b/w Same Old Story (remix)
(Written by Smokey Robinson)
By the October of 1964, Motown was changing apace, its coffers swelled beyond recognition by a steady stream of hit records, its artists becoming national stars, and its reception filled with an ever-increasing queue of hopefuls looking for an audition.
The Supremes, the Temptations and the Four Tops had, in a sense, been lucky: they were able to shake off years of failure and strike it rich before Motown got too big to carry them. But they were the last of that particular crop. If they’d have gone another few months without breaking through, they’d have been toast. From now on, if you were on Motown’s books and you hadn’t had a hit, they weren’t going to wait around for you to score one; your place was gone, given to the next bright-eyed hopeful in line, and you were out the door.
It’s a strange time to be meeting Mickey McCullers again. A friend of Smokey Robinson and a well-regarded singer in the clubs of Detroit, he never managed to nail his live sound on record. His Motown début, Same Old Story, written and produced by Smokey, had appeared to no great commercial fanfare almost two and a half years previously; its failure meant that McCullers had to wait his turn before getting a follow-up. And wait, and wait. But at least he got that chance; another few months, and even that would have been too much to ask.
When the chance finally came, Smokey again writing him a song, Smokey again sitting in the producer’s chair, well, Smokey again had to cover for his friend’s vocal deficiencies. Motown weren’t convinced either; they initally rejected the record, leaving it sat on the shelf for eight months, before finally granting it a delayed release on the low-profile VIP label, where it promptly vanished from view and from history. And so ended the story of Mickey McCullers at Motown.
What shouldn’t be lost in all of this is that – unlike its predecessor – Who You Gonna Run To is a really strong song. I’ve warmed significantly to Same Old Story, a slightly remixed version of which was shoved on the B-side here (and thus also appears on The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4, meaning I’ve heard it again plenty of times and have come to rather enjoy it – I never change marks, it’d likely get a 5 or even a 6 if I were reviewing it afresh today), but I still maintain it’s less than vintage Smokey, a busy Robinson perhaps palming off not-quite-top-rank material on his friend.
This, though, is the real deal, another excellent song in Smokey’s by now alarmingly thick sheaf of excellent songs. I’ve been spoiled by Brenda Holloway’s lovely version from the (absolutely essential) A Cellarful of Motown! Volume 1 compilation, which is one of Brenda’s better vocals, so for me Mickey’s original version inevitably suffers by comparison – but this is still fine work. The melody itself (as you can tell from Brenda’s version) is a good one, the chorus is both pretty and catchy, the production is smart, the band are on form (taut, clipped guitar wet with echo, muted horns, softly sweeping jazz flute), the mixed choir of backing singers are lovely. The whole thing is so tight that Motown would use this same backing track, with minimal changes, on the Temptations’ Gettin’ Ready LP two years later.
Surrounded by all of this, Mickey, bless him, ends up as the weakest thing on his own record for the second time in a row. He’s just not particularly good. Which isn’t a roundabout way of saying he’s bad, necessarily (although his pitch in places here – the first time he has to tackle soaring lead-in to the chorus, One of these days, I know / I’m gonna have to let you go, for example – is a little on the ropey side); no, I just mean that he doesn’t do anything all that well. He’s not flat, but he’s not technically gifted; he’s not monotonous, but he’s not got a big range; he’s not weak, as such, but he’s certainly not powerful; and he’s got no personality (or none that comes across on vinyl, at any rate), nothing that makes any kind of ripple or impression on the listener (not even annoyingly quirky like Bobby Breen). He’s just a completely average-sounding void smack in the middle of a corking song.
Once again, producer Smokey can recognise it – of course he can recognise it – and once again he tries to cover his friend’s shame by masking his deficiencies with all manner of fol-de-rols, that flute part being the most obvious. But it’s not enough; this sounds like a demo vocal, rather than a finished potential hit single. If Motown thought Mickey was going to break through and join their ranks of successful recording acts, they were mistaken.
They probably didn’t think that, though. This did get a release, which is more of a courtesy than several later unlucky or mid-tier Motown acts ever got – but it crept out eight months after recording, on an unfashionable label, backed with a remix of a two-year-old track (a sign of their confidence in the strength of whatever other Mickey material was available, if indeed there was any), and even that seems likely to be solely down to the strength of the song, not the singer. McCullers must have been an absolutely spectacular live draw; otherwise, it’s legitimate to wonder whether Berry Gordy might have been so obliging to someone who wasn’t a close friend of Motown’s top writer/producer and Vice-President.
Still, Mickey was lucky to have had even this second chance. He was one of a dying breed; as Motown got bigger, stronger and (by necessity) more hard-nosed and businesslike, there weren’t too many Motown flops granted another bite at the stardom cherry, not even those with friends in high places. And as second chances go, at least this time he couldn’t complain that he wasn’t given a great song.
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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