(Written by Berry Gordy)
With bizarre timing, the next record up is actually a Marvelettes cover, as performed by Bunny Paul, one of the increasing army of Motown artists given a début single during 1963 and then never heard from again (take a bow, Linda Griner, the Chuck-a-Lucks, Connie Van Dyke, Billy Merritt, and the Burnadettes, and those are just the ones we’ve covered so far – there are a lot more of them yet).
The Marvelettes’ original version of this song, as written and recorded for their excellent Playboy album in 1962, was a fine record which could easily have been a hit single in its own right, but it was never pulled from the LP (understandably, since that album is pretty much teeming with top material), and so consequently it’s not one of the group’s more widely-known numbers. So, before I get into what Bunny Paul does to it, I’d like Motown Junkies readers to refresh their memories of what the Marvelettes sounded like in their pomp.
Gladys, this one’s for you.
On any other album, I’m Hooked might have been a natural choice as a single, or at the very least a B-side. The Playboy album, though, was pretty much chock full of even better songs – Beechwood 4-5789, Someday, Someway, Forever, Playboy itself – which were picked ahead of this one. As a result, I’m Hooked remained stuck there for posterity (along with another could-have-been contender, Mix It Up).
But the story couldn’t end there. Playboy, as explained on many, many previous entries, was a landmark LP for Motown, not least because it was the first time that several different established songwriters, or songwriting teams, had been specially commissioned to write new material for an LP. This had been Berry Gordy’s big songwriting contribution to the album, and he kept it up his sleeve, believing it could be successfully repurposed as a single for some future act.
Detroit-born cabaret singer Bunny Paul (that seems to have been her birth name) was the latest in a long succession of white Motown signings brought in to broaden the label’s crossover appeal and then jettisoned when no hit records were forthcoming; she wasn’t the first, and she certainly wouldn’t be the last. In Bunny’s case, though, there was more to the story than with, say, fresh-faced teen Connie Van Dyke; this was no hot new act, but rather Berry Gordy indulging his other passion by signing a veteran performer on the downswing of their career to add class and credibility to his mostly youthful roster. Miss Paul was almost 40 by the time she pitched up at Hitsville, a 20-year music industry veteran with a crateful of singles to her name – some of them regional hits for some surprisingly big labels (by way of example, Youtube offers Honey Love for Essex in 1954, Please Have Mercy for Capitol, no less, in 1955, and Buzz Me for Brunswick in 1957 – check out the cut-and-paste telephone sample on that last one!).
Severe ill health, requiring brain surgery and a lengthy hospital stay, had curtailed her career at the turn of the decade, and while she was able to fit in a one-shot session in January of 1963, yielding both sides of this single, she still wasn’t well enough to return to Motown to record any more material, thus stopping her potentially building a successful second career. This single was her only Motown release.
It’s unlikely, though, that Bunny would have finally become a superstar if only she’d been able to stick around the corridors of Hitsville a little longer; as a comeback single, a calling card from an exciting new chapter in someone’s career, this is actually pretty atrocious.
Bunny’s version of I’m Hooked stands as a baffling oddity (and this in a Motown year not exactly short of those). It’s essentially karaoke, for want of a better word, and it’s not good karaoke. Bunny’s extremely distinctive vocal style (talky and smirking, slightly giggly, with a double helping of Connie Francis stirred in for good measure – check out those examples above) was so completely unsuited to the material, in terms of key, timbre and overall “feel”, that producer Clarence Paul (no relation) should really have chosen another song for her. Perhaps it was bad judgement on Clarence’s part, perhaps the boss insisted his song get re-used. Either way, the result is an embarrassing mess.
This is a re-recording, not just a case of Miss Paul singing over the top of the Marvelettes’ version, but the arrangement and the backing vocals are almost identical (the Vandellas redoing the Marvelettes’ backing vocals here); this version has a different intro and slightly different timings; it’s also missing the sax from the original’s mid-song instrumental break, as well as some of the enthusiasm.
Sadly, though, Bunny’s lead is the real problem here, inadvertently highlighting the quality of Gladys Horton’s performance with the same material. Miss Paul is still manifestly very ill at this point, and this is a difficult song to sing, calling for a lot of extemporising from its lead vocalist, a challenge which poor Bunny just wasn’t able to meet. At no stage on this record does she ever come within a semitone of being in tune with the voices or instruments she’s meant to be leading, and her attempts to recapture the coquettish humour of her earlier hits – “Mmmm! Yum yum! Lovey dovey” – fall extraordinarily flat.
It’s hard trying not to be nasty about this – she seems like a really nice person, and it’s not her fault she was sick, but Motown should never have passed this as fit for release. Without knowing the backstory, this really does sound as though some mid-level manager for a stationery supplies company has had one too many drinks at the office party, spotted a karaoke machine, and decided to get up on stage and do a slightly drunken Connie Francis impression.
It’s a disaster, completely unworthy of Bunny’s earlier performances, and she must have known she was embarrassing herself. Everyone – Bunny, the Marvelettes, the Vandellas, the band, Clarence Paul, Berry Gordy, everyone – deserved better than this.
I’m not giving it a 1, because I like the underlying song enough not to trash it, and because I admire Bunny’s pluck and bravery in at least attempting a comeback in such circumstances – but it’s really not very good at all. If you’ve ever wondered what the early Marvelettes might have sounded like without Gladys Horton’s lead vocals, wonder no more; she’s the difference between the two versions, and on this evidence, she belongs in the Hall of Fame. Get well soon, Gladys, we’re all pulling for you.
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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