(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
Motown’s first duet single since Sherri Taylor and Sammy Ward’s long-forgotten Oh Lover back in 1960, this is a fascinating (and fascinatingly weird) release for a number of reasons.
There are several stories to pick up here. Marvin Gaye, for whom this was a first released duet, would go on to find fame and fortune paired up with entirely different singers; Mary Wells was on the verge of leaving Motown in an unprecedented blaze of glory. Once Upon A Time was part of an album project, Together, which saw two of Motown’s hitmakers, Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells, partnered in an attempt to boost each other’s profiles.
Much has been written about who was the bigger name when the LP was (a) recorded and (b) released, but the truth of it seems to be that they were both pretty much on an equal footing; the sessions for Together took place throughout 1963, before the game-changing success of My Guy. Whilst Mary had clocked up lots of time in the Top Ten, Marvin was also a Top Ten artist by the time the sessions started, and if Mary had had the bigger hits, her chart placings were starting to get worse with each successive release, and she’d been seven long months without a single, while Marvin’s career now seemed to be going in the right (i.e. upward) direction. No, in the game of “who was more famous”, I think it’s a case of honours even.
Marketing ploy or not, there’s no denying it’s a great match of voices. Once Upon A Time, which was almost exactly a year old by the time Motown finally released it (likely in the wake of the strong initial reaction to My Guy), is a duet in the strictest sense, Mary and Marvin blending their voices together on every line of the chorus and most of the verses, and the effect is remarkable – warm and harmonious and romantic in a way Marvin’s later legendary duets never quite were. If it’s difficult to state with certainty who was the bigger star, Mary or Marvin, it’s also difficult to separate their performances here; they are as one, neither of them outshining (nor trying to outshine) the other, just singing together as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
(Which it may well have been, of course – rumours abound that the two were more than just duet partners, Marvin’s quote – “I guess you could say the duets were not great for my marriage” – suggestive but leaving room for ambiguity. Whatever the facts, they sound very good together here.)
Indeed, both of them turn in a splendid vocal performance on their solitary solo verse, and then the blending of harmonies throughout the song is highly effective. It’s a song of gratitude, and equally divided gratitude at that, Marvin and Mary both thanking the other for lifting them out of a life of loneliness, so if one had tried to dominate, the song would fall apart; it only works if both of them are exactly as in love and exactly as thankful as the other. Which they are.
A pity, then, that it’s all in the service of such a pedestrian song. It’s a midtempo ballad with calypso touches, more in the style of Wells’ solo material at the time it was recorded rather than Gaye’s, but with hints of bossa nova that pull the whole thing in an MOR rather than pop direction. It’s likely neither Marvin nor Mary was too dismayed by this, especially Marvin (who still harboured real ambitions to sing on the supper club circuit), but it’s a strangely sapping experience.
The melody is quite pretty, but very slight, and the repeated lines in each chorus – I was lonely / So lonely – are strangely disconcerting; the tune in the solo verses is lovely, and gives the leads plenty to work with, especially the descents back into the duet line, but it just feels like there should be more to it. It’s comfortable rather than passionate; all very nice, but it goes absolutely nowhere.
Indeed, it all drifts by without making much of an impression beyond “Ooh, this is quite pretty”, the only really noticeable moment coming courtesy of a lumbering, rudimentary solo at 1:15 from vibes man Dave Hamilton (who picked up a writing credit on this), aiming for the light jazz feel of some of Marvin’s earlier records but instead coming across as jarring and thin.
Taken with the general lack of passion on display to begin with, it makes the whole thing seem more throwaway, less consequential; it’s almost as though the record seems determined to stall its own momentum, diminish its own emotional impact.
The result is an overwhelmingly nice song, unarguably well sung, that just doesn’t work; it’s album filler, rather than a great single, a great duet, the start of Marvin’s long duet legacy or whatever other labels you want to put on it. One gets the sense that Motown may have felt the same way, given the long, long wait between recording and release. The eventual chart performance when the single finally did appear (both sides made the R&B Top 3 and pop Top 20 in America, and this was even a minor hit in Britain, only Motown’s second such success) may have been more to do with the star power of its singers, rather than any great love for the song.
It’s just nice, which isn’t a crime, but which is a crying shame; the two voices go together so well, this really needs a big, soaring chorus, something to show both singers off to their very best. Somewhere in New York, Ashford and Simpson were taking note.
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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