(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
Ah, context, you fickle thing you. The Supremes going forwards and upwards; Mary Wells, their predecessor as Motown’s top act, soon left behind.
One of the standout tracks on Mary’s LP Mary Wells Sings My Guy (right), this was scheduled for single release well in advance – her mega-hit My Guy was such a smash that Motown queued up not one, but two new singles to follow it onto the charts.
But planning ahead doesn’t always work out; by the time the first mooted follow-up, the sultry, stripped-down When I’m Gone, was due to hit the shelves, Mary had already launched a very public lawsuit to extricate herself from her Motown contract and seek her fortune with Twentieth Century Fox, and so neither that single nor this one was ever actually pressed up.
(Rumours persist that When I’m Gone, cut just days before Mary walked out on Motown, was never finished – which may be true, but I personally like the way it sounds, intentional or not – but either way, unlike When I’m Gone, Whisper You Love Me, Boy was officially released as an album cut before it was due to make its bow. Whether it was shoved out onto the album before it, too, could undergo the polishing intended to ready it for single release, I’ve no idea.)
For whatever reason, Motown never re-used the catalogue number they’d reserved so long ago – perhaps they were hoping this could still be used at the last minute, capitalising on Mary’s fame supporting the Beatles at live shows in England? Or maybe Motown’s marketing machine had progressed to the point where things needed to be lined up months in advance (though that seems unlikely given their ability to reflexively rush-release material, as we’ll soon see) – and so, even as the proposed release date came and went, Whisper You Love Me, Boy remained notionally in the on-deck circle.
It wasn’t to be; Mary’s first Fox single, the quite-good-but-hardly-spectacular Ain’t It The Truth came out in mid-October, and that was that. And so this is where we finally say goodbye to Mary Wells here on Motown Junkies, leaving us with a void in the roster and a great big slate of might-have-beens.
But without getting into any of that, what of Whisper You Love Me, Boy itself? Supremes fans will know the song, of course, because the girls inherited the band track after Mary’s disappearing act, and their overdubbed version appeared on More Hits By The Supremes as well as a future B-side we’ll be meeting soon enough. But putting them aside, what’s this original version like?
It’s lovely, is the answer. It’s a quiet, sweet little song, never the sort of thing to top the charts, but it’s lovely. The ghostly, hissy organ, the disembodied, slightly jarring backing vocals, the handclaps and piano that open the record, all these things hint at an ominous and reflective affair – but as soon as Mary comes in, the track settles into a delicious, bouncy pop groove, bass-driven and slinky, that – more than anything – sounds like Holland-Dozier-Holland riffing on the My Guy concept. Which, of course, is exactly what this is; H-D-H, having seen Mary’s long-time mentor Smokey Robinson seize back the reins on Project Wells by scoring Motown’s biggest hit to date, respond by essentially saying “OK, but we’d have done it like this.”
The band have to take much of the credit, of course, turning in a similarly dynamic performance with many of the same ingredients (the horns are an especially nice touch, though they lack the blaring “air raid siren” intro from the big hit). But the real gold, as always, comes from Mary herself, who slots into the precisely-milled space that’s been crafted for her at the heart of the song and proceeds to make it her own.
Mary’s opening reading of the title phrase is every bit as good as her closing There’s not a man today who could keep me away from My Guy. Her dextrous handling of the patter-song verses, all clipped notes and wordplay (Whisper words you seldom say / You love me more each passing day / Just the way you used to do / When our love was new) is instantly pleasing, she sounds so much at ease with the material. Her quiet ramping up of the power for the bigger notes in the pseudo-chorus, and her upping her game yet further for the entirely earned key change which pushes the last third of the song into a brighter plane and demands Mary go with it (You used to say you loved me the most…) is remarkable. And the little throaty rasp in her voice as she pronounces “sweet, sweet things” in the closing lines is a wounding reminder of just what we’re about to lose. For all the incentives they dangled before her – $200,000 as a signing bonus, vague promises of a Hollywood career, you name it – 20th Century Fox never got anything like that.
