b/w How Can I
b/w How Can I
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown Records,
credited to “The Detroit Spinners”)
So, as 1964 went on, Motown were getting so huge that they couldn’t justify keeping flop acts on the books and giving them second chances. The other side of the coin, though, is that they were in a financial position to give lots of new acts first chances. From now until the Eighties, Berry Gordy would cut records on pretty much anybody he wanted in the hope of scoring a big hit with a new discovery or a revitalised, written-off has-been.
Not that the Spinners – known to UK audiences as the “Detroit Spinners” to distinguish them from a folk group of the same name – had to worry about any of that. They were neither a hot new act nor a bunch of grizzled veterans. They had no hits for years, but they weren’t kicked to the kerb, instead making themselves useful around Hitsville doing various bits of donkey work: driving the Temptations around town, compering, working thankless warmup slots (and I don’t mean support slots – they saw no shame in loosening up a crowd by doing a comedy skit in Beatle wigs), even sometimes doing the filing… and still finding time to cut a crateful of super records.
The Spinners’ jobs were as safe as anyone could be at Motown. They’d been acquired, rather than discovered, when Harvey Fuqua’s Tri-Phi/Harvey empire was bought out lock, stock and barrel by Berry Gordy (Fuqua’s brother-in-law). Like their erstwhile labelmates Junior Walker, Shorty Long and Johnny Bristol, Motown saw enough in the Spinners that they were persuaded to stick around. Or maybe Harvey Fuqua just told Motown to sign them on up.
Fuqua loved the Spinners. One of Harvey and Gwen Gordy’s first signings to Tri-Phi, they’d scored the label’s first proper hit, an unexpected Top 30 pop hit in 1961 with That’s What Girls Are Made For, and then spent two fruitless years trying to recapture that success (the closest they got was scraping the Hot 100 with the follow-up Love (I’m So Glad) I Found You). Harvey, already an established and successful vocalist in his own right, sang with the group on several occasions, going so far as to play up the association when he released later solo records (billing himself as “HARVEY, formerly of the Moonglows and the Spinners” on some promo labels). If Fuqua held any pull at Motown after he’d been bought out – and he surely did – then his guys could always be pretty certain they’d still have jobs to do while they searched for that elusive hit. Lucky for us they did, because the Spinners would go on to eventually repay that faith, and in the meantime they’d cut some of Motown’s best tracks.
Not this one, though. This one’s a charming little doodle, but in the end it’s a bit of a mess; not really the new start anyone was hoping for.
YEAH, BOBBIE SHARED THE SECRETS OF MY SOUL
The best thing about this record, as is the case for pretty much every Motown Spinners record, is the brilliance of lead singer Bobbie Smith.
Casual fans may not know his name, but Bobbie (or “Bobby”) is one of Motown’s great lead vocalists, and one of my absolute favourites. His technical ability – range, power, whatever – isn’t worth a tinker’s cuss, but he’s pretty much the male equivalent of Diana Ross: his gift isn’t technical, it’s a direct connection to the heart.
In Smith’s case, everything he does is done with a gigantic, unstoppable positive energy. It’s not that he sounds “happy” all the time (well, it’s not exactly that), just that he’s so very into whatever he’s doing. He can’t restrain himself, seemingly just physically incapable of staying in one part of the register, but it’s just such a rush to hear him cutting loose, the giddy emotion beneath the surface forever punching through as falsetto leaps and yelps bouncing out of his “usual” voice, a belt of surprising power out of a slightly gravelly, slightly talky, slightly jagged tenor.
Any record that’s got Bobbie Smith on it is better for it. Not to do down the achievements of the other Spinners, a great blend of voices who almost never cut a total duffer and together (in any line-up) made up one of Motown’s stronger vocal groups, but I’ve been waiting for months to give Smith his proper dues as one of the very best and I’m not waiting any more. Hope you’re reading, Bobbie.
AND NOW, BACK TO THE SONG
I wish Sweet Thing wasn’t the first Spinners track up on Motown Junkies, as it’s probably my least favourite of the whole bunch. It’s not a bad record, it’s just such a weird way to start, all chaotic beats and weird pacing that gives the impression of an irregular time signature, the whole thing barrelling along like a runaway mining cart.
(“Runaway train” implies a mesmerising, unstoppable force, and has too many positive connotations; I don’t mean it so politely. This just sounds completely and uncomfortably out of control, as though it’s going to tip over any second.)
It’s actually something akin to Carolyn Crawford’s similarly all-over-the-place I’ll Come Running, and it runs out of ideas in a similarly short space of time; lots of nice elements (the jauntily pounded piano is great!), a few killer moments (the musical middle eight is a joy), but no real direction, no drive. Or rather, the drive is an aimless, enjoy-the-scenery kind of thing, not going anywhere in particular, but the scenery is a bland suburb and doesn’t get any more interesting no matter how many local landmarks our driver points out. Over on your left, that’s actually where the inventor of the world’s first electric toothbrush went to Sunday school. Wait, what was I saying before I got carried away with this metaphor?
I’m only joking. Sweet Thing makes it easy to get distracted because it’s trying to do too many neat things all at once, and never commits to any of them. The best part, the lead-in to the chorus, when the boys deliver a volley of ahhhhs and Bobbie, on sterling vocal form, declares “Though you’re not the kind of girl / That man just can’t resist / There’s a certain something in your kiss / That makes me want to sing…”, seems to be building up to an absolute monster chorus.
But this is where hindsight is a bitch, because not only does that chorus not arrive (it just sort of peters out and goes back for a reprise of the start of the verse), the Spinners would soon give us the exact chorus that’s missing from this song, almost cut and paste style, as though they knew it belonged in an even better song and just hacked it right on out of this one. It’s called I’ll Always Love You, and it’s magnificent. This? Not so much.
(Also, the lyrics, while well-meaning, are a tiny bit offensive; Bobbie’s narrator is trying to impress the woman he loves by pointing out that he’s still madly in love with her, even with her many faults that would put most men off. Form an orderly queue, girls, he’s taken.)
But this is pretty much the Spinners’ Motown low point, and – as with the Velvelettes a few weeks ago – their worst is still better than many acts’ best. There are so many great moments here that it’s pointless even trying to list them all; it’s just a pity they’ve all been shoehorned into a somewhat ropey little song. And Bobbie Smith I could listen to all day long. For now, knowing there’s so much better to come from these guys around the corner, this will just about do.
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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“Who You Gonna Run To”
“How Can I”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
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