(Written by George Fowler and Stanley (“Mike”) Ossman)
Following LaBrenda Ben’s only previous Motown excursion, Camel Walk, a somewhat pointless overdub of an earlier Vandellas track, she was accorded one further Motown single – this one. Just Be Yourself was a fitting title for the new single, which was written just for her, and which allows her to express her own invidivual voice and personality much more than her previous effort.
Writer-producer George Fowler, who’d apparently brought LaBrenda to Motown before being tabbed to run the company’s ill-fated, short-lived gospel subsidiary Divinity Records, here returns to the secular side of things to provide his protegée with a slow, slinky, string-laden MOR ballad. For me, Just Be Yourself always struck me as being more in the vein of the purposely-conservative material Barbara McNair would later cut for Motown than anything the company was doing in 1963.
It’s a fine showcase for LaBrenda’s deep, bluesy voice, something which hadn’t really been shown off to its best advantage on either side of her début. It’s better than might have been expected, knowing and sultry in places (not least the recitation of the title at the end of each chorus, where LaBrenda swoops down to the bottom end of the scale and stretches the word “yourself” out to around four times its natural length), but when she goes up to the top of her range, the effect is less endearing, and comes close to being almost shouty.
As with other Motown MOR material of the period (I’m thinking of stuff like Linda Griner’s Envious, or Amos Milburn’s My Daily Prayer), there’s an uncomfortable tension in this record which suggests an amount of uncertainty or confusion as to where it was trying to go. Was it pitched at an older, more conservative audience (trying to appeal to those who wouldn’t necessarily buy R&B records), or was it an attempt to push LaBrenda down the R&B-pop path trodden by Mary Wells (trying to appeal to those who DID buy R&B records, but wanted a bit more depth and class – to use later terminology, a bit more soul)?
Still, identity crisis aside, it’s very listenable, even sumptuous in places; smooth without being too processed or sickly. The tune is nice enough, if nothing earth-shattering, and LaBrenda clearly had potential. Unfortunately, this was her final release for Motown, though she stuck around Hitsville for a few more months and cut several unissued tracks (though, it seems safe to assume, not including a barnstorming demo bootlegged as “I’ve Got A Right To Cry”, later revealed to be titled “Lead Me And Guide Me” and credited to Holland-Dozier; the shrill, throaty vocalist on that track, whoever she is, sounds absolutely nothing like LaBrenda Ben on the evidence of the four sides Motown released on her).
A pity, as it might have been interesting to see what else Ms Ben had up her sleeve. Instead, she was lost to the music industry altogether; what became of her after her time with Motown remains a mystery.
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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