(Written by Smokey Robinson)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
A first single in six long months for the Marvelettes, once Motown’s premier girl group but now struggling for both direction and hits. The main thing working in the girls’ favour as 1964 progressed was that Smokey Robinson was now firmly in their corner – this was Smokey’s third straight single as writer and producer for the group – but neither of the last two (As Long As I Know He’s Mine and He’s A Good Guy (Yes He Is)) had achieved much in the way of either sales or critical reception. Listening to them side-by-side with this new effort, it’s clearer than ever that Smokey didn’t really know where he was going with the Marvelettes project.
It’s widely claimed that the Marvelettes never really developed a unique identity, and that – coupled with their lack of a confirmed “focal point” lead singer – this led to them spending most of the mid to late Sixties as Motown also-rans, occasionally troubling the higher reaches of the charts but never again scaling them with a bona fide, all-over-the-radio hit single. I’ve never wholly gone along with that theory; for a start, the Marvelettes had some particular readily-identifiable traits, most notably the use of complex interlocking vocal lines with the lead singer and backing vocalists swapping back and forth (something successive writers and producers made use of), and two great lead singers – plus, it’s hardly as though Motown ever threw their promotional weight behind the group as with some of their labelmates, and so the girls weren’t marketed anywhere near as aggressively as some other Motown acts. But I can see what people mean when they say stuff like that; after 1962, the Marvelettes were never forgotten, but they were never stars.
A few days ago, when I sat down with You’re My Remedy, something suddenly struck me. This is probably obvious to most of you, but it had honestly never occurred to me before, and now it seems like one of those “well, duh” moments. Are you ready? Here goes: …the Marvelettes were the female equivalent of the Temptations.
I don’t know why I’d never thought of that before. Motown’s marketing machine always tried to equate the Tempts with the Supremes, resulting in a string of stodgy LPs at the end of the decade; Motown’s producers preferred (quite correctly) to compare the post-Diana Supremes with the Four Tops, resulting in a string of considerably better LPs at the start of the following decade. But if that’s the case, what of the Temptations? A slightly rough-edged, sometimes shambolic, sometimes angelic five-piece with no properly defined lead singer, equally adept at uptempo stormers and thoughtful, personal ballads, occasionally prone to nasty vocal clashes but capable of remarkable sweetness when they did get into the groove? Where have we heard that before?
But the Marvelettes had had the misfortune to peak, commercially if not creatively, in 1961 with their very first single, before they’d had a chance to struggle and develop together. Their status as Motown’s first Number One pop act was enough, for a time, to blind both the group and their label to the increasingly poor sales figures, the gradual but ever more noticeable tailing-off of numbers at Marvelettes shows, the reviews getting steadily less glowing. Almost three years since Please Mr Postman, their career was on an irreversible downswing, having never received the equivalent of a shot in the arm like The Way You Do The Things You Do.
(Though not for want of trying – Motown had paired them with the hotshot Holland-Dozier-Holland team, only for the partnership to turn sour, the group perhaps understandably miffed at being given the so-so Locking Up My Heart by the trio the same week that HDH turned in the considerably better, and better-received, Come And Get These Memories for Martha and the Vandellas. Then, for reasons never satisfactorily explained to this day, Motown rejected another mooted HDH/Marvelettes single, the rousing, brilliant Knock On My Door. Even when Smokey arrived (and started giving the group what surely must be considered second-rate material by both his and their standards), HDH still tried to keep their hand in, and wrote them a song called Where Did Our Love Go, which – in a superlative stroke of self-destructive face-spiting, though they weren’t to know it at the time – the Marvelettes rather haughtily turned down due to its poor quality, essentially demanding HDH either take the job seriously and provide them with better songs or stop wasting their time. D’oh, etc.)
This one starts out in most unpromising fashion, a clunky, unlovely piano riff strongly reminiscent of the similarly unvarnished As Long As I Know He’s Mine, altogether too heavy and ugly for a group capable of such delightful magic. Then a harsh, strident Wanda Young – who Smokey was using on more and more Marvelettes cuts as lead singer in place of Gladys Horton – appears, and barks out the first couplets in blaring, charmless fashion:
Don’t you give me no headache powders
They don’t do no good for me-e-e
There’s nothing I can take when my head starts to ache
‘Cos you’re my remedy, oh baby…
…and I’m thinking, ychh, what is this? It sounds as shoddy and unfinished as As Long As I Know He’s Mine ever did, and the tune doesn’t sound as strong, and the lyrical metaphor (boyfriend is better than any medicine) isn’t promising. It’s not horrible, but it’s a mess, and what’s worse it’s not even an original mess – it’s a retread of an earlier, more interesting mess. This review’s likely to end in a big orange number, isn’t it?
