(Written by Smokey Robinson)
According to the studio papers unearthed by the compilers of The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4, this was the very last thing Mary Wells ever recorded at Motown. She served a writ on the company two days after cutting When I’m Gone, already scheduled as her follow-up hit to My Guy and assigned both a catalogue number and a release date.
As discussed at some length when talking about My Guy, Mary leaving Motown was a public humiliation for the company and a personal slap in the face for Berry Gordy, just at the very moment he and his little black-owned independent label had finally been invited to the music industry’s top table, acknowledged as a relevant commercial force. To have his biggest star – and let’s not forget that’s exactly what Mary was once My Guy started to build towards a million copies – walk out on him (and to an established showbiz brand like 20th Century Fox, exactly the kind of organisation Gordy seemingly dreamed of owning one day) wasn’t pleasant; he took the insult exactly as you’d expect.
That Mary Wells had no more Motown singles despite leaving ample material in the can seems something of a surprise, given Gordy’s eternal predilection for latching on to a trend, and his supreme talent for “creatively” marketing old or irrelevant material if an artist suddenly got hot overnight. Sure, the legal wranglings might have meant Motown were barred (on paper) from putting out any more Wells singles until the court case was untangled, but Mary was the biggest and most famous star the company had ever had on its books and it seems very unlikely Gordy would have let legal uncertainty stop him following up a record-busting Number One smash hit. Hell, momentum alone could have shifted fifty thousand units before the lawyers caught up with what was happening.
But then you actually listen to this, and realise that there was just no way Motown could have released When I’m Gone when they were supposed to. What are you gonna do when I’m gone?, she asks in the song’s very first line – surely with provocative glee, given she must have known what she was about to do when she recorded it – and hence the reason Motown squashed the record.
We were happy in the public eye
They think you’re such a wonderful guy
But they don’t know how much you can lie…
People would have laughed, and not kindly. The kitchen towel that could remove that much egg from Berry Gordy’s face hadn’t yet been invented.
All of which is a real pity, because this is another excellent record from Motown’s first great summer. The irony in the title aside – and even if Mary knew what was up her sleeve, there’s no way writer-producer Smokey Robinson (who again gives this his very best shot) could have foreseen the out-of-nowhere self-destruction that would render this unusable – this is a perfect follow-up to My Guy.
As with Brenda Holloway’s I’ll Always Love You, this is another example of the newest Motown fad, the “mirror sequel”; where I’ll Always Love You was the “happy version” of Every Little Bit Hurts, so When I’m Gone is the “bitter version” of My Guy.
The tune isn’t as effortlessly perfect as the super-hit (how could it be?), but Mary is on splendid form as she tells her on-again, off-again boyfriend that she’s come to the end of her road. Smokey delivers one of his best lyrics to date, confrontational and wronged while still giving Mary enough material to work the vulnerable aspect of her acting repertoire by harking back to past memories – not just the bare facts, but the emotions Mary’s narrator was feeling at the time.
I comfort you whenever you’re low
And you don’t have no place you can go
You put your head on my shoulder to cry
And then you turn around and tell me a lie
And I just can’t take it…
It’s another super vocal performance; two highlights for me are the staccato delivery of You made some people / Think-that-you-loved-me-a-lot, and her beautiful, breathy, semi-whispered coda which harks back to the glory of My Guy. But this is no mere retread of the earlier hit; both Smokey and Mary clearly worked hard on this, even if one of them knew she was about to consign that work to the dustbin. The bright, twangy guitar, and the long, cooing organ and backing vocal passages that buffet Mary’s voice along throughout the song, are brand new, and quite magical to boot.
This is a really good, sweet-sounding pop record, a matter-of-fact account of a small-scale breakup, an act of revenge without the vengeance set to a riveting, bouncy new tune. For want of a better word, it’s sophisticated, in pretty much every sense. Mary, having come of age, delivers the first great single of her new career as one of America’s top stars – and nobody got to hear it for two years.
It’s a matter of public record now that Mary never had another big hit. The walkout and move to Fox turned out to be Mary signing the death warrant for her own career; whether it was isolation from Smokey and the Funk Brothers, dark pressure from Motown to crush her Fox singles, or the crucial delay in mid/late 1964 caused by the court case and a debilitating bout of TB, there would be no “proper” follow-up to My Guy, artistically or commercially.
Which is a pity, because this could easily have been it, if only Motown hadn’t been backed into a corner, forced into a position where swallowing their pride and releasing a fine record like this would have made them a laughing stock, a loss of face that would have been poison for the burgeoning label’s business reputation. Instead, embarrassed, Motown shelved When I’m Gone, reusing the track for Brenda Holloway in short order, but keeping Mary’s version under wraps until the Christmas 1966 compilation LP Vintage Stock, a weird hybrid of greatest hits and rarities anthology that failed to find an audience.
The world’s loss, as well as Motown’s; the label missed out on what I’d say was easily a Top Ten hit, but everyone missed out on another great Mary Wells single (something which would be in increasingly short supply throughout the Sixties). But, ironic hindsight aside, there’s almost nothing wrong with this at all.
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!)
Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- Brenda Holloway (February 1965)
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