B-side of Baby Don’t You Do It
(Written by Mack David and Elmer Bernstein)
Motown can’t have been thrilled at the prospect of greenlighting yet another Marvin Gaye MOR jazz-and-standards LP (Hello Broadway, his third such indulgence to date); these albums were pretty much chart poison, and threatened to undo much of the marketing department’s work positioning Gaye as a hot young male R&B star, but they were the price Motown had to pay to get Gaye to record any pop hits at all.
Still, this flip – the first fruits of those Hello Broadway sessions, and wildly at odds with the runaway train A-side Baby Don’t You Do It – is at least a bit more vaguely relevant than some of Marvin’s previous MOR efforts. It’s still a film song, a pseudo-standard, but it’s almost contemporary by comparison to those earlier misses – Brook Benton had cut the original just two years previously, and Jimmy Smith had then turned in a frenzied instrumental jazz freakout cover version.
Marvin’s rendition doesn’t seek to ape Brook or Jimmy, and it’s all the more welcome for it; for once, Gaye puts his own stamp on one of these things. Uniquely among Marvin’s MOR ventures to date, it has both a personality and some balls. And all it took to bring this preacher’s son out of his carbon-copyist shell was a song about how screwing around leads to eternal damnation. There’s a book to be written there.
Amateur psychoanalysis aside, Marvin really does inhabit this one to a much greater degree than previous attempts to tackle schlocky material. If this had been from a movie from 1952, rather than 1962, it’s possible that a cloying string-laden original version and bowdlerised lyrics might have towered over Marvin’s own interpretation, with ghastly results (as witnessed on his previous standards LP, When I’m Alone I Cry). Instead, Brook Benton’s original is surprisingly fluid and, well, cool for an Oscar-nominated David and Bernstein OST excerpt, and Jimmy Smith’s jazz cover had already done the liberating job of wilfully tampering with that arrangement, and so Marvin – while he’s still respectful of those who’ve gone before him, as always – is freed from constrictive reverence, given permission to pay homage by cutting a bit loose instead.
I don’t want to oversell it, though – it’s still not great. When it’s stacked up against the relentless pummeling of the A-side, it all sounds absurdly mannered, and somehow restrained, even as the horns blare out a would-be-chaotic barrage of sound at regular intervals. And Marvin does occasionally get lost in the song, which in turn leads to him getting lost in the arrangement, lapsing into a contemplative reverie towards the end of a line and having to pull himself back into the fray with a barked YEAH! or somesuch lest he get left behind by the jazz orchestra around him.
But it’s certainly not awful, and it raises more than one smile during its exceedingly short running time (just over two minutes – another relief, since there’s no time for any aimless vocal noodling or cheesy strings). And I can’t stress enough how much of a relief it is to hear Marvin taking a project like this seriously, but without somehow parsing that “serious” as though it read “joyless” or “airless”; if it would be wrong to say that he’s having fun with this, he’s definitely committed and he puts himself into it.
It’s becoming standard (ha!) practice to see a Marvin Gaye single showcasing his R&B chops on the A-side, and a softer MOR jazz standard cut on the flip. This was presumably meant to show his versatility, advertising his many talents to unsuspecting fans, but it usually does Gaye a disservice, instead highlighting his lack of willingness to tear a song down and build it up in his own image.
But Marvin’s version of Walk On The Wild Side is unquestionably Marvin’s version, not a third-rate copy of someone else’s vision, and that makes it absolutely worthwhile and worth hearing. Not a classic Gaye cut, but cause for cautious optimism.
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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“Baby Don’t You Do It”
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