(Written by Smokey Robinson)
The Temptations had spent 1961 and early 1962 honing their skills, developing an advanced, daring brand of doo-wop tinged R&B that was all their own – see the likes of Check Yourself, almost bewildering in its inventiveness, which didn’t sell, and Dream Come True, strange and brilliant, which (hearteningly) did – but then hit a brick wall, Motown apparently struggling to find them suitable material.
A big-drawing live act – especially in Detroit, where people had been paying good money to see the Temptations or their predecessor groups, the Primes and the Distants, doing their superb stage shows for years now – the group was seemingly in danger of becoming irrelevant as a recording act. Their most recent single, Paradise, a shoddily-executed Frankie Valli pastiche, had been a huge step backwards, and its commercial failure had temporarily dampened label owner Berry Gordy Jr.’s enthusiasm for writing and producing for the Temptations. Coupled with an almost concurrent, similarly non-charting release under the name “the Pirates” (Mind Over Matter), it looked a distinct possibility that the Temptations had missed their chance, and were now falling aimlessly down the Motown pecking order.
Luckily, the B-side to Paradise, Slow Down Heart, had paired the group with Smokey Robinson as writer and producer for the first time, to intriguing if not earth-shattering effect. For the follow-up, Smokey was granted the A-side, for the first time on a Temptations record.
If he wasn’t quite yet in a position to write them a proper hit – and, therefore, not a candidate for the job on a full-time basis – then, on the evidence of both Slow Down Heart and I Want A Love I Can See, Smokey at least understood what the Tempts had going on, saw what distinguished them from a million former doo-wop outfits who’d struggle for acceptance as the Sixties progressed and the rules of the game changed.
While this record isn’t a masterpiece or anything – a thin but pleasant enough guïro-driven R&B romp, featuring some excellent harmonies but a predictable, obvious tune that doesn’t go anywhere – it’s notable as a concerted attempt on Smokey’s part to drag the group out of the doo-wop milieu and towards a more contemporary sound, tougher and slicker, but still keeping their individuality, avoiding anything that might smooth out their most endearing rough edges.
It didn’t sell, missing the charts completely and thus delaying the obvious permanent Smokey/Temptations alliance by almost a year while Motown chased dead ends, but it’s pretty much the first “modern” Temptations record, marking a boundary between their prehistoric “space age doo-wop” phase and their mid-Sixties Golden Age. Accordingly, it’s by some distance the tightest, most “professional” record the group had cut to date.
Much of that has to do with the rapid development during 1963 of the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers, their playing getting more and more advanced and moving further and further away from the jazz, blues, rock & roll and gospel “feel” of the earliest Motown recordings as the year progressed. Certainly they sound great here, and the recent improvements in recording technology at Hitsville have an audible effect too, allowing for more and more complex arrangements and productions (check out the horn section here, which sounds 20 years removed from the stuff Motown had been doing just a year before.) But that’s not the story; the story is the Temptations, and the real start of their rise to power.
It’s no coincidence that, on all of the pre-’64 Temptations records, every last one, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams are the key ingredients as to whether those records work, every time. The rest of the line-up (at this point consisting of Melvin, Otis and Elbridge (“Al”) Bryant) do their best to keep it all together, usually used in unison with Melvin’s bass and Al’s slightly unnerving altering-pitch tenor to provide an eerie “sandwich” effect around Otis’ steady main line, but their efforts are either raised to a higher plateau, or smashed to bits on the cobblestones, by how Paul and Eddie are used. Seriously, every single time, no exceptions.
On all the worst ones, Paul is hemmed in, sung over or mixed down, pushed too close to the other three while Eddie is given free rein to swoop and shriek all over the place, the two men’s voices forming a discord so complete you’d often swear it was intentional. Conversely, on all the best ones, it’s Paul who’s given a long leash on lead, while Eddie stays restrained and in tune, the two men locking into pretty much perfect harmony. Which is what happens here. It’s not a question of Paul being “good” and Eddie being “bad”, it’s just a question of two excellent voices and whether they’re being used properly or not. Whatever else Smokey might go on to do with the group, I Want A Love I Can See is significant because he almost instantly understood how to use them.
(I’m tempted to refer to Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur rearranging the chariot horses and turning them into a winning team, because it seems like a perfect analogy; when the Temptations were allowed to do whatever they felt like, it could become rampantly uncommercial very quickly, and often sounded horrible. When someone who really knew what they were doing came in and corraled the group’s voices – which already naturally complemented each other – and put them in the right order, knowing they could easily handle whatever complicated timing changes a producer threw at them… well, it nearly always sounded awesome. And Smokey most certainly knew what he was doing. There’s a quote in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3 from Otis Williams describing Smokey’s working methods with the group; instead of turning up at the studio and trying things out, experimenting with ideas, learning as he went along, Smokey would arrive early “with all of the vocal and instrumental parts worked out on paper down to the last detail”. You can totally believe it: the Temptations weren’t the kind of group you could just set loose in the studio, telling them to recreate their live show on tape, and instead their writers and producers had to do their homework, but there were big rewards to be had.)
So. I Want A Love I Can See. As a song, it’s okay; danceable, likeable, but rather flat and ultimately uninteresting, hardly one of its writer’s all-time greats. As a Temptations record, it’s almost a new start, a rebirth, and worth visiting. As an arrangement, a vocal showcase, a calling card for future greatness, it’s nothing short of remarkable.
The overall effect is pleasing, but more promising than really satisfying in its own right; soon enough, we’d see what happened when Smokey was able to marry a great song to a great group – a great group who’d been in danger of being overlooked because previous producers had been playing them out of position so many times. In the meantime, as a first tentative step towards the big time, this would do just fine.
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.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in The Temptations? Click for more.)
“I Can Take A Hint”
“The Further You Look, The Less You See”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.