b/w I Won’t Go Back
(Written by Dorothy Love)
Since their fine début single That’s What He Is To Me (and its unexpectedly excellent B-side, Pilgrim Of Sorrow) the previous summer, Detroit gospel ensemble the Wright Specials had had to wait the best part of a year before a follow-up release. When that second single finally arrived, it turned out to contain two more tracks from their only previous Motown recording session back in 1961 (the same session that had yielded both sides of their début seven-inch), rather than any fresh new material.
I have to say, I was more than a little disappointed when I first heard this one. Posterity (by which I really mean “critics and the Internet”, I suppose) seems to have anointed Ninety-Nine And A Half Won’t Do as the high point of the Wright Specials’ career, but it doesn’t really do it for me; it’s an electrifying full-on live gospel performance, but it’s not really a pop record.
Originally written and recorded by Dorothy Love (Coates) with the Original Gospel Harmonettes in 1956, Ninety-Nine And A Half Won’t Do was completely rebuilt by the Wright Specials and their producer George Fowler, stripping out most of the lyrics and dramatically raising the tempo. The Wright Specials had some very good singers among their number, as already demonstrated on their first record, but perhaps they felt some trepidation in taking on one of the biggest voices in recorded gospel; their wholesale changes turned the song from a slow, pounding, forceful prayer into a repetitive, rollicking invitation to testify.
The change significantly alters the meaning of the song; where Dorothy Love Coates’ song had been a plea to grant her sufficient strength to get to the finish line, the Wright Specials’ rattling attack is much less reflective more accusatory, chastising the listening congregation and encouraging us all to try a bit harder.
The simplification also turns one of the underdeveloped ideas in the original – the lyrical fill “counting” gimmick, “70, you won’t make it, 80, God won’t take it, 90, that’s close…” – and turning it into a barrelling call-and-response section (93? Won’t do! 94? Won’t do!) taken at breakneck speed. The result of all of this is sheer outward encouragement rather than self-examination, with not enough time to contemplate what’s being said, let alone any deeper meaning; it’s religious workout music.
It’s all very energetic, perfect for frothing up a crowd into a righteous lather, and what we hear here is supposedly just the tip of the iceberg – according to the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3, the group apparently ran with this in church by stretching the song out for something like fifteen minutes – all of which goes some way to explaining why it seems to have become so beloved. But it doesn’t really do it for me; I’ve absolutely no desire to hear those supposedly missing twelve minutes, because the group has already run out of ideas by the time the single abruptly ends just shy of the three-minute mark, the listener having already heard everything at least twice.
It’s undoubtedly highly proficient, the groove is enjoyable enough and you’ve got to admire their enthusiasm, but I was expecting so much more; perhaps too much. I wanted another great record that worked on its own terms blasting out of the stereo, as with Pilgrim Of Sorrow. Instead, this is a very capable gospel jam that doesn’t really work in any other context, and it wears out its welcome much too quickly. A real pity, but in sitting on this for a year and a half before releasing it, perhaps Motown knew what they were doing after all.
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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“I Won’t Go Back”
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