(Written by Smokey Robinson)
Posterity is a funny old game.
Recording for the Miracles’ fourth album, The Fabulous Miracles, was all finished by the start of November 1962, or so Motown believed; a somewhat paltry selection of six new recordings padded out with some previously-issued filler from the group’s first and third LPs, Hi! We’re The Miracles and I’ll Try Something New, the album’s big selling point was supposed to be that all the songs were written or co-written by the Miracles’ lead singer, Motown vice-president William “Smokey” Robinson.
The finished album is – understandably – a somewhat patchy affair. The three strongest songs on the album as originally conceived were all recorded during a marathon one-day session on October 16th, 1962: future B-side Whatever Makes You Happy (a midtempo calypso number along the lines of Smokey’s recent songwriting and production work for Mary Wells), and two Sam Cooke pastiches, Happy Landing and You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me. These latter two were chosen as the can’t-miss lead single and its pleasant, space-filling B-side respectively, with the album slated for release once Happy Landing had inevitably stormed the charts.
Of course, things didn’t work out that way. Happy Landing failed to chart. Meanwhile, You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me sailed effortlessly up the R&B charts, all the way to the very top, shifting over a million copies in the process. Result: a hasty rejig of the tracklisting of The Fabulous Miracles, putting You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me as Side One, Track One, emblazoning that song’s title in a huge blue typeface across the front cover (to the point where some discographies actually list the LP’s title as You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me, not helped by the fact Motown seem to have actually been considering such a ploy), and a delay while Motown asked Smokey to come up with something else in the same vein – something that could both alter the focus of the album, and work as a follow-up single, in order to shift more copies of The Fabulous Miracles to people who only liked You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me. Smokey accepted his task with enthusiasm, turning in A Love She Can Count On.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
As mentioned, You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me had been recorded in haste, having been written by Smokey during a particularly boring hotel stay and apparently never seriously considered as a single during its creation. By the time Robinson came to sit down with the express purpose of writing something similar, the song was already all over the radio and climbing the charts, and so he had plenty of opportunity to listen to his dashed-off work, listen to what really worked and what didn’t quite come off. In particular, he seems to have picked up on things that all the hundreds of groups who’ve since covered You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me missed: the dual-handed lead vocal delivery doesn’t work, the record sounding better when Robinson sings on his own, playing ever so slightly fast and loose with the melody in favour of bluesy expression (got a ho-OLD, On ME-EEE); the seemingly-innocuous call-and-response bits (the beautifully timed overlap You really got a hold on mes, and the Hold me! Please! Hold me! Squeeze! bits) are the bits that everyone remembers, a quite accidental hook; Claudette’s high voice makes a brilliant anchor for a call-and-response chorus; Marv Tarplin’s guitar riff makes the song; the sparse instrumentation the song was initially praised for actually sounds slightly scruffy and would work better if it was polished up a bit. And so on.
So it came to pass that, tasked with a potentially tedious “soundalike sequel” brief (compare and contrast Berry Gordy’s efforts with the Contours, following up Do You Love Me with any number of uninspired, almost-disintered retreads), Smokey set about to intentionally make a better record than the original. He was doing his homework; some proper study went into this, on a job where lesser writers might have been tempted to phone it in. The finished song was recorded during a specially-convened recording session just after Christmas 1962, more than two months after the rest of the LP.
It’s a very good, well-crafted, often strikingly beautiful song. If it’s not as famous or interesting lyrically as You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me‘s dissection of an obsessive, possibly unhealthy, possibly even abusive relationship, it’s still a fascinating lyrical relationship vignette, dressed up as a trite truism (There is nothing that means more to a woman than a love she can count on) that looks incredibly naff written down and taken out of context, patronising and cheap. Indeed, boiled down to its basic elements, this song is essentially just Smokey’s narrator telling his girlfriend that he’ll always be there for her, because he knows that there’s, well, nothing that means more to a woman than a love she can count on; but it’s so much more intriguing than that.
Firstly, our boy is much too defensive about this, singing that line not with the assured Smokey-knows-best tone of the Miracles’ last motto-as-song-title record, the lovely father-to-son Everybody’s Gotta Pay Some Dues, as though he’s pointing out a universal truth – but rather as a hopeful shot in the dark, something he hopes is true, but isn’t quite sure. (There’s nothing women value more than dependability… right? Right? You’re, er, you’re not agreeing. I am right though, yes?)
Secondly, that insecurity is then multiplied tenfold by the narrator – in the best bit of the song – going off on a huge, completely unprompted digression about how his wealthy next door neighbour’s girlfriend isn’t happy despite being showered with material riches, a “you can’t buy happiness” side story that takes up almost half the song; the subtext throughout is that the narrator protests too much, and is making a bold, slightly desperate attempt to make up for the fact he can’t spend that kind of money on her.
All of which is aided by the fact that this is all crafted so much more carefully than the big hit, learning all the lessons listed above…
(most noticeably, of course, incorporating an instantly-likeable call-and-response section, the “girl next door” section, in which Smokey explicitly states “repeat after me”, followed by a reprise of the You really got a hold on me bit from the earlier song, but with eight different lines instead of the same title over and over again:
I remember what made it come to me
I remember what made it come to me!
The guy next door has money, you see
The guy next door has money, you see!)
…and all stitched together as a personal narrative – cleverly leaving Smokey the vocalist out on his own, adding a plaintive quality to his delivery in contrast to the robust horns and harmonies he plays against, and thus helping paint a picture of this character: narrator’s nervous overcompensation dressed up as grand romantic gesture, solo vocalist straining against grand romantic backing track.
Smokey Robinson, genius.
Now, if we left things there, then this would already rate highly. But Smokey wasn’t satisfied. When Motown inevitably selected A Love She Can Count On as the Miracles’ first single since their #1 smash, rather than simply let them use the album cut, Smokey dragged the group back into the studio a month and a half later to re-record it for its seven-inch release.
It’s this second version which appears on The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3, and the differences are striking; it’s the sound of Smokey the producer developing and refining an original idea, almost a third take on the same basic ingredients, tighter and tidier and slicker each time, until he’s got it pretty much spot on. The end result, in this new incarnation – with its horns and handclaps and finger clicks and more free-range bass and piano lines, and Smokey quite brilliant (his high-speed closing semi-rap, I know that you know how precious the care is and you know that I know my darling that there is, an idea from Everybody’s Gotta Pay Some Dues, is medal-worthy), and the Miracles on barnstorming form – is, somewhat surprisingly, and contrary to popular opinion, actually a better record than You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me.
Now, especially alert readers may be a bit confused by this conclusion. How can I praise Smokey’s “soundalike sequel”, while expressing dissatisfaction with Mary Wells’ Two Lovers, and outright panning the Contours’ Don’t Let Her Be Your Baby, mainly because they’re not sufficiently different from their predecessors (which, indeed, is the criticism usually levelled at this record, and a widely-approved criticism at that)?
Well, honestly, I don’t really know how to answer that, not logically anyway – there’s just something about this one that, like Martha and the Vandellas’ Quicksand a few months down the line, means it can stand on its own as a record, each bringing enough to the table to merit its own existence. Soundalikes, sure, but lovingly-made ones, done with an understanding of – and without losing anything of – what made the originals so special. Similar enough to recapture the magic, but different enough that both the inspiration and the reimagining can peacefully co-exist; that’s A Love She Can Count On in a nutshell, and I love it.
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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