(Written by Smokey Robinson)
The Supremes’ endless quest to shake off their “no-hit” nickname continued with another sharp change in direction. Once again, Motown had reacted to the commercial failure of a Supremes single (the baffling “country/doo-wop” trifle My Heart Can’t Take It No More) with yet another abrupt swap-out of writers and producers; for a group still searching for their own individual sound, their own voice, Motown’s repeated switches of personnel can’t have been helping matters.
So, out went Clarence Paul, and in came company vice-president Smokey Robinson. The group already had experience working with Smokey, who’d been their erstwhile neighbour in Detroit’s monolithic Brewster-Douglass council flats; along with a smattering of B-sides, he’d also written and produced a previous Supremes single, Your Heart Belongs To Me, a year previously in May of 1962.
Just like that record, A Breath Taking Guy sounds an awful lot like the stuff Smokey was doing with Mary Wells. Just like that record, this one dented the pop Hot 100 (climbing to a dizzying number 75). Unlike that record, this one is slightly silly. How silly? Look at this.
The song is based around a central “hook” in the chorus, where each of the Supremes gets a solo line in turn – Are you just a breath-taking / First sight soul-shaking / One night love-making / Next day heart-breaking guy? It feels like it’s a hair’s breadth away from sounding enchanting, magical, but it falls just short, and instead Smokey’s well-planned trick play comes across as clunky and artificial, drawing attention to itself. As if to emphasise this, Motown, in their infinite wisdom, initially opted to use the entire lyrics of the chorus as the song’s title. The result was a very cramped label (left) struggling to fit four lines and sixteen words of text. Whether Smokey was arguing for or against this is not recorded.
Whatever the reason, somebody put a stop to this jape fairly quickly, and on later pressings the title became simply A Breath Taking Guy – more commercial, but not really summing up the song half as well. (This, of course, would be a Supremes trait throughout their fast-approaching mid-Sixties heyday; I’m still amazed at the number of people who listen to the irresistible likes of, say, Baby Love or You Can’t Hurry Love without realising they’re dancing to a song of full-on crushing heartbreak.)
Title-based silliness aside, Smokey Robinson is never at his best when he gets carried away with a clever idea – in this instance, that almost-riveting chorus hook, but it could have been anything – at the expense of crafting a song to go with the latest in his box of tricks. That’s the case here; it’s a nice enough little song, very pretty in places, but it’s hard to praise it too much when it’s almost defiantly thin and flat.
I’m being unduly harsh again – I do like the song, though I probably haven’t made that very clear. It’s sweet and charming, and the girls’ harmonies are light and billowy, so it makes for pleasant enough listening without being earth-shattering in any way. Really, it just sounds like something Smokey would have written for Mary Wells a year previously; it’s in the same calypso-tinged midtempo bag, it’s almost optimised for Miss Wells’ phrasing rather than Miss Ross (an unusual criticism for a Smokey Robinson song and production, since he was usually the master of tailoring his words to match a performer’s individual cadences); and it isn’t half as catchy as it thinks it is, meaning it was probably never likely to trouble the upper echelons of the pop charts. In truth, this has “B-side” written all over it.
Between that and the title kerfuffle, which quite possibly killed any chance this had of getting serious radio play (see the promo, right), A Breath Taking Guy ended up costing Smokey the Supremes gig, spelling the end of Robinson’s involvement with the group’s 45s for a number of years. The next time the Supremes came to release a single, it would bear the magic five-word combination that would soon be conquering the world: “(Holland-Dozier-Holland) / THE SUPREMES”. Under the aegis of the HDH team, the “no-hit” Supremes would not only throw off that nickname forever, but also rack up an astounding twelve number one pop hits in less than six years.
A shame for Smokey that he got to be the “before” guy, rather than revelling in that success – but he’d go on to have a banner year in 1964 without these girls, and anyway A Breath Taking Guy, nice though it is, was never in a million years the record that would make that breakthrough.
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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