(Written by Edward Holland Jr.)
If the quality of the release schedule is anything to go by, then the start of Motown’s classic “Golden Age” can actually be dated with reasonable accuracy to the autumn of 1963. Talk about musical and musicological milestones all you like, but September/October ’63 is when the label’s output reaches a consistently high pitch, where each and every single could be expected to deliver the goods.
Did this flowering come too early, or too late, for Eddie Holland? As a songwriter, along with his little brother Brian and their friend Lamont Dozier, Eddie was one-third of the trio of Hitsville golden boys who could do almost no wrong, serving up chart hit after chart hit after chart hit; he was at the vanguard of the Golden Age. As an artist, he was still struggling to catch a break; a one-time hotly-tipped Next Big Teenage Thing, he was now 24, plugging away at a performing career which he didn’t enjoy and which didn’t pay the bills, two long years having elapsed since his last hit record as a singer (Jamie), and this was only his second release of 1963.
Whole volumes have been written pontificating on the reasons why the career of Edward Holland Jr., one of the greatest songwriters in pop history, doesn’t seem to match up with the career of Eddie Holland, the fondly-remembered but rarely-charting Motown artist who quit performing at 25. There are many theories which seek to explain this: his chronic stage fright which hindered live appearances, lack of financial reward from performing compared to songwriting, lack of time thanks to Motown’s relentless songwriting demands, lack of promotional push from Motown, pressure from within Motown to give all his better material to other artists, etc etc.
All true enough to a certain extent, but – to me – all of those theories seem to skirt around the elephant in the room: Eddie was a good singer, and made some very good records, but he wasn’t as good a performer as some of his more successful labelmates, and if history has shown us anything, it’s that the whimsical gods of pop music have never seen fit to automatically reward undoubted talent with commensurate sales.
This, Eddie’s eighth Motown single (and his twelfth overall, including his earlier dalliances with Mercury and United Artists), is a case in point; it’s almost a perfect distillation of the man’s whole career, on both sides of the glass.
Following the lead of Brenda, the B-side to Eddie’s previous single Baby Shake, this is a song written by Eddie alone. Despite that, I’m On The Outside Looking In displays the becoming-a-trademark Holland-Dozier-Holland 4/4 “stomp” as much as anything he’d written with Brian and Lamont. It was a motif the team had already mixed in to a couple of songs, and which they’d refine in 1964, becoming a key ingredient in what became known across the planet as the “Motown Sound”.
It’s not just the beat. There are handclaps, foot-stomps, organ glisses, a sax solo… this is, for all intents and purposes, a dry run for the Supremes’ Where Did Our Love Go LP, or a snapshot of how that album might have sounded in a universe where all those songs were instead written for Marvin Gaye.
Or maybe Sammy Turner. The doo-wop balladeer, who’d taken his version of Lavender Blue up the charts several years previously, had signed with Motown during the summer of 1963 and – according to the liner notes for The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3 – this song was originally written for him. But at this stage in his career, Turner was very much in an MOR bag, a crooner rather than a rocker, and this bright, upbeat R&B stomper seems entirely unsuited to his style.
(Conversely, and a bit weirdly, I can totally picture Eddie Holland covering Turner’s arrangement of Lavender Blue, but that’s neither here nor there).
Evidently, Motown either felt the same way, or just weren’t happy with Turner’s version; his lead vocal was apparently wiped, the song’s writer stepping in and taking over as lead singer, dubbed over the pre-recorded band track to create this single.
Was that the right move? It didn’t sell, regardless of whose name was on it – this was yet another in a lengthy string of Eddie Holland singles to miss the charts entirely – and artistically it must have been a difficult choice too, potentially swapping out one inappropriate singer only to end up with another. But Eddie, knowing his usual signature vocal style – a sort of smirking, cheeky-chappie persona combined with almost pedantically precise enunciation of each word – wouldn’t necessarily suit these lyrics (of course, they weren’t written with himself in mind), instead turns in his most raucous delivery to date. He can’t quite switch off his mannered diction and audible winning smile, but he gives it an admirable shot, and he does manage to “rock out” quite effectively a couple of times (especially near the end).
The lyrics are both to the point and genuinely entertaining; this is a song of apology, Holland castigating himself for his stupid behaviour which has resulted in his girlfriend changing her relationship status to “single”. To his credit, Eddie isn’t begging her to come back (he acknowledges she’s already managed to find herself someone markedly better than him in a very short space of time), he’s simply apologising for acting like an idiot, and offering an insight into his current life as a result, in an “if it makes you feel any better” olive branch:
I went without eating and sleeping
I spend endless nights ever weeping
Because it hurts SO inside
To think you loved me, but I made you cry
Now, I’m on the outside looking in…
It’s a good move; the very sound of Eddie’s voice had previously led some of his previous breakup songs to sound a little smarmy and insincere, but this “hold my hands up” approach is much more sympathetic.
Although Eddie’s song is missing the tunesmithery of Brian and Lamont to go with the driving beat and the lyrics, there’s plenty of fun to be had here; besides that beat, there are some fantastic backing vocals, the drums and organ are on top from, the sax solo sounds great, and the stomping chorus (I should have told you / That I loved you) is probably Holland’s catchiest solo record chorus to date.
Still, the song is definitely lacking a killer tune to go with all of this good stuff, or it could have been a classic. Instead, the record doesn’t really build on any of its best individual elements, getting almost maddeningly generic as it goes on after the sax solo is done, relying increasingly on Eddie shouting himself hoarse to keep the fires burning. But he handles the burden just fine.
Highly energetic and plenty of fun, even if it is ultimately a bit directionless; it’s always fun to see Eddie let his hair down a little and move away from his immaculately-pressed “dapper young gent” image, and – coupled with his obvious new ideas about where pop music should be headed – this ends up being just about his best solo single to date.
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!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“He Won’t Be True (Little Girl Blue)”
“I Couldn’t Cry If I Wanted To”
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