(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
And talking of fascinating Motown story arcs, they don’t come much more intriguing than Mary Wells. As soon as she was paired with Smokey Robinson as her writer and producer, in the first such great Motown teaming-up, 1962 had belonged to her. But the formula – and there was a distinct formula, a kind of midtempo calypso sound – was starting to wear thin.
Mary had scored a string of successive R&B Top Ten hits (The One Who Really Loves You, You Beat Me To The Punch, Two Lovers, Laughing Boy), several of them crossing over to the upper reaches of the pop charts in a dazzling run far exceeding anything any other Motown act could match. Yet in 1963, she hit the commercial doldrums, and if her R&B chart placings remained strong, the pop hits were beginning to dry up as audiences seemingly tired of the same old act. Motown were obviously a little spooked – this was her second single in a little over two months – and, more worryingly, Smokey apparently didn’t know what to do to arrest the slide. He throws everything he’s got in reserve at this, a new recording made after Laughing Boy was slated for release, possibly in response to that record’s perceived shortcomings; he even brings in Janie Bradford, a great songwriter in her own right, to collaborate on a record personally crafted to bring Mary back into the pop chart reckoning. End result? Number 40 with a bullet.
All this goes to show is that the music business is a harsh game. Smokey Robinson had recently gone back over some old musical ground with his own group, the Miracles, to fine effect, using the benefit of hindsight to revisit a previous hit and make some improvements, essentially re-writing You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me as A Love She Can Count On (very different lyrics notwithstanding). Here, he does almost exactly the same thing with Mary Wells – musically, this is Smokey refitting You Beat Me To The Punch, adding in a bunch more ingredients (consciously “Latin” guitars, almost choral backing vocals, and – most noticeably – a rich, rewarding horn section which occasionally touches on the exact same phrases as featured in Louis Armstrong’s later We Have All The Time In The World, which would be beautiful there and which are beautiful here.)
For good measure, Smokey provides another example of his excellent lyrics, a story of the narrator being some guy’s close friend and perpetual rebound almost-sort-of-fling (it’s never quite made clear just how much goes on between them, but I’m thinking not a lot – maybe some very low-key flirting and hand holding, a few hugs, an occasional peck on the cheek, but probably not much more than that); she’s turned to for solace, regular as clockwork, but then straight out of the picture when someone new comes along to turn his head –
– (which, incidentally, is testament to her skill as an actress, because can you imagine someone of sound mind leaving Mary Wells at home to go chase after someone else?! But she sells it so convincingly here that she really carries off the part of the girl he just doesn’t see as anything more than a friend) –
– and the whole song is an inner monologue by Mary’s narrator, about how she’s had enough of this state of affairs and will instead – as revealed in a soaring, inspirational chorus, played against the almost depressing subject matter of the verses – make her move so well that Mister Thicky Can’t-Read-The-Signals over there won’t be thinking about any other women for a long time.
It’s yet another entry in Smokey’s catalogue of relationship vignettes, once again made or broken by the skill of the singer – and Mary Wells not only sings this really well, but she is that character. When she’s on form like this, you believe her in almost anything she does; she’s the nervous girl learning to stand up for herself during the course of You Beat Me To The Punch, and she’s a woman who could have her pick of a thousand wealthy, handsome guys but loves her average joe boyfriend in My Guy, both of which used that believability, that audience connection, to sell shedloads of copies.
It was never like that for Your Old Stand By, and it’s difficult to put your finger on why. (Even Smokey apparently didn’t know.) Certainly, I didn’t like this one all that much to begin with; I think it’s the least “instant” of all Mary’s Motown singles since linking up with Smokey Robinson, the one that takes the longest to get its hooks in, and because it sounds so much like You Beat Me To The Punch and its tune is subtly lovely rather than strikingly so, I had to persevere a bit before I really started to love it; for me, unusually for a big-ticket Motown single, it’s a song that rewards repeated listens, rather than grabbing you by the lapels and proclaiming its greatness.
Others seem to have felt the same way. This is a much-beloved song in Mary’s oeuvre now, but back in 1963 it passed by without much attention being paid to its charms. For whatever reason, the public just weren’t as smitten with Ms Wells as they had been six months earlier, and the record sold only respectably – hardly the success Motown had literally been banking on.
The immediate knock-on effect was that while Smokey wasn’t taken off the Mary Wells job (unlike what would happen the first time he cut a pop chart disappointment with the Temptations, when Get Ready saw him summarily dropped in favour of Norman Whitfield), Motown brass let it be known that Mary was looking for hit material, and other writers were free to pitch potential singles if they so wished. One such “open” pitch, You Lost The Sweetest Boy from the newly-hot Holland-Dozier-Holland team, ended up ousting Smokey’s What’s Easy For Two Is Hard For One as the plug side of Mary’s next single.
It’s unclear as to whether Smokey viewed this as something of an insult, or simply a much-needed kick in the pants (he responded by raising his game to hitherto-unhinted at levels with Mary’s next-but-one single, a song which you may have heard of called My Guy); what might have happened after that we’ll never really know, because that was the point that Mary decided to walk away from Motown and sign a fresh contract with Twentieth Century Fox, never to be heard from again at the business end of the charts. Nobody was to know it at this point, but her Motown story – and thus her time on Motown Junkies – is almost over already. At least she would provide us with one of the all-time great big finishes.
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.
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“One Of These Days”
“What Love Has Joined Together”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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