(Written by Joe Hayes and Jack Rhodes)
The world of pop music in early 1964 may seem a strange and alien place for modern observers, but some maxims hold true then as now. A year in pop music is a long time; two years is a lifetime. Tomorrow’s next big thing quickly becomes yesterday’s old news. One-hit wonders have always been in ready supply, storming to the top of the charts and then fading away, never to be heard from again.
Bruce McMeans, rechristened “Bruce Channel” (to be pronounced Chanel like the couturier), had blazed that trail in 1962 with Hey! Baby, a bouncy, enjoyable rockabilly-pop hit co-written by McMeans himself, riding Delbert McClinton’s great harmonica all the way to the top; from local distribution on a tiny Texas indie to a Number One on Smash Records in less than four months. But that was 1962, and “Channel” had failed to repeat the feat. By the end of 1963, after a string of follow-up singles that only briefly grazed the lower reaches of the Hot 100, it was clear Bruce’s big moment had been a flash in the pan, and Smash let him go.
As ever, the chance to sign up a “name” artist from the sphere of pop and MOR – especially a white one – was too much to pass up for Berry Gordy, who promptly assigned him to Mel-o-dy Records, a label usually thought of as Motown’s Country & Western subsidiary. Unusually for a Mel-o-dy release, Bruce’s Motown début was cut in Detroit, backed by the Funk Brothers and under the supervision of the great Mickey Stevenson. That it didn’t appear on Motown Records is an enduring mystery; the association with the country pap on Mel-o-dy’s roster might have harmed the record’s success, because this is energetic pop music all the way.
Channel’s vocal style is just the same as it had been on his big hit, a weird semi-shouted sort of drawl that sounds as though he was struggling to get his mouth around the words – but it doesn’t work as well here, coming across as thin and underpowered in the face of the musical pounding going on around him. (I still can’t even work out what he’s actually saying in the very first line – something something something / Go on and boogie, and have a good time! – answers on a postcard?)
It starts very effectively, this, with a big thumping drum riff, bashed tambourine and handclaps marking out the beat for eight long bars while Bruce toasts (unintelligibly) over the top of it. But it’s a great opening all the same.
Soon enough we’re into the song proper, with horns, gospel choir backing vocals, piano glisses and all the other trappings of a capable Motown B-side. It’s not a killer tune and it’s not a great single – but it’s very danceable, and it’s got a super groove, such that it’s difficult to stop yourself clicking your fingers while it’s playing.
In many ways, it’s the energy of the music, the physical thump and clatter and the soaring BVs of a solid Motown cut, that upstages Bruce on his own record. Back on Hey! Baby, he’d only really had to compete for attention with McClinton’s mouth organ, and the harmonica riff was so captivating that it didn’t really matter if Bruce lost out now and again. By contrast, here he’s very much the weakest link on the record, and the tune just isn’t strong enough to make up for it; without the riveting harmonica part, Bruce is left exposed, despite – no, because of – the capable musicians with whom Motown had surrounded him.
Still, it’s not a case of doom and gloom – this remains a lively and quirky pop record, even if Channel’s vocal is nothing to write home about, and the band track is worth listening to as Stevenson and the Funk Brothers stretch their repertoire to take in a whole new field. A small-scale pop dancer that mostly succeeds on its own merits, ending up as a half-decent little record – it’s just a pity everyone’s sights weren’t aimed a little higher.
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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