B-side of Your Old Stand By
B-side of Your Old Stand By
(Released in the UK under license through Oriole Records)
William “Smokey” Robinson being a great songsmith and a great wordsmith has often led people to confuse one for the other. A bit of clever wordplay doesn’t automatically lead to a great song; similarly, several of Smokey’s best lyrics don’t feature any clever “I see what he did there!” -type lines at all, but they scan beautifully or pack an emotional punch that lifts the song above the crowd. At his best, he could write great songs with highly-quotable lines, that is, with both long-term and short-term impact, the quick hit of a clever line and the slow release of an emotional reflection: the best of both worlds. This one (written with Miracles bandmate Bobby Rogers) isn’t quite up there with his very best work, but it’s a good example of Robinson showing his strengths in both regards.
One of Smokey’s best talents, and this is something I’ve written about before on Motown Junkies, was matching his lyrics and tunes with the vocal strengths and weaknesses of whoever was going to be singing them. This art reached its apogée with the mid-Sixties Temptations, but his earlier work with Mary Wells comes a very close second; by the time of What Love Has Joined Together, recorded just after Christmas 1962, they had more than a dozen collaborations under their belts together, and had formed the first of the great Motown writer-producer/artist relationships.
These partnerships were almost symbiotic at times, the artist needing that particular writer-producer to feed them strong material, the writer-producer needing that particular artist to bring the best out of their song. If the balance ever shifted too far one way or the other, the magic started to lose some of its lustre; Motown was always at its best when the creators and the interpreters seemed to need each other. Holland-Dozier-Holland with the Supremes and Four Tops; Norman Whitfield with the late-Sixties Temptations; Marvin and Tammi with Ashford and Simpson; the Jackson 5 with The CorporationTM; and, before any of that, Smokey Robinson with Mary Wells.
This is one of my favourite examples of that relationship bearing fruit; largely unheralded (though the Temptations, Barbara McNair and Smokey’s own Miracles all liked it enough to cut their own versions), it doesn’t often get mentioned alongside the likes of You Beat Me To The Punch – but I don’t think there are too many Robinson/Wells collaborations better than this one.
As with so many of Smokey’s songs, What Love Has Joined Together is a refinement of (or new take on) a concept he’d explored in an earlier song; in this instance, lyrically, it’s the Miracles’ beautiful I’ll Try Something New, Smokey’s madly-in-love narrator offering to do a series of impossible things replaced by Mary’s madly-in-love narrator promising that a series of impossible things would be easier than splitting her from her love, thereby pledging her heart until the end of time.
Another of Smokey’s usual tricks was to provide a neat twist on a familiar aphorism, in this case, a tweak of a Biblical quotation well-known to listeners from its use in wedding ceremonies –
– …but what a tweak, “what love has joined…” substituted for “what God has joined”, and the original “let nobody…” (an instruction) replaced intentionally with “can’t nobody” (an affirmation) –
– and build a song around that conceit. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t; here it definitely does. It’s never made clear whether Mary and her lover are actually supposed to be married (Mary was, in real life), but the devotion is there in the text (It would be easier to take the wet from water / Or the dry from sand / Than for anyone to try to separate us, The Quotable Smokey Robinson, chapter 294), and the acting – required to sell this properly – is top-notch.
Musically, it’s equal parts half-pace rewrite of Two Lovers, and slow-as-molasses dress rehearsal for the Supremes’ A Breath Taking Guy a couple of months later, but tailored specifically to the rhythms and cadences of Mary Wells’ singing – tailored, in fact, as well as anything Robinson ever wrote for her. I love Mary’s voice on this so much, it’s almost perfect; breathy, sultry, calm, wonderful. Smokey knew what he was doing.
The mix is just beguiling. Mary acts her way through the song as well as she’d done on any of her records to date, showing the believable, down-to-earth qualities she’d displayed on the A-side and which would shortly shoot her to superstardom (that is, a level beyond the mere stardom she currently enjoyed) with My Guy a year later.
She also gives one of her best vocal performances – the middle eight declaration (Even if they / Separate us / A thousand miles apa-art) would be the most heartstopping moment of most other records, but here the beautiful, daring leap up the scale for the chorus (And what LOVE has joined together, leaving Mary to float back down again to get in place for one more ascent, then floating back down the scale a second time to the bottom of her range to do the almost-bass closing line, …can’t nobody tear it apart) takes the prize. Astonishingly, when the Temptations and Barbara McNair came to do their versions, they both completely chickened out of this bit, the song’s best and most risky moment and its biggest vocal challenge. (Perhaps Mary had set the bar too high by nailing it so comprehensively.) Meanwhile, the band wrap her voice in an all-enveloping mix of horns and high, tinkling jazz piano; it sounds great.
Too slow to be a single, this is still one of the best records of Mary Wells’ all-too-brief tenure with Motown, and it gets better each time you listen to 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!)
Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- The Temptations (March 1965)
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“Your Old Stand By”
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