But that just underscores the point that pop music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Despite its minor imperfections – a few bits of awkward scansion, a lack of a real killer hook to the song – you feel that, in What-If World, this might have been received as one of Mary Wells’ better Motown singles, albeit something of a low-key one. But the compilers of The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4 made their point well when putting this up right after Baby Love: this is a product of the spring of 1964, and by September, things, both at Motown and in America, had moved on. The Supremes were the future, and Mary was the past, and this is an item from the past.
NEVER LEAVE ME
What if she’d stayed? Would she have kept up? Would some of the great Motown songs of the mid-Sixties we know and love by other artists have been owned and reshaped by Mary? Might she have drawn new, unheard songs out of Smokey Robinson or Mickey Stevenson, songs we’ll never hear because Smokey and Mickey never got the germ of an idea in their head and thought “ooh, that would be great for Mary Wells”? Might she even have taken up her own pen again, suffused with the thrill of success, to write her own material once more? Or would she have petered out, either unable to recapture the magic that had taken her to the top, or unable to successfully update her sound to compete with the newly-emergent young Turks? We’ll never know, and that’s the biggest disappointment.
What actually happened next? We’ll cover Motown’s half of the story here on Motown Junkies in due course, but what became of Mary?
It doesn’t make for happy reading. The move to 20th Century Fox didn’t pan out like anyone hoped. Mary didn’t get to act in a single movie, and her handful of Fox 45s are of a high enough standard that they’re all well worth a listen – but my overriding reaction listening to any of the Fox cuts is that they’re good, even very good, but not great. Here, make your own minds up:
“Use Your Head” (co-written by Barrett Strong!):
“Never, Never Leave Me” (my favourite of her Fox 45s):
“He’s A Lover”, originally intended as a B-side:
“Me Without You” b/w “I’m Sorry”:
They’re good, but they’re not magical. They certainly don’t sound like Top Ten hits, and indeed they weren’t. Mary’s chart career took a real turn for the worse with the move to Fox; none of her Fox efforts made the pop Top 30 or R&B Top 10. By the middle of 1965, as Motown continued to rack up glorious hit after glorious hit, Mary was watching Me Without You stall at number 95. A distinctly hack-job LP of Beatles covers swiftly followed, as Fox tried desperately to capitalise on her waning fame, and then Mary and Fox parted company, the much-vaunted partnership having lasted a little over twelve months.
A series of other labels (Atco, Jubilee, Reprise, Epic) would sign her up in the hope of getting more hits for rather less than the two hundred grand Fox had laid down, but she’d never again be front page news, all future sporadic chart activity now labelled in the “comeback” camp. Her biggest hit after leaving Motown was, ironically, a British reissue of My Guy which hit the UK Top 20 in 1972, and which Mary gamely promoted with some TV appearances. Mary Wells, Motown’s first great superstar and for a time its biggest name, died from throat cancer in 1992. She was just 49 years old.
COULD HAVES AND SHOULD HAVES AND WOULD HAVE BEENS
Knowing what came next, then, where does that leave Whisper You Love Me, Boy? It’s certainly better than any of her Fox singles, for my money, and I’m sure it would have given her another hit; I’d be surprised if it became anyone’s favourite Mary Wells single, but you can easily imagine her whipping it out mid-set for an adoring crowd. Taken on its own merits, it’s another super Motown record, in a year not exactly short of them, and it shows that Mary was still at the peak of her powers right up until she walked out of Hitsville for the last time. We’ll never know what might have been had she clocked back in the next day.
As Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age continues here on Motown Junkies, as more and more of the label’s best are invited to music’s top table, as the gold records stack up and the corks pop and the champagne flows, it’ll always be a jarring experience to glance at the empty seat forever reserved for Mary Wells.
Thanks for everything, Mary. We’ll miss you.
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:
- The Supremes (April 1965)
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“Ask Any Girl”
“I’ll Be Available”
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