(Written by Richard Street and Thelma Coleman Gordy
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
All was not well in the Contours camp. This was their first single in eight months, and the group was riven with dissent; fractured along factional lines, they wouldn’t stay together for too much longer. Can You Do It was the final A-side from this particular line-up. Less than two years after breaking through into the public consciousness with their Top Ten smash hit Do You Love Me, the “Mark I” Contours were over.
This one begins with possibly the least promising start of any Motown single so far; mandolin-like guitar and strings throbbing behind Billy Gordon as he gives an outlandish, weirdly-cadenced spoken-word intro. Seriously, are they really still trying to remake Do You Love Me? Still?
1964, and we gon’ dance some more! You got to KEEP up with the TIMES…
Oh, bloody hell, they really are as well. One out of ten beckons; I’m not in the mood for this today, lads. BUT! Hold the phone! It turns out that this is just an intentional false start, included by its co-writer Richard Street (later of the Monitors and Temptations) to tie this new record in with the old hit. A lucky escape there, then.
The intro, thankfully, turns out to have nothing to do with the rest of the record. Which… Okay, it’s a huge relief on many levels, but it’s also an ill-judged move, alienating listeners already bored of Do You Love Me while presumably misleading and disappointing anyone out there who DID want more of the same. It also hardly portrays a huge confidence on Motown’s part in the Contours’ abilities to gain traction with new material without resorting to cheap tricks. Still, in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4, Richard Street says that his royalty cheques from this song allowed him to buy his first car, so we can’t judge too harshly for giving the punters more of what they knew, I suppose.
When Can You Do It actually turns out to be a vibrant, energetic dance record, full of raw, bluesy screeching, tight backing vocals and ripping horns, you can’t help but wonder why Street slung the millstone of Do You Love Me round its neck rather than seeing if this could stand up on its own merits.
It certainly can; never a masterpiece, but a corking dance rocker, very rough around the edges but definitely alive, a hint of a Contours we never really got to see, the Contours their live shows always presented to wowed audiences.
In many ways, this is the end of an era, for both the Contours themselves and for Motown as a whole. This was a small-scale hit – top 20 R&B and just missing the pop top 40 – but America, and Motown, had moved on, and this wasn’t the future. Rumour has it that the group’s proposed second LP, Dance with the Contours, for which they’d already recorded a vast amount of material, was summarily shelved, and that was that as far as these original Contours were concerned. In the middle of an acrimonious dispute with the label over ITMI (Motown’s management arm) interfering with their live commitments, lead singer Billy Gordon allegedly broke ranks and signed a separate deal with Motown, leaving the rest of the group to walk out in disgust. Gordon would revive the Contours name with a brand-new line-up and a different sound, but the group who’d cut Do You Love Me were gone.
Luckily, the majority of the sessions for Dance With The Contours were saved for posterity, and those recordings – including this one and its B-side – were recently released on the Ace/Kent compilation CD of the same name (left). Motown Junkies wholeheartedly recommends this compilation, even – especially! – for those who think a collection of mostly-unreleased Contours dance tunes from 1963/64 wouldn’t be worth picking up; it’s wholly excellent.
Can You Do It isn’t wholly excellent (that would be a real stretch even for die-hard Contours fans), but what it is is lots of fun, and absolutely not another lame Do You Love Me retread. Too rough and flat to be a hit, but full of everything a dancefloor smash needs; that’s it’s sole purpose, its natural environment, and I’d wager that it went down exceedingly well.
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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