(Written by Berry Gordy)
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
Well. Absolutely fascinating, perhaps the most fascinating record we’ve yet covered on Motown Junkies – but most of that fascination is extra-textual. In terms of what’s actually on the record, it’s rather easy to let this one drift by without paying much attention at all – the first time that’s been true of any Marvin Gaye single so far. It makes very little impact, nicely put together though it is; you’d never get a sense of the record’s significance just by listening to it. Of which more later.
Try It Baby was written and produced by Motown boss Berry Gordy, by now Marvin’s brother-in-law. By 1964, Berry’s trips to the studio were becoming increasingly rare. To me, this is one of the great unexplored Motown stories; Berry had built Motown up from nothing into a respectable commercial force in just six years. Much of that growth was powered by Gordy’s business nous, but – and this should never be overlooked – a lot of it, especially in the early years, driven by the boss’ songwriting prowess. The big – the only? – difference in 1959 between Motown and fifty other tiny black-owned indie labels with no distribution and no advertising budget was Gordy’s creative reputation, acquired with Jackie Wilson and then kept up with hits for Marv Johnson, Barrett Strong et al.
Up until early 1963, if you were a Motown artist, it was a boon to have Berry Gordy write or produce your single – not just because he was the boss and therefore you’d get some prestige and brownie points (and because it showed he was interested in how you were getting along!), but because the chances were that as one of the best writers and producers in the business he’d bring you something good to sing, or get a great sound belting right out of the speakers.
But times changed. As Motown grew, increasingly Berry Gordy was needed as a businessman and an administrator, an arbiter with sole power of veto at Quality Control meetings, unspoken but universally acknowledged emperor of A&R, the big scary boss figure. All of which obviously took up a lot of his time, and kept him away from the studio in a practical, physical sense. And that’s fair enough, and that’s the story that’s always put forward.
There’s more to it than that, though. By 1964, Berry Gordy wasn’t just finding it increasingly difficult to find time to actually get into the studio, but the work he produced when he got there wasn’t cutting-edge stuff any more: he’d been left behind. If he’d have declared himself retired from hands-on writing and production, concentrating solely on the business side of things for the next five years, precisely nothing would have changed; Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age would have happened exactly the same without him doing any studio work at all. And here’s the kicker: Berry knew it.
In a TV interview with Tavis Smiley a few years ago, Gordy laughingly admitted that he thought he’d set the bar pretty high, only for other writers – hired hands – to sail over it, and then turn around and set that bar even higher, higher than Berry himself could go. He says it in a jokey, offhand way, but watch the clip and decide whether he was really that happy about it. Still, as Tavis says, no-one can take Lonely Teardrops away from him.
It’s tempting to engage in a bit of amateur psychoanalysis here, so I’ll preface this by saying I obviously don’t know what he thought about being knocked off his perch – but to me, it must have been somewhat galling on a number of levels. Knowing people he himself had discovered, hired, trained and nurtured had now outpaced him; knowing he still had the power (if he so chose) to declare himself overlord of the studio and produce and write every session; and knowing – with his keen businessman’s mind – that from a business perspective, the smart call was to ignore that impulse, take a back seat.
Oh, Berry could still write a fine song, there’s no doubting that – but why bother, when he had a whole stable of guys at his fingertips who could be paid to write an even better one? Try It Baby is one of the last hit Motown records to bear Berry Gordy’s name on the label; the end of an era, just as surely as Where Did Our Love Go was about to herald the beginning of a new one.
Perhaps all of that explains why this record ended up sounding so out of place, or at least out of sequence, for Marvin Gaye. This is a half-speed throwback to Pride And Joy, mixed with some fine – but dated – group harmonies courtesy of the Temptations. (Indeed, this could have come from some weird alternate 1962 where Berry Gordy followed up Dream Come True by hiring Marvin, not David Ruffin, to join the group.)
Almost every Marvin Gaye single going back to 1961 had built upon the one before, but this one is a big step backwards from the likes of Can I Get A Witness or You’re A Wonderful One. Typical of what had happened to Berry Gordy, and illustrative of his tacitly self-accknowledged musical stagnation compared to his Motown peers – his idea for Marvin’s next move was something that had not only already been done (and better to boot), but something Marvin had already left behind.
Well, something that Marvin’s commercial mind had left behind, anyway. There were already two Marvin Gayes at Motown, one a hip-shaking pop star and the other an eyes-closed MOR crooner; the public were only interested in the former, Marvin himself wished with all his heart to be the latter. Motown had thrown him a bone on that front, greenlighting two LPs of bland whitebread standards, pseudo-standards and soft jazz, the price with which they’d bought a string of early Gaye hits. The bluesy strut of Try It Baby is a softer, more palatable kind of music than usual, closer to Marvin’s light entertainment preferences than the likes of Stubborn Kind Of Fellow or Hitch Hike, albeit still unmistakeably more R&B-pop than a Broadway standard or Nat King Cole classic. To me, at least, it never really feels like a Marvin Gaye single, especially not given the run of barnstorming uptempo hits he’d recently notched up. It feels out of place; well made and everything, but… we’ve done this already, haven’t we?
