(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
Mary Wells, Motown’s first solo superstar, was coming to the end of her time with the label – though it’s likely nobody knew it at the time. Somewhat unbelievably, this was actually her penultimate Motown release. Egged on by one-time husband Herman Griffin, in the spring of 1964 Mary would begin legal proceedings to have her Motown contract torn up (arguing – successfully – that back in 1960 she’d been too young to sign it). She’d decamp to Twentieth Century Fox, supposedly lured by the promise of a movie career that never materialised, after which her career entered a shockingly fast and irreversible tailspin.
In most accounts, it’s presented as a baffling decision, especially since – at the time she chose to drop her legal bombshell – Mary was sitting on top of the world, copies of her one and only pop No.1 single My Guy flying off the shelves as fast as Motown could get them there. But up until that time, Mary’s career had actually been in decline – after a dominant 1962, she wouldn’t have a Top Ten record in all of 1963. Commercially, My Guy was an anomaly.
Commercially, but perhaps not artistically. Smokey Robinson, who’d had care of Mary Wells’ career for almost two years, had penned Mary’s last five singles – The One Who Really Loves You, You Beat Me To The Punch, Two Lovers, Laughing Boy and, most recently, Your Old Stand By; all based around the same central formula, a midtempo calypso-inspired sound that focussed on Mary’s sultry, sophisticated sound. The public had been crazy for that sound in 1962, but rather less so in 1963; although Smokey had made efforts to change things up a bit, quite successfully in the case of Your Old Stand By, the sales had continued to slide. Motown’s top priority, as always, was success rather than loyalty; Smokey wasn’t getting the job done, and so the field was opened up to competition. First among that competition were the company’s hottest up-and-coming songwriting trioHolland-Dozier-Holland, who had very different ideas on how Mary should sound.
The result is a record quite unlike anything Mary Wells had recorded before; her most energetic single since I Don’t Want To Take A Chance more than two years previously, this is the kind of uptempo full-blooded dancefloor-minded R&B-pop fresh air that HDH had come to specialise in during the course of 1963, most famously in their work with Martha and the Vandellas.
From the opening attention-grabbing piano notes and backing cries of Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Oh yeah!, it’s clear we’re in for a very different kind of Mary Wells experience. This couldn’t be more different from Two Lovers if it had been sung by Howlin’ Wolf.
It sounds fantastic, there’s no denying that. The gospel-style backing vocals – a choral mix of male and female voices, supposedly including members of both the Supremes and the Temptations making uncredited cameo appearances (this has never been verified either way, but check out the backing at 1:34, where someone sounds very like Diana Ross!) – compete with a bevy of horns, piano and a tough rhythm bed of drumbeats and tambourine to push the record along. Based around a recurring two-note four-bar horn riff and the crotchet notes that would later come to define the “Motown sound”, the thing powers along irresistibly. Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier were making giant strides in their production techniques, and this just pops out of the groove and out of your speakers, packing a real punch.
Anchored by a barrage of wailing sax and those unstoppable drum and tambourine fills, it sounds like a hit single all the way. What it doesn’t sound like is a Mary Wells record; for the first time in her career, she’s almost a passenger. She never sounds completely comfortable taking a song at this lick, unable to bring her customary pathos and insouciance to the lyrical tale of one-upwomanship over her boyfriend’s ex. (Yes, your loss is my gain…, she sings, …now tears of regret has covered your face, and yet it feels as though Mary doesn’t have time to do anything more than simply get the words out before she needs another breath; it robs the song of some of its emotional impact.)
Worse, she sometimes ends up subsumed beneath the band and the backing vocals, in what seems like an intentional move on the part of the song’s writers and producers; on more than one occasion, her voice is deliberately mixed into that mini-choir for the main hook of chorus – you lost the sweetest boy that you had that time, the sweetest boy that you had – which definitely adds a real vigour to the sound, but it’s done in such a way that it can be hard to pick her out. It’s almost as if Mary was being pulled just a little out of the spotlight, and just a little more into the background – just a little, but pulled nonetheless.
It’s still a good record, but there’s something just not quite right about it all. However, all of this laid the very necessary groundwork for My Guy, moving Mary out of her rut and into pastures new, broadening her range, recasting her as a star capable of sassy gospel-pop records as well as massive midtempo R&B balladry.
If this wasn’t the commercial revival she or Motown were looking for – the two sides of this single yielded Mary two Top 30 hits on the pop chart (both went top ten R&B), a respectable if not spectacular performance (perhaps each side cannibalised the other’s chart positions) – it’s still a fun, vital record which still sounds fresh and young today, and it shows a side of Mary Wells that audiences across America had forgotten she even had.
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 Can’t Help It, I Gotta Dance”
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