But wait! Hold the phone, Marvelettes fans! Here comes a gallant cavalry charge of horns, a bevy of handclaps, a sea of well-judged call-and-response backing vocals, a proper groove… This group really are the female Temptations!
I can’t remember a turnaround like this, not from a big-ticket single by a top Motown act. The chorus, swept along by those horns, is reminiscent of a harder-edged Miracles record (i.e. exactly the sort of thing the Temptations would use throughout the next two years to earn everlasting fame), and it’s intoxicating, a dizzying sugar rush, as confident and composed as the verses are clumsy and shaky – it’s as though the chorus is the hit, and the verses are the subsequent crash. But knowing that chorus is always just around the corner:
You’re my remedy!
(You’re my remedy!)
Oh, how you soothe me!
(Oh, how you soothe me!)
You can call my name, and soothe all my pain –
Oh, pretty baby…!
…the subsequent verses, which all have the horns and handclaps and thudding bass backing them up, feel much more accomplished. By the time we get to the first vocal break (Don’t call a doctor / A nurse is worse), which ends with a Muscle Shoals-style barrage of short horn attacks and a piano gliss that someone seems to have ad-libbed just because it felt like a good idea, I’m positively loving this.
The longer the record goes on, the better it gets. The entire final half-minute of the record is made up entirely of that chorus on a seemingly-endless loop, getting louder and more boisterous each time. Smokey and the Funk Brothers throw more and more things into the pot that weren’t there before – coruscating saxophone (with a very Supremes-esque instrumental middle eight), a jangling guitar part Robinson was smart enough to reclaim (to lesser effect) for use on the Miracles’ next single That’s What Love Is Made Of, great towering waves of organ.
Meanwhile the Marvelettes, and especially Wanda, sound like a different group than the one which began proceedings with such trepidation, so confident by the end that Wanda can give an impromptu-sounding shout of “One more time, now!” and drag the band into a well-deserved encore (during which, true to form, they keep on adding new stuff – this time a new counterpoint horn line). If this had been made in 1968, the coda might easily have been dragged out for another couple of minutes, perhaps descending into a series of na-na-na-nas; as it stands, the record runs for almost exactly three minutes, and when it fades out it’s a real disappointment. Or at least it is until you inevitably put it straight back on again, wince at that awkward, stumbling first verse, and then slip right back into the groove.
And yet as good as it is – and it really, really is, eventually at least – I never get the feeling that any of it was intentional, that Smokey knew it would come out sounding anything like this at all. It’s enough to make one retrospectively reappraise As Long As I Know He’s Mine, because that record now sounds like an early demo for this record, as though this was the sound the group, the band and Robinson were all aiming for all along – except I don’t think it was. I think this ended up as a freewheeling experiment that got out of hand with pleasing results, rather than something carefully crafted to come out this way. Stranger still, I don’t get the feeling any great lessons were learned in the making of it; perhaps spooked by the indifference with which the American public greeted this single (only scraping a pop Top 50 place), none of Smokey’s subsequent work with the Marvelettes really sounds anything like this. (Although Ivy Jo Hunter and Mickey Stevenson certainly seem to have liked the sound of Wanda and the girls swimming against a tide of horns and drums).
Not that it matters, really – a pleasing accident is still pleasing, at the end of the day – but it does give this a weird feel that I can’t quite put my finger on. Of course, all this could just be the effect of the disconnect in my mind between the lumpen opening and the storming ending, so perhaps you should ignore what I’m saying and stick the record on again.
Probably the Marvelettes’ best single in two years, even if I’m not sure quite how it managed to be so (and I’m not convinced they did either). If Motown’s first great group were to end up largely isolated from the label’s imminent mid-Sixties Golden Age, it’s still hard to argue with results like these.
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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“You’re So Fine And Sweet”
“A Little Bit Of Sympathy, A Little Bit Of Love”
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