So, anyway, stepping back from the record for a moment, there’s plenty of interesting material for considering the decline of Berry Gordy the songwriter, always to be looked at in tandem with the rise of Berry Gordy the music industry magnate. But that’s not the most fascinating story happening here; for that, we need to look at the lyrics.
On the face of it, the lyrics are another weak point here; every Marvin Gaye single so far had cast Marvin in a relatively sympathetic role, playing up his dashing good looks by having him promise his undying love, say, or vowing not to rest until he’s won your heart, that sort of thing. Try It Baby, taken at face value, comes across as a nasty, spiteful little song, a story of a successful and popular woman as told – in the second person, directly addressed to her – by her bitter, jealous boyfriend as he warns her not to get too full of herself. If she thinks she can make it without him, she’s got another thing coming (hence the title, which doubles as the chorus – so, you think you can make it on your own, do you? Try it, baby!)
It’s implied that Marvin’s narrator had a hand in her rise to fame (shades of the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me, or – a little closer to home – Holland-Dozier’s baffling What Goes Up Must Come Down), but it’s not spelled out so clearly, and the sheer disdain he shows is particularly unpleasant and manipulative – take away your good looks and your fancy clothes, and you’ll see / That nobody loves you but me…
Gaye’s narrator chastises the woman (the role in which we, the listener, have been cast) for being too busy for him, spending too much time with (it’s implied) other men. Perhaps it’s meant to be a gentle cautionary tale about not getting swept up by newfound fame, surrounded by false friends and phony showbiz hangers-on, making sure you don’t forget the people who really care about you – but it never really feels that way, making one wonder just waht Berry Gordy was trying to get Marvin to convey here. Except we don’t have to wnder, because Gordy made direct reference to this song in his 1994 autobiography To Be Loved (as quoted in the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4 – I don’t actually have a copy of To Be Loved, it’s long since gone out of print amid a hail of lukewarm reviews, which says a lot about its place in the pantheon of classic showbiz memoirs). And here’s where I had to pause and re-read to make sure I had it right.
Gordy admits he had Diana Ross in mind when he wrote it. “I imagined a girl like her with a guy like me who was building and guiding her career. I envisioned this guy investing all of his time and effort in this girl, while at the same time falling in love with her. What if she got so big, so popular, so caught up in fame and fortune that she no longer had time for him?”
There are entire books to be written on the basis of just that one quote. Whether Berry was really obsessed by Diana Ross at this early stage (when the Supremes were very far from a first-rank act at Motown), or whether he was just getting his chronology muddled up years after the fact, is an interesting but subsidiary question here. But what sort of an insight does that quote provide into the workings of the man’s mind? Expressing a perfectly natural fear of rejection, of no longer being needed, by way of a defensive kiss-off, an act of self-protection, that makes Marvin’s narrator – who we can now safely call a proxy for at least some of Berry’s neuroses, expressing something Berry himself had considered if not experienced – seem like a man crippled by self-doubt and depression… that’s enough of an eye-opener before we even consider that he deliberately appended Diana Ross’ name to all this analysis, as if their relationship hadn’t already been subjected to some of the most intense scrutiny in showbiz history. Goodness me, Mr Gordy.
With all of that bubbling away under the surface, it’s a real disappointment that Try It Baby ends up sounding so conservative, so comfortable, far from the confessional and confrontational elements in (and behind) the lyrics. It sounds good, though – Marvin’s delivery may not pick out much of the angst and anxiety Gordy had put in, but he gives a smooth, confident performance, his voice dovetailing pleasingly with the Temptations’ smoothly interlocking backing vocals. There’s some good band work, too, including a great trumpet break that suggests the Funk Brothers were still continuing to move forward during the crucial winter of ’63/’64 regardless of what was put on the charts in front of them. The musicians turn in a strong performance despite the boss plainly now being behind the curve, the 4/4 tambourine/drum attack in the chorus especially arresting. But it all continually feels just a few bars away from collapsing into a late-night soft jazz club workout, noodling and vocalising without purpose, and the very blandness of the tune just drags everything down a notch, such that the impression this leaves on me, every time, is that it’s well put-together but slightly thin, even verging on boring – and if there’s one thing that a Marvin Gaye single should never, ever become, it’s boring.
So, one of the most interesting and intriguing back-stories of any Motown record ends up with a solid, stolid, forgettable little footnote in Marvin Gaye’s career. The crowds lapped it up anyway, giving this some respectable chart positions (helped, no doubt, by Marvin looking as handsome as ever on the picture sleeve), but this feels like less than the sum of its parts, and certainly less than should have resulted from its tortured inspiration.
* * * * * * * * * *
4 / 10
(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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“Here Comes That Heartache”
“If My Heart Could Sing”
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