial failure of the Marvelettes’ previous single, the incredible Strange I Know, had Berry Gordy and the Hitsville top brass more than a little spooked.
All of the new material for the fourth Marvelettes LP, The Marvelous Marvelettes, had been recorded in September 1962 – the new songs almost all written and produced by William “Mickey” Stevenson and up-and-coming new face Norman Whitfield – and these were augmented by a couple of tracks held over from the sessions for the group’s previous album, Playboy. Strange I Know, one of those holdover tracks, was chosen as the album’s opening track and lead-off single (because, I like to think, of its obvious quality). When it limped to number 49 pop, it looks very much as though Motown panicked.
To my mind, there’s simply no comparison between Playboy and The Marvelous Marvelettes, which is a manifestly weaker album than its predecessor; it seems someone at Motown shared my opinion, needing a hit to plug the new LP but not seeing another single among the new Stevenson/Whitfield songs (most of which are fun, if thin, generic girl-group stomps, with frothy tunes and a dearth of truly memorable hooks). In terms of potential hits, pickings were somewhat slim. There was a clone of Strange I Know, a Whitfield/Strong number called Why Must You Go, possibly intended as a “soundalike sequel” single but now rendered commercially non-viable by its predecessor’s failure. There was the boss’ contribution, Berry Gordy having penned an asinine Loco-Motion-like ditty called My Daddy Knows Best – but apparently that didn’t enthuse the marketing people (at least not now anyway. Watch this space).
The most promising thing on the LP was a Whitfield/Stevenson Side 2 cut, Smart Aleck, which isn’t quite right for a single, but which does contain some really good bits, a jolly, danceable midtempo groove, and a fun bombom-bombom-bombom horns-and-drums attack for its intro. This seemed to point the way forward, and so – in an apparent act of desperation – Motown called in the two men who’d done so much to make Playboy a great album, and who’d co-written Strange I Know, Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, to write the Marvelettes a hit single in that mould.
So it came to pass that some four months after the rest of the LP was in the can, finished and ready to go, Holland and Dozier ended up cutting an extra track to be shoehorned onto the album, a rollicking, uptempo number conceived as a bespoke hit single and released on 45 at the same time as the LP appeared in stores. Their original lyricist from the Playboy days, Freddie Gorman, had drifted away from Motown thanks to the pressures of his work with the postal service, and so Brian’s older brother Edward, better known as the Motown recording artist Eddie Holland, was working with them intermittently instead.
The Marvelettes project was the highest-profile assignment so far for the trio who’d go on to become synonymous with Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age, and it yielded “HDH” their first chart hit – but Motown clearly still weren’t convinced about the song, hedging their bets by pairing it with one of the better tracks from Playboy, the lovely ballad Forever, and promoting both sides depending on the market. The result was two decent enough, mid-sized hits, both sides hitting the R&B Top 30, but neither doing much business on the pop charts (this side #44, Forever #78); and with that, coupled with the simultaneous rise to prominence of Martha & the Vandellas, the game was up for the Marvelettes as Motown’s number one girl group, just as this record’s writers and producers were becoming superstars.
(Ironically, Holland-Dozier-Holland would go on to draw something incredibly special from the Marvelettes – a new track, intended to become a one-off single, entitled Knock On My Door , recorded in December 1963, which is what Martha and the Vandellas’ Heat Wave would have sounded like if Phil Spector had produced it, and which should probably have been Number One for six months – only to see it go unreleased for 25 years, inexplicably rejected by Quality Control, who were apparently having a particularly stupid day or something. Look me in the eye and tell me that’s not fantastic, though.)
But I digress. What of this record, the made-to-order would-be smash hit single that Holland-Dozier-Holland assembled on spec? It’s good fun, in its way, but it’s also thin and flawed. Certainly anyone looking for the genesis of the trio’s run of mid-Sixties masterpieces will come away a little disappointed; this is still very much the sound of young writers learning their craft (and, indeed, of young singers failing to develop theirs).
“Fun” is the operative word, I guess, and it’s here that one of the key ingredients in the HDH future blueprint for success is most noticeable: the combination of lovelorn, hurt, even anguished lyrics, with a bouncy, irrestistably danceable tune and beat, crafted with an eye to live audiences (who apparently lapped this song up when the Marvelettes used it as their set closer). It’s all here in full flow. So, while the music romps along in its jaunty way, Gladys Horton and Wanda Young take a unique two-handed vocal delivery – Gladys on the the verses, Wanda on the choruses, the latter appearing for the first time on lead on a Marvelettes A-side – of some really “down” lyrics:-
I’m putting up my guard / I’m locking up my heart / Telling the Cupid to pass by me / ‘Cos all love ever brought me was misery / Hello loneliness, goodbye love / I’m tired of being abused / And being mis-used / I’ve had my share of romance, no more for me / I’m locking up my heart, and throwing away the key!
That’s Gladys’ bit, and it’s excellent. Wanda, who takes the choruses, is rather less excellent. For all her brilliant performances later in the Sixties (and her brilliant performance on the B-side, come to that), she was still a bit raw and unschooled at this point, and her shrieking lead here bears comparison with Eddie Kendricks’ efforts for the Temptations around the same time: shrill, grating, uncontrolled, nasty. You can see what HDH were trying to do, giving Wanda and her high falsetto free rein to swoop all over the place while the band, Wyanetta, Katherine and Georgeanna all kept things anchored, rolling along smoothly, but it really doesn’t work; it’s almost painful in places.
In later years, HDH would have smoothed this out in the studio, ordered retakes, even full-on remakes; but this was the start of 1963, and they didn’t have the “clout” to demand that sort of thing just yet. Instead, a second pressing of the record appeared two months later, featuring a remixed version of Locking Up My Heart altering some of the instrumentation and paring Wanda back a little bit; the effect, though, is pretty negligible.
It’s been described as the start of a downturn, “the beginning of the end” for the Marvelettes, which is overly dramatic – there were plenty of amazing Marvelettes records to come in the future, and even in purely commercial terms, they’d remain a viable Motown act, live and on record, for years yet. Still, after a startling run of great Marvelettes hits which had each been better than the last (Playboy, Beechwood 4-5789, Someday, Someway, Strange I Know – and of course, that’s ignoring their stellar début Please Mr Postman), Locking Up My Heart can’t help but be something of a disappointment. Neither a travesty nor a masterpiece, it’s a decent pop single with a somewhat irritating lead in the choruses; for a pop group who’d so recently specialised in the extraordinary, this just doesn’t hit the spot.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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