b/w Keep Me
A decided attempt on Berry Gordy’s part to reposition quasi-operatic, Marge Simpson-haired vocalist Liz Lands – hitherto best-known for shrieking, warbling gospel numbers and unexpectedly brilliant Presidential tributes – as an R&B/pop crossover artiste.
The reasoning is easy enough to deduce – by 1964, Motown was moving into a new phase, its eyes now on the pop charts, rather than the blues and gospel cuts that had helped pay the bills a few years before. Liz, with her supposed five octave range, was a luxury that couldn’t be carried forever; she wasn’t selling any records, and so she would have to get with the program if she wanted to stay.
To that end, Gordy co-wrote Liz a shuffling R&B workout, took on production duties himself, and paired her with the Temptations (who had recently scored a big hit with The Way You Do The Things You Do and so were credited on the label) and the Andantes (who hadn’t, and so weren’t) on backing vocals. He even did it all again when he wasn’t satisfied with the first attempt.
The result, sadly, met with only limited success artistically, and none at all commercially, and that was the end of Liz Lands’ career as a Motown artist.
Berry, his ex-wife Thelma and future Temptation Richard Street provide a good, solid song, while there’s a positively crackling band performance filled with thump and clatter – handclaps, tambourine, horns and guitar building to veritable Himalayan peaks of groovitude. The shuffling gait of the intro, ominous piano giving way to a strummed, clipped guitar riff of surprising harshness, metronomic tambourine way up in the mix, is absolutely riveting.
But at the centre of all this irresistibly strong groove is a frustrated opera singer who can’t quite let go of the notion she’s somehow slumming it by singing Gordy instead of Offenbach. Lands starts out smoky and tough, giving a contemplative, brooding delivery as she beseeches the titular Johnny to keep his distance, and it sounds great. But as the record goes on, the showing off of that astonishing range begins, and – as with practically every other Liz Lands Motown cut I’ve ever heard – she ends up just shrieking uncontrollably all over the register until the record’s all but ruined as anything other than an exercise in wholly wasted potential.
(Back in the mists of time, when I wrote about Popcorn Wylie’s I’ll Still Be Around, long-term readers may recall I mentioned a handful of Motown records featuring fantastic ideas not fully realised. That was one of them; this is another.)
It’s not an easy song to carry off – Connie Haines’ version, as featured on A Cellarful of Motown: Volume 2 (but not Youtube, annoyingly), is similarly hampered by its vocalist’s attempts to introduce her own style (jazz-lite stylings rather than operatic pretensions) – but it’s still a real shame that this isn’t as good as it could have been.
The band deserved better, and it’s thanks to their sterling efforts that this is still essential listening for Motown fanatics even with Liz’ ill-judged hollering all over it. They would get ample chances to shine in the future, unlike the lead singer; although we’re not quite finished with Liz Lands just yet, this was her final Motown release.
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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“If You Were Mine”
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