B-side of How Can We Tell Him
(Written by Smokey Robinson)
Bobby’s voice is still strangely echoey and nasal, and it’s not any better to listen to than on the A-side; a Fifties matinee idol’s delivery, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. But the song he’s singing is giant, seven league strides ahead of How Can We Tell Him – it has a genuinely great tune, clever and unexpected chord changes playing up the naïve hope of Breen’s narrator, a beautifully-sketched character: lonely but still keeping the faith as his date fails to turn up and the minutes and hours tick by, Bobby giving her the benefit of the doubt rather than resorting to rancour.
In his role as Motown’s Vice-President and a surprisingly important A&R man for the label, Smokey Robinson found himself writing and producing for all manner of little-known acts in the hope that he’d unearth the next Mary Wells; what’s remarkable is that no matter how strange the task, Smokey never phoned it in, always came up with something – if not always necessarily something good, then at least something interesting.
This one is particularly interesting, both in terms of that wistful, lazy killer hook (and the attendant production touches – seaside sound effects, crashing waves and so on), and the thought that’s been put into the lyrics. The MOR surroundings, and Breen’s weirdly nasal voice, trick the listener into thinking the song’s about the woman Bobby’s singing to, instead of realising it’s actually a character study about the narrator. He’s meant to be meeting up with his ex-girlfriend, who – after some persistent pestering – has agreed to meet him at their old rendezvous spot on the shore for what Bobby seems to have sold as a clear-the-air, “let’s be friends” sort of talk. However, Bobby’s clearly treating the thing as a romantic date, seeing her acceptance as a sign she’s still interested, and he’s filled with hope that this is their chance to get back together again, a prospect which the listener knows is probably doomed right from the start.
What follows is a sharply accurate portrayal of a man who hasn’t been this happy in weeks and won’t be again for weeks more, but who’s desperate to cling on to that thread of happiness that he’s pretending it doesn’t matter she’s over an hour late; she’s bound to come round the corner any second now. Any second now. The agony of love.
I’d pay so much money to hear Smokey himself singing this in Bobby’s place; if this had been a Miracles cut, it might have been a masterpiece. Instead, it’s a good song, sung earnestly but inescapably poorly – though Bobby’s wounded puppy-dog delivery wins you over anyway. (His performance stands in complete contrast to the A-side’s unengaging tale of a messy love triangle, where Breen came across as a spineless dullard, difficult to care for or about).
This is essentially an R&B ballad, adapted for a white MOR performer; Motown was replete with examples going the other way by 1969 as Berry Gordy pushed his artists towards a fabled goal of crossover acceptance, but this is a weird experience, strangely touching, possessed of a brilliant tune; all in all, it’s enough to forgive Bobby’s well-meaning sappy excesses (to a point, anyway).
Beautiful and intriguing, and those are the last words I’d expected to be using to describe a long-forgotten Bobby Breen B-side.
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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“How Can We Tell Him”
“Run, Run, Run”
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