b/w Sad Song
(Written by Ed Cobb)
So often, growing up long after the fact and lacking reference points, I’ve made the mistake of confusing a record’s obvious quality with its likely fame, or its commercial success. It then comes as a considerable shock to the system to read that an excellent single was met with indifference on original release, crawling into the shadowy lower reaches of the charts rather than blazing a trail to the top twenty. The Supremes’ Run, Run, Run (Number 94 with a bullet) is one such example; I’ll Always Love You (a scarcely-better Number 60) is another. What were people thinking?
This was LA girl Brenda Holloway’s second Motown release. The first, the excellent Every Little Bit Hurts, had flirted with the Top Ten and officially confirmed Brenda as a hot prospect, One To Watch, earning her a place on Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars tour. For the follow-up, Motown tried to retrace their steps as closely as possible; I’ll Always Love You shares the same writer, same producers, same LA studio and (probably) same LA musicians as Every Little Bit Hurts, and it’s no surprise that the result is a very similar song.
A slow-paced, beautiful, overstated ballad, the middle instalment of a glorious mid-Sixties triptych of these for Brenda, it’s essentially a reworking of her début – the difference is that this time everything is viewed through a prism of joy rather than despair. It’s something Motown writers would do many times in the mid-Sixties, turning one song into two by simply changing the vantage point and observing how everything else seems to change in line with it: not just a “soundalike sequel”, but more of a “mirror sequel”. This is Every Little Bit Hurts – The Happy Version.
It’s also really, really good.
The huge, crashing piano chords that open the record provide an ominous beginning, a signifier that this is a “prestige” single, perhaps, as well as a possible portent of more anguish to come for those who’d been expecting something along the wounded lines of Every Little Bit Hurts. But from there, the woodwind section strikes up a lovely 3/4 waltz, and the rest of the record just revels in its own beauty.
Two sides of the same coin the two songs may be, but Brenda shows quickly that she can do happy every bit as well as sad; she takes both songs seriously, but where Every Little Bit Hurts was full of anguish after a horrible breakup, I’ll Always Love You is full of love and devotion in the middle of a wonderful relationship.
Vocally, as both a singer and an actress, Brenda is on brilliant form here, and again there are multiple highlights. I’m especially fond of the little changes she throws the listener when the song’s repetitive structure keeps pushing her through the same line three times in a row – an opening riff of Your kiss, your kiss, your kiss is obvious bait for bad karaoke, in that you can easily imagine some Midwestern office supplies saleswoman stepping up to the mic and delivering the line straight, three identical times – and it’d be both awful and boring.
Instead, listen really closely to Brenda’s little breaths, gasps, giggles and audible smiles between the syllables; she’s a woman in the throes of real love, truly, madly and deeply, and it’s wonderful to hear her singing like this to us – for us.
The other vocal highlight is when the strings and piano swoon upward to lift us to the chorus and Brenda kicks up her delivery a gear or three, soaring as high as she ever did on Every Little Bit Hurts, and it’s a giddy thrill – but then she pulls right back for the breathy, almost matter-of-fact recitation of the title, both underlining the sentiment and giving herself room to really belt those words out again during the song’s looping coda. It really is splendid.
I don’t know why the American public didn’t take to this. (In Britain, it wasn’t even released at all, likely a reaction to the lukewarm reception the record received back in the US.) Everything that was good about Every Little Bit Hurts is here, but even better, and the change of emphasis makes it different enough to more than hold its own. If ever a follow-up single sounded like a surefire bet for continued chart success – Top 50, at the very least, surely! – it’s this one.
But the sad reality was that, somewhat unbelievably, the career of Brenda Holloway – in commercial terms at least – had already peaked. There would be a few more hits, but her time as the Next Big Thing was over.
The question I can’t answer is why that should be the case. Brenda’s output over the next three years would be of such quality that her oeuvre could proudly sit alongside any of Motown’s more famous big guns, often coming out on top – so it’s not as if she wasn’t coming up with the goods. (If there are any doubters out there, check out her Motown Anthology and the virtual album’s worth of killer unreleased material spread across the four volumes of the Cellarful of Motown series – I personally guarantee you won’t be disappointed.) Brenda herself blamed a lack of promotional effort from Motown, stemming from her reluctance to relocate from Los Angeles to Detroit (ironic given what would happen a few years down the line!), for putting the kibosh on her career – but even if that were the case later on, the label surely weren’t holding back here, with a promising new star to promote?
It all makes no sense, and it’s a real shame if I’ll Always Love You has largely been lost to history. This is among Brenda’s best work, a fantastic record, beautifully made and beautifully sung. So I’ve got to ask again: What were people thinking?
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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