(Written by Ed Cobb)
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
Writing about Motown in early 1964 is a fascinating part of this project, not least because it’s remarkable to see just how quickly all the pieces fell into place for the label’s shortly-forthcoming imperial phase, a time of countrywide and international domination when Motown had everything: great songs, great musicians, great artists, and the money and distributor pull to make the resulting records into great big pop hits.
Whereas the preceding twelve months saw Motown go through a dizzying array of short-lived acts, many of whom only had one single to their name before being dropped as quickly as they’d arrived, the Class of ’64 is filled with future Hall of Famers, key players (if not necessarily big stars) from the company’s mid-Sixties Golden Age. Already we’ve had a breakthrough from the Temptations, we’re about to get one from the Supremes, we’ve met for the first time R. Dean Taylor and Shorty Long… and now, here’s Brenda Holloway.
Brenda and little sister Patrice, California girls both, had signed up with Motown’s new West Coast office (under the direction of Marc Gordon and Hal Davis) towards the end of 1963. Patrice had been the first to get a single release, albeit an abortive one (the little-heard Stevie), in December, but legal wrangles prevented her from having any follow-up releases with Motown. From the start, though, the smart money had to have been on Brenda to break through to the next level. Clever and beautiful even at seventeen, already a talented songwriter in her own right and possessed of a truly great voice that disguised her tender age, she had all the makings of a superstar.
It never quite worked out that way – though she’d have some real success, she never became the world-beating marquee name her talent deserved – but at least the world got some cracking records out of the deal, of which this is very definitely the first.
It’s also the first big Motown hit to have been recorded away from Detroit – thousands of miles away, in fact, in Holloway’s home town of Los Angeles – and without the peerless Motown house band, the Funk Brothers. Instead, a bunch of Hollywood session players (likely including the great Carol Kaye on bass) assemble to back Brenda, and they lay down a very different sound to the stuff that was coming out of Hitsville at the time.
Indeed, the lush (by Motown standards) instrumentation on this is one of the key things in the record’s appeal – it just sounds fantastic, a mournful, treacle-slow waltz picked out with precision on piano, guitar and drums, while a bed of strings carries the whole thing along like a cushion of air. The dolorous scraped cello at the start sets the tone straight away, letting the listener know what kind of ride we’re in for: this isn’t a happy song, but there’s a kind of energy in its determined self-pity, and all of that is reflected in the music.
Which isn’t to undersell what Brenda does with it; a big fan of Mary Wells, which must have played well at her audition (and probably secured her a few of Mary’s cast-offs as future singles, as we’ll see further down the line), she was also a devotee of big-voiced jazz and R&B divas (the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4 have her namechecking Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick alongside Wells), and having been singing her entire life, it’s clear from listening to this that she’s absorbed a little something from all those influences. It’s not just that it’s a big, powerful voice, or that she’s got good technical control (although both those things are true), it’s that she’s able to switch so convincingly between different vocal modes at the drop of a hat.
Accordingly, there are hints of gospel, jazz and opera in her delivery here, which is a virtual vocal showreel. Check out how many different touchstones she reaches in her first minute alone, all of which seem to come from different places: bringing out the mournfulness of the title phrase in a seductive, softly-cooed voice; smoky, quickfire recitations in low tones (…You say you’re comin’ home / Yet you never phone / Leave me all alone), sudden vaults of scale and volume where she reaches and grasps notes that seemed out of her range two seconds before (my love is-a STRONG FOR YOU / I do WRONG FOR YOU), touches of throaty sexiness a la Mary Wells (the not-so-silent “h” before I ca-an’t take / This loneliness…), unexpected power and sustain (…you’ve given ME-E-E-E-E-E-E, yeah), vibrato (giving my life awayyyyyyy), harsh, almost violent knockdown demands a la Aretha (Come back to me! / Darlin’, you’ll see! / I can give YOU all the THINGS that you…), and then back to sultry, quiet cooing without missing a beat (…wanted before / If you will stay with me…), and more besides.
It really is just remarkable. Ed Cobb, the Four Preps vocalist, renowned writer and producer who seemingly wrote this on spec for Motown’s LA office, was able to pack the song with a number of great hooks knowing that it didn’t really matter if people couldn’t quite identify, or agree on, what the song’s big hook was (is it the breathy recitation of the title, the Come back to me! bit, the If you will stay with me bit that functions as a kind of chorus leading back to the title, or what?) It didn’t matter because Brenda could sell them all. Which she does. Per standard Motown procedure, Cobb – even as an outsider – would benefit from writing a hit by being awarded the follow-up. He must have been thrilled – not just for the royalty checks, but for the chance to work with Brenda again, to push her voice into new places and ever more twisted positions.
Because this was a hit, unexpected but very welcome, almost making the pop Top Ten and scraping the upper reaches of the independent R&B charts being compiled in Billboard‘s absence.
I say “unexpected”, but that’s probably not true – as I mentioned above, Brenda had the goods, and Berry Gordy was always convinced all his records had the potential to be hits, or they wouldn’t get released. Although according to a few accounts, he wasn’t initially too sure about putting money behind a slow, mopey California-cut waltz, which was quite different from the sort of thing his more established acts were doing at the time; outvoted in a Quality Control meeting and persuaded not to use his veto, he must have been glad to have been talked around.
Brenda became another Motown protegée to move from “future contender” to “rising star”, earning a spot on Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars tour (and blagging a place at the bottom of the bill for another struggling Motown act to boot; the act chosen, as all Motown trivia buffs know, were a then largely-unknown girl group named the Supremes.)
It must have all seemed quite natural; the record was really good, Brenda was obviously very talented, the songs were in the pipeline, she’d had a good hit and was now in front of a national audience. If you’d have told anyone at Motown that this would end up being her biggest commercial hit, and that the raggedy girl group she pulled up by the bootstraps would rack up twelve Number Ones, they’d probably have laughed in your face.
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.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in Brenda Holloway? Click for more.)
“Wind It Up”
“Land Of A Thousand Boys